EDITOR'S TAKE: People would leave if they could, but most can't

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When the UK government imposed the 50% tax on bonuses last December, Tullett Prebon gave 950 of its staff the option of leaving the UK and relocating somewhere a little more hospitable instead.

It emerged this week that most of them didn't take it up on the offer. Faced with the prospect of cutting all ties to the motherland, chief executive Terry Smith said they generally preferred to pay up and stay put.

Unsurprisingly, Smith said that most of those who opted to stay were British. Few were likely to have been inspired by the example set by Guy Hands, who feels unable to come to the UK even to visit his children and aged parents now that he's supposed to be living in Guernsey for tax purposes.

It's too soon to be complacent

However, British-born interdealer brokers' unwillingness to embrace Switzerland is no cause for complacency. Neither native Britons, nor footloose individuals - regardless of nationality - are the real issue.

While British-born bankers may be loathe to desert their families for the purposes of tax avoidance, foreign-born City workers are unconstrained by parents in the Home Counties. Even so, they will find it difficult to leave the UK unless alternative opportunities are on offer elsewhere.

At the moment, they're not. It's ok if you're Pierre Henri Flamand and can leave to set up your own fund in Geneva. But if you're a lowly employee, the City is still the place to be in Europe. Yes, there are opportunities in Asia, but you will need to be Asian, with direct experience of local markets.

In the short term, things are unlikely to change. Despite huffing by the likes of Junichi Ujiie, chairman of Nomura, who said this week that Britain should avoid additional regulation and taxation if it wants to remain a financial hub, no bank is likely to shift its European centre of gravity outside the UK. The City's position was built up over time, and won't be eroded overnight. Institutional clients are here; so too - as Ujie pointed out, is the infrastructure in the form of lawyers, accountants and consultants.

The centre of gravity is shifting East

This doesn't preclude change from taking place more gradually. According to the (possibly spurious) survey by Z/Yen and the City of London Corporation, which collates the views of everyone visiting their website, as a financial centre London is now merely on a par with New York, not ahead of it.

At the same time, the centre of gravity is shifting east. China is developing Shanghai into a financial centre that accords with its new strength and international status. Hedge funds are already flocking to Asia. One Swiss bank is said to have commissioned a feasibility study on moving trading businesses to Dubai.

For non-Britons, the urge to leave is already real - even if the opportunities aren't. In our recent survey of 286 non-British front office bankers in the City, 57% said they'd like to migrate for tax reasons. Among the 10 Chinese front office bankers we surveyed, that figure rose to 90%. The only difference currently is that Chinese bankers can act on their urge; most other people can't.

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