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London's office market resists Brexit flight risk

LONDON (Reuters) - The prospect of Britain quitting the European Union has inflicted little damage so far on demand for space in London’s financial hubs, first quarter rental data suggests, despite some warning signs from investment banks.

A man walks through the City of London, Britain, December 16, 2014. REUTERS/Toby Melville

A year after Prime Minister David Cameron’s election win fired the starting gun on the European Union membership vote, London remains Europe’s most ‘in-demand’ office market, and there is little sign of an uptick in rivals Frankfurt and Paris.

Research from real estate broker CBRE shows only 2.9 percent of total office space in the City, London’s historic financial district, was available for rent in the first three months of 2016, compared with 12.2 percent in Frankfurt, 6.3 percent in Berlin and 6.8 percent in Paris.

Rents are also rising, underlining demand among occupiers, although early second quarter indicators on yields suggest investor confidence has started to wane.

Such figures may assuage concerns among those worried that firms would slash their London operations or even abandon the UK capital altogether, in the run-up to the June 23 referendum.

Uncertainty has infected broader market sentiment, with Britain’s pound losing 5.6 percent of its value against the dollar and 10.3 percent against the euro in the past six months.

But London’s real estate market is holding firm.

Prime rents in the City rose 7.7 percent year-on-year in the first quarter, compared with 1.3 percent growth in Frankfurt and zero growth in Paris, according to CBRE.

“Leasing is a pretty big decision for most companies and we have seen quite a scramble for space in London over the last few years. Most companies are still expecting a vote to remain,” Neil Blake, CBRE head of research, said.

Meanwhile, rents in London’s skyscrapers are rising faster than those in any other global city, according to the latest Skyscraper Index from property services firm Knight Frank.

The report, which examines the rental performance of commercial buildings over 30 storeys across the world, shows that average rents in London skyscrapers rose 9.7 percent to $126 per square foot in the second half of 2015.

Skyscraper rents in Paris’ La Defense financial district were flat over the same period, while in Frankfurt, rents actually dropped 1.16 percent.

“There has been much debate around the future of London’s skyline but the rental performance of the capital’s skyscrapers points to the fact there is huge demand for space in landmark, tall buildings,” Will Beardmore-Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Tenant Rep and Agency Business, said.

“We expect upward pressure on rents to continue,” he said.

WARNING SHOTS

One of the reasons is that major banks reckon there is no easy alternative to London, home to the European headquarters of the likes of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan and Citi.

“Nowhere else has scale, nowhere has a major market in this time zone. Nowhere comes close to London,” said one senior executive at an investment bank, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Reflecting this, Swiss bank UBS is preparing to move into a newly built 65,000 square metre City base, and construction is underway to create a 111,500 square metre European headquarters for Goldman Sachs.

But despite the resilience of London’s rental market, there are signs that investors are retreating as the referendum nears.

Average prime rental yields on UK commercial property, which reflect investment interest, nudged up 7 basis points to 4.69 percent in April, the biggest monthly change since June 2010, data from Savills shows.

This means buyers are demanding more annual income from a property deal to offset the risk of their investment. The caution follows speculation that some banks might consider moving if Britain does leave.

French finance minister Michel Sapin said on Thursday some French banks had told him Brexit would have consequences for some of their London-based activities.

HSBC has said it could move around 1,000 employees from London to Paris in the event of a vote to leave the EU and other banks are privately contingency planning for the activities they may have to shift out of the British capital.

Martin Shanahan, boss of IDA Ireland, the Irish government agency responsible for foreign direct investment said in March he had met with financial services firms who were weighing contingency plans which could include relocation to Ireland.

Credit Suisse has already shifted some trading jobs to Dublin, and is looking at moving nearly 2,000 jobs out of the London to lower costs centres such as in Poland and India, a trend that started independently of the Brexit debate but could well be accelerated as banks continue to rationalise costs.

Additional reporting by Esha Vaish in Bengaluru Editing by Jeremy Gaunt

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