Thirty years on from Big Bang, London frets over future
Bang! It was the explosion in financial markets heard across the world 30 years ago which transformed the City of London from a cosy network of long-established firms into a cut-throat landscape dominated by foreign banks.
This week is the 30th anniversary of Big Bang, a package of reforms across the securities industry that shaped the City that exists today, putting London alongside New York as the world’s two dominant financial centres.
This year’s anniversary has extra significance. International firms that arrived on the back of Big Bang are considering whether to stick with London or move operations and jobs elsewhere following Britain’s vote in June to leave the European Union.
“It [Big Bang] put London on the map in a way it wasn’t before. All the international firms came to London or enlarged what they had,” recalled Nicholas Goodison, who was the architect of the reforms as chairman of the London Stock Exchange at the time.
Although the full impact of Big Bang evolved over years and the reasons for the reforms went back more than a decade, the transformation is associated with an overnight jolt - on October 27 1986.
That was the brainchild of Goodison. He said a number of the necessary changes were inter-related so should all come at the same time, with good warning, to ensure orderly change.
“We could have done it piecemeal but they were all too closely linked to each other,” Goodison, now 82, told IFR in an interview last week.
There were several parts to Big Bang: it abolished minimum fixed commissions on trades; it removed “single capacity”, which since 1911 had separated the role of brokers, who acted as agents for clients, and jobbers, who made the market and provided liquidity by holding stock on their books; and it allowed foreign ownership of UK brokers, to fix capital shortfalls at many firms.
Big Bang also introduced electronic share trading, which did away with the need for face-to-face share deals and made trading far quicker and more efficient.
The changes were brought in to head off an investigation by the competition watchdog, which wanted to take the stock exchange to the Restrictive Practices Court, a move Goodison said would have resulted in chaos.
In 1983 he proposed to Cecil Parkinson, trade and industry secretary at the time, that he would eliminate fixed commissions within three years.
Parkinson agreed and, helped by Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, persuaded Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to back the reforms. That was not easy because Thatcher “didn’t like being friends with the City”, Goodison recalled. He said she subsequently took little interest in Big Bang, despite being credited as its driving force.
“The myth that Big Bang was part of Mrs Thatcher’s revolution is just wrong,” Goodison said.
Goodison said the reforms were inevitable after the US abolished fixed commissions in 1974 and Britain scrapped exchange controls in 1979.
“The writing was on the wall and we knew that,” he said.
“Anybody could forecast that the competitive pressures on fixed commission would increase because the biggest securities houses in the world were in America. It was obvious the thing was creaking.”
Goodison said Big Bang achieved its goal better than a court ruling would have done because it pushed through changes smoothly.
The biggest challenge was setting up the electronic trading platform. “It broke down in the first hour. It was difficult. But the reason it broke down was that it had a huge volume of people trying to access it on the first morning and everybody pressed buttons at once.”
It was sheer curiositythat caused it to break down, he said.
Big Bang sparked profound changes across the City.
Brokers, jobbers and merchant banks started merging. Some were bought by UK clearing banks, but many more were snapped up by big US, European and Asian banks.
Well-known firms such as James Capel, Schroders and Warburg kept some branding in bigger firms, but other old names such as Pinchin Denny and Scrimgeour Kemp Gee were easily swallowed.
That has led to criticism of the “Wimbledonisation” of the City - that London hosts the activity but most of the top players are foreign. Barclays and HSBC are two of the top 10 investment banks today, but the dominance of the City by overseas firms, especially from the US, is a legacy of Big Bang.
“Under the previous system it was pretty much a closed shop, and suddenly they [foreign firms] were allowed to come in,” said Paul Mumford, a fund manager at Cavendish Asset Management.
“A lot of banks seized the opportunity and London became a global centre for markets. It could never have happened if we hadn’t had this change,” Mumford told IFR.
Just as London firms were swallowed or reinvented, many careers changed, including Mumford’s. He had been a broker and analyst, but a year after Big Bang he moved into fund management.
“It was a relatively painless process but it took a little while for it to have its repercussions on certain areas,” Mumford said.
There were other less direct but still significant effects of Big Bang, including making it easier for firms to raise capital, contributing to the growth of hedge funds, and helping the rise of Canary Wharf as a new financial district in East London as firms could trade further away from the City using electronic communications.
Culture also changed. Hours became longer, lunches shorter and pay rose. The business became more aggressive and less clubby, according to people who worked in the City on both sides of the changes.
Critics reckon many of the banking industry’s misconduct problems of the past decade can be traced to Big Bang, as it gave rise to a bonus culture that undermined the City’s long-standing code of conduct and integrity.
Goodison, for his part, was not paid for his work for the stock exchange. He was its last unpaid chairman, from 1976 to 1988, and held the role alongside his position as senior partner at Quilter Goodison, a broker that went the way of many peers - it was bought by an overseas predator, France’s Paribas.
Goodison said London was right to welcome international firms and needs to continue to do so to stay in front, aided by the advantages of its time zone, language and legal system.
“If London wants to win it has to be open. You can’t run a closed shop and win. The essence of London’s financial markets is openness to the world,” he said.