Scottish referendum: a sudden exodus of banks not the worry, a slow leak is

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It has been blindingly obvious for months that Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds would move to London if Scotand votes for independence.

In a crisis, an independent Scotland simply would not be big enough to offer support. That was never just a technical point. Markets price risk immediately and the cost of funding for RBS, Lloyds, Clydesdale, TSB and Tesco Bank would have soared on the day after a yes vote if there was any doubt about a legal switch to England.

The boards of these banks have known this for ages. The reason why nobody wanted to spell out the facts is that the directors thought plain-speaking might be viewed as underhand political lobbying, or be unpopular with Scottish customers. So everybody hid behind formal but imprecise statements about "material risks". Bankers can be a timid bunch.

Alex Salmond will also have known that relocation of banks' holding companies was a dead-cert. From a tactical perspective, he should have dealt with the non-revelation ages ago, just to get it out of the way.

But one sympathises with the first minister when he spies dirty tricks. The banks' plan – as reported here last week – was to announce their moves to London after breakfast on the day after a yes vote. Somebody prodded them somehow. The services of Inspector Rebus are not required to determine whose interests were served.

The real question, though, is whether a shift of legal address matters in terms of jobs and the long-term prosperity of Scotland's financial sector. There's an argument that says it's only the brass plates that would move. RBS chief executive Ross McEwan encouraged this thought by saying the bank has no intention of moving operations or jobs from Scotland following a yes vote.

OK, that's RBS's plan. It's hard to be confident, though, that the rest of the Scottish financial services industry would be so loyal. True, it is not a simple matter for large companies to up sticks without losing staff they would like to keep. But if the big insurers and fund managers judge that, amid currency uncertainty, a Scottish identity is bad for business, they will have an incentive to change their legal status. Operational offices may stay but, one suspects, over time, new hires would be made in the south and external lawyers and accountants would gradually be dragged towards the new legal address. A sudden exodus is not the worry, a slow leak is.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nils Pratley, for The Guardian on Thursday 11th September 2014 19.04 Europe/London

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