Brexit: Ireland faces battle to win insurance business
Cliff Taylor: Move by QBE to choose Brussels shows tough competition for Dublin
Lloyds building in London. Lloyds will set up its EU base in Brussels
An influx of financial investment into Ireland has been seen as one of the key positives of Brexit, offsetting at least some of the downside risk for Ireland. However recent months have shown just how fierce the competition is, as Dublin vies with Luxembourg, Brussels, Paris and other Continental financial centres.
On Tuesday, insurer QBE, a big international player based in Sydney, said it was to follow Lloyds and set up its EU base in Brussels. RSA and CNA Hard have both this week chosen Luxembourg.
Following a few other recent loses - notably the decision by Lloyds of London to favour Brussels over Dublin - this raises questions about just how significant the Brexit influx will be for Dublin. A vital few months now lie ahead as the remaining major players finalise their plans. At the moment the momentum seems to be against us.
Insurers and other financial services firms can currently serve markets across the EU from London under so-called “passporting” rules. With the Conservative government - which most commentators feel is heading for re-election - saying it will take Britain out of the EU single market, these rights will end, though no one is yet sure what will replace them. Faced with the likelihood of needing bases within the EU to service European markets, insurers, banks and others are moving ahead of the Brexit talks to safeguard their position.
Dublin has had its insurance “ wins” in recent months. Standard Life has chosen Dublin as its base to serve EU customers, Legal & General is boosting its investment management operations here and Aviva will reinstate its Irish operation as a fully-fledged subsidiary. A number of other smaller players are also upping their presence here.
However we are in a war and we have lost a couple of big battles. AIG’s decision to choose Luxembourg and the call by Lloyds of London - the big insurance syndicate - to choose Brussels were both blows. AIG already has a big operation here and would have been a target. Lloyds is a big name and where it goes others will follows.
Hopes that Dublin would be the de facto first choice for most insurers now based in London and looking for an EU base now look misplaced. Our closeness to London, the fact we speak English, our common law regime and the established international insurance sector here were seen as key factors in our favour. But the big European centres have powerful cards to play, too.
On the flipside, there are also challenges for the international insurers already based here. If their parent groups decide to invest more in, say, Brussels or Luxembourg, then they may have to fight to hold existing investment here. An Insurance Ireland survey of senior executives here in April showed more seeing challenges from Brexit than opportunities.
What are the key issues, as firms choose where to locate? One is the location of their existing operations, with Dublin clearly doing better when companies already have Irish bases.
A second - and perhaps the most important - is regulation. The head of QBE told the Financial Times that the Belgian regulator had been “ very pragmatic.” Some sources in the sector believe that the Belgian regulator was also a key factor in the Lloyds decision. There is clearly some push and pull in the background in Dublin, with the Central Bank playing a straight bat on regulatory issues, while some in the industry believe it should be more flexible and proactive.
Minister of State Eoghan Murphy has said that other EU countries were engaged in “ regulatory arbitrage” - in other words promising soft regulation in return for investment. However they are all bound by the same regulatory rules - Solvency II.
And third there is infrastructure and the much advertised shortage of accommodation for re-locating employees and soaring rents. It is hard to know how significant this is, but in tight decisions everything counts.
Have we got all our ducks in a row in seeking the Brexit investment dividend in the financial sector? The evidence so far suggests we are in a dogfight for every project and in insurance, at least, a few of the recent big calls have gone against us.