VTB says Brexit positive for UK and may trigger other EU referenda

VTB says Brexit positive for UK and may trigger other EU referenda
VTB's chief macro strategist says "London will stay as the number one global financial centre". / Photo: CC
By Jason Corcoran in Moscow June 16, 2016

Neil MacKinnon, global macro strategist at Russian state-controlled VTB Capital, says a Brexit vote will be positive for the UK over the longer term and may trigger other referenda  across the European Union.

London-based MacKinnon, a former special adviser to the UK Treasury, claimed the European Union has not been an economic success story and Britain would be better off doing separate trade deals with Russia, China and the US.

"The EU has hardly been an economic success story and GDP per head has been static for the monetary union over the past decade, while the gap against the US is at its widest since 1991," MacKinnon wrote in a report to investors on June 16.

"The unemployment rate for the Eurozone is at 10% and youth unemployment is double that rate," he said. "As far as trade is concerned, you do not need a trade deal to trade. The EU’s top three exporters are the US, China and Russia, none of which has trade deals with the EU.”

MacKinnon works for an investment bank, which has the largest presence of any Russian lender in London’s square mile. The parent lender VTB was sanctioned in 2014 by the European Union and the US following Russia's annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the deadly conflict in Eastern Ukraine. EU sanctions, which are expected to be prolonged by another six months in July, severely restrict VTB from doing deals and raising money on the international debt and equity markets.

For foreign banks based in London that have limited EU exposure, MacKinnon said a Brexit would have "minimal effects".

"The idea that 'The City' will relocate to Frankfurt or Paris is absurd, given that continental banking centres do not have the financial market infrastructure, market liquidity, skilled labour force and advantages of the London time-zone to compete," said MacKinnon. "London will stay as the number one global financial centre."

Besides London, VTB has offices in the EU in Sofia, Vienna, Paris. The Russian bank has been aggressively reducing its headcount of 500 in London and relocating staff and functions to Moscow and to Asia, where the bank has had mixed success in doing deals and raising finance from local investors.

So far, the Kremlin has kept its views quiet on the looming Brexit vote. But on May 18, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov raised his eyebrows about Prime Minister David Cameron's statements that the Russian leader "might be happy" with a British withdrawal from the EU.

"We have already got accustomed to that the Russian factor is one of the persistent tools in the US election campaign. But the use of the Russian factor or the factor of President Putin in the Brexit issue is new for us," Peskov said.

In terms of Kremlin policy toward the issue, Peskov only recalled that Putin has stated many times that Moscow is interested in building a partnership and mutually beneficial relations with the EU countries - both with the Union itself and "individually".

Elvira Nabiullina, governor of the Central Bank of Russia (CBR), said her staff have had discussions on how to deal with the aftermath of a possible Brexit but don't see any risks for the Russian economy.

"Honestly, I don't see any risk to the Russian economy from a possible Brexit," Nabiullina told CNBC in an interview on the sidelines of St Petersburg International Economic Forum (Spief). "There is no direct consequence for the Russian economy because we have a fairly low level of mutual trade with the UK and not very significant high-level cooperation in the financial sphere," she said.

"We are definitely taking into account this kind of risk," Nabiullina added. "In the event that they happen, we will have a full set of instruments to use in the turbulent environment of the external markets because we have recently been through this sort of turbulence."

As for the effect on the global economy, Nabiullina is convinced the market will find "some sort of balance" and stabilise after an initial rise in volatility.

Andrei Yakunin, a London-based businessman and the son of former Russian Railways boss Vladimir Yakunin, is mulling how he will vote after recently gaining citizenship. Indeed, his British passport was said to be a contributing factor in the ouster of his father as head of Russia's largest employer.

Yakunin, who owns swanky mansions in London's elite Hampstead and St John's Wood neighbourhoods, runs a private equity firm VIY Management. The firm, which has about $400mn in assets, invests in hotels, retail and other sectors across Russia and Europe.

London has always been an attractive destination for Russian companies from a capital market and will remain so even though sanctions have frozen activity, according to Yakunin.

"True, capital market flows between the two countries may be less vibrant today, but this is driven by other market factors," Yakunin wrote on his blog. Fundamentally, I do not see Russian interest in London’s capital markets going away, even if Britain leaves the EU.

Yakunin said Putin should be flattered by this view in the West that somewhere behind every global event is the "hand of Putin" and that the Russian leader is pushing Brits to opt for Brexit.

"If Russia wanted to advocate for a Brexit, it is hardly in a position of authority and influence with respect to the UK electorate," said Yakunin. "But I also simply doubt that this issue is top of the agenda for anyone among the powers-that-be in Russia. The idea that it will bring geopolitical advantage to Russia, to me, seems far-fetched. Will either the EU or the UK be likely to soften its position on Russia as a result of Brexit? In practice, I struggle to see such a scenario."

Yakunin said he had yet to make up his mind on how to vote but his decision will be predicated on the business and economic case.

"But shortly after the votes are counted, I predict that the market, including VIY Management, will quickly move on," he said. "As a Russian based in London, managing a Luxembourg-registered and regulated fund, and investing predominantly in Russia, I don't actually foresee any of this changing anytime soon, whatever the outcome of the referendum."

Yakunin previously told the FT in May that market turmoil resulting from a Brexit vote could spell opportunity for his fund, which is looking to invest in London's hotel market.