Why Frankfurt is about to rival London as Europe's new financial capital

Frankfurt hopes to rival London as Europe's new financial capital - but it first needs to woo our workers. Joy Lo Dico travels to the German city that's banking on Brexit to test its pulling power

Brexit is looking like it might happen? Perfect,” says a well-groomed German bond trader working for the Bank of America’s offices in Frankfurt over gin and tonics, currently the hip drink in the city, rather to my surprise. 

He is no Britsceptic but every so often the Bank of America raises the prospect of moving its European headquarters to London.

“If Britain leaves, it won’t happen,” he says, smugly. “And I prefer it here.” (In case you are wondering how I found him, checking Tinder in Frankfurt reveals a rich seam of singles in banking looking for something to do in the evening).

For us Londoners this idea of any place better than here is an unusual concept. That might well be why we scoff every time a major financial institution headquartered in London threatens to decamp to Frankfurt if we do indeed Brexit. 

But this weekend three former British ambassadors to the EU, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Sir John Grant and Sir Stephen Wall, opined in newsprint that they did “not think Frankfurt or others would be sentimental in seeking to challenge the City’s prominence”. 

That doesn’t just extend to regulation — the European Central Bank (ECB) had already tried to make all serious business transactions denominated in euros go through eurozone clearing houses — but also in the physical move from London to this conservative German city. 

Frankfurt has homegrown banks, Commerzbank and Deutsche Bank, but a throng of international big hitters also has outposts there, among them JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. All of whom currently headquarter their European operations in London. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan have been throwing cash at the pro-EU campaign. Stephanie Flanders, the former BBC economics editor who is now at JP Morgan, spoke on the platform at the Stronger In launch, and a senior Goldman executive last year dropped far-from-veiled hints that Frankfurt was a serious option should Britain go to Brexit.

What makes us sit back with ease and think it’ll never happen — as Boris Johnson once put it, the hollow threat of “buddleia sprouting in Throgmorton Street” — is the reaction of the London finance community. Can you imagine the reaction of our international bankers, suited in Savile Row, housed in St John’s Wood and Islington, and Ubered from shiny steel tower to some of the best restaurants and theatres in the world, issued with one-way tickets to Frankfurt, where half the bars don’t even open on Monday nights?

But maybe we shouldn’t quite write it off, not just because the referendum polls show the outcome on a knife edge but because Frankfurt is bending over backwards to lure our bankers over there for culture and lifestyle. 

In the spirit of adventure, I visited Frankfurt last week. The German Tourist Board was very eager to have me and sent me off with a guide to show off the homelier sides of the city under the shadow of its banking towers. The guide had lived in Britain, knew the reputation of Frankfurt as Europe’s capital of boredom, but even she admitted that one could well be surprised. “I’ve known bankers who have been miserable about moving here for work for a four-year placement but when they are called back home they don’t want to go because life is so good here for them and for their families — it is so civilised,” she says.

There are old coffee houses, a South Bank full of museums, chic European design houses, an historic market full of fruit and vegetables and delicatessens which feels like Borough Market without the hype. But she also admits there are others who have taken the first plane out: one banker from Geneva, whose wife hated it, quickly worked out a transfer to London to keep the peace. 

The centre of gravity is the new European Central Bank that has risen in the east of the city among warehouses, club venues and car showrooms, a portly glass building that looks like it has burst its seams after a jolly good lunch. From here come Mario Draghi’s pronouncements on the eurozone, from here derive the Europewide financial regulations that, if Britain foregoes its seat at the top table, it would lose its say in. 

Its vast staff are cushioned against life’s hardships. The ECB has its own international school, drivers are laid on for the upper tiers and, by London standards, pretty affordable, smart housing, although to the rest of Germany it is exorbitant. 

A three-bedroom apartment, around 100 square metres in a rebuild of the old town centre, costs £450,000. A quayside one of the same size in Westhafen — think Canary Wharf — or in the cooler café district Bornheim (think Stoke Newington) costs around £300,000, while the villas in their West End — our Kensington — could be bought for £1 million.

In scenes reminiscent of the London market, the new apartments are snapped up straight off the architect’s drawing board. “When Londoners, New Yorkers and Parisians come and see our prices, they smile and say ‘I will take three of those’,” says one priced-out local. 

A charming old German town this is not, though. It was pummelled by the Allies at the end of the Second World War and, aside from Altstadt and the West End, much of it isn’t that attractive. But those spaces, and the relative density of Frankfurt — its formal boundaries make it only a sixth of the size of London — mean they started building up. From the Main, the river that runs through the centre, at sunset the 14 skyscrapers and dozens of high rises have the shimmer of a New York skyline, giving rise to the city’s nickname Mainhattan. (“Let me show you a beautiful panorama of the city,” more than one financier suggested on Tinder. Not another trip up to the 22nd floor bar and lounge at the Innside Melia hotel, I thought.)

Where London might also begin to feel the heat is the tortured question of the airport. Heathrow Express from Paddington to our two-runway airport takes 15 minutes? Frankfurt Airport, which has four runways and is also a global hub, has a cheaper train that sweeps you into town in 12 minutes. “You see groups of Chinese and Indian tourists in the old town square from 8am,” says my guide. “They want to see Germany and they start here because this is where the planes land first.” Goethestrasse is their Bond Street, with Prada and Burberry falling over themselves for a pitch. 

The city is Anglophone and international, not just in the banking communities but also its visitors. The rich Middle Easterners, Japanese and an increasing number of European tourists are rolling up to the city. It is trying to regain the glory days of the 19th century when Frankfurt-born Mayer Amschel Rothschild founded his financial dynasty and where, later in the century, grand hotels would spring up, the most notable of which, the Frankfurter Hof, went for Parisian grandeur and belle epoque concierge style as portrayed in the The Grand Budapest Hotel. Once run by Cesar Ritz, now called the Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof and refurbished for business and well-to-do leisure guests alike with a spa, a bar with leather club chairs and a Michelin-starred restaurant, it remains the heart of the old- school city charm but you can see its global ambition in its cuisine and spa treatments that look both to the East and the West. 

And the other thing that may well attract some to Frankfurt is that long list of well-educated, well-paid singletons on Tinder, only one of whom was sleazy, the rest extraordinarily polite. “I had a super-productive day at work,” chirrupped one in financial IT. And after a day of pouring rain, which would make Brits feel at home, another Frankfurter messaged: “You can have awesome days inside buildings too.” If only there was somewhere to go for a drink with them on a Monday night.

That said, talking to a Londoner had other benefits: one lawyer in the finance world seemed most keen to meet because he was heading to one of our magic circle of solicitors’ firms, he told me, and wanted tips on London.