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Today New City Initiative is comprised of 51 leading independent asset management firms from the UK and the Continent, managing approximately £400 billion and employing several thousand people.

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...And so begins Brexit

...And so begins Brexit

It has taken nearly nine months for the UK government to invoke Article 50, thereby setting off the process by which the country will leave the EU. While many financial services firms would have preferred to maintain Single Market access, it became abundantly clear this would not be possible in the face of strong political opposition.

For fund managers, the loss of Single Market access raises uncomfortable questions. Some have openly expressed apprehension about being cut-off from the EU, which will deprive them of the right to sell or market their funds into the mainland without barriers or restrictions. Any firm that set up a UCITS or AIFM in the UK to distribute into the EU will lose their passport.

All UK UCITS or AIFMs will be classified as third country managers irrespective of whether they fully comply with these Directives. A handful of firms explored whether innovative EU master-feeder structures could be created to offset third country designation, but lawyers have roundly dismissed such ideas as fanciful.

In addition, regulators have warned UK managers that substance is unconditional if they wish to continue to take advantage of the passport. Setting up a letterbox entity and delegating processes back into the UK will not be accepted. It is reported regulators in Luxembourg are said to be particularly alert to this risk.

Those major asset managers with large quantities of EU investors are setting up subsidiaries and branches in EU fund domiciles such as Ireland and Luxembourg, but most are sitting tight. The majority of firms are reluctant to add significant costs to their balance sheets by relocating to an EU country.

Brexit is potentially a plethora of hypotheticals, and until there is a degree of clarity over the outcome, firms should avoid rash moves. Most fund managers are nimble unlike the banks and market infrastructures, and can afford to hold off executing their Brexit plan for the time being.  However, fund managers ought to have a contingency plan in place to deal with any eventuality.

Talking to lawyers or service providers in EU fund centres is recommended, and investors should be kept fully notified of any conversations. Certain investors – such as EU institutions – will be particularly sensitive to matters on Brexit. A failure to coherently inform and communicate with clients on Brexit could have negative implications.

So what issues should fund managers be thinking about between now, and the supposed 2019 conclusion of Brexit talks? Firms should certainly not be disregarding their EU regulatory obligations. Rules such as the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II (MiFID II) will be introduced in 2018, and compliance efforts should not be watered down.

The UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has been a key driver behind MiFID II, and it will not be impressed if firms avoid their compliance responsibilities. Testing the FCA’s patience – given recent public statements and reports – would not be a sensible strategy for asset managers.

Nonetheless, there is a problem as to what managers will do when rules are being proposed by the EU during the Brexit negotiation process. Some firms have questioned whether they will need to work towards complying with EU proposals in the interim, which post-Brexit may not be enacted by the UK government, or interpreted in a different way.

This is complicated further as Brexit talks could go on much longer than anticipated. Many believe some sort of transitional arrangement will be negotiated, which should help manage business continuity risk to a degree. As such, it is likely that any transitional requirements will oblige financial institutions in the UK to adhere to EU rules until Brexit is fully realised.

In addition, the UK government has alluded that it is hopeful equivalence for financial institutions can be achieved post-Brexit, and this means domestic law has to be comparable to that of the EU. The UK is unlikely to do away with existing or incoming EU directives if it is serious about meeting equivalence. This implies that post-Brexit, there will be some similarities between UK and EU law. Arbitraging or heavily conflicting regulations post-Brexit will just add to fund managers’ costs, and this is in nobody’s interests.

It is clear that Brexit will be challenging for asset managers and fund managers should be conducting regular assessments and analyses on Brexit outcomes and the impact it will have on their businesses, and this should be shared with investors. Firms should be engaging with regulators during this period of transition and change. Investors will not look kindly on managers who fail to approach their Brexit planning thoughtfully and without due consideration.