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London listings, Rayner’s Labour and VAT’s back

Policy Preview: London Listings
“The world clings to its old mental picture of the stock market because it’s comforting; because it’s so hard to draw a picture of what has replaced it; and because the few people able to draw it for you have no interest in doing so.” Michael Lewis

The London Stock Exchange (LSE) has had a turbulent past few years. European regulators blocked its merger with Deutsche Börse in 2017 for the third time, and though it pivoted to a data provider model with the purchase of Refinitiv in January, the LSE’s own share price has struggled.

While the business model of competing with other data providers will likely prove significant to the LSE’s long-term prospects, some of the poor performance the exchange has seen in recent years is due to a slowdown in new listings, partially due to Brexit uncertainty and partially due to the LSE lagging other major exchanges in innovation. 2021, however, has shown the signs of a turnaround are already in place – with more 50% listings in the first six months of 2021 than in all of 2020.

Arguably the most significant LSE listing this year – in terms of its own business model – was the July trading debut of the fintech firm Wise, which specialises in international monetary transfers. Notably, the listing was not an IPO but rather a direct listing in which existing shares are entered into the market rather than new issuance as typically occurs in the former. Such listings, which typically enable existing investors to cash out more quickly, have grown in popularity in the US tech sector in recent years but the LSE had heretofore largely been reticent.

Wise’s debut was seen as a success and the firm is now the largest in the UK tech space by market capitalisation. London has prided itself on developing a wider fintech scene in recent years and there are a number of other expected listings, such as those of challenger bank Revolut or payments firm Klarna, that the LSE will be keen to secure.

To that end, last November the UK government launched a review of its listing regime, with a split emerging between advocates of continued high regulatory standards and those in favour of loosening listing rules, in particular to attract fintech listings. The LSE seems to have firmly come down on the side of the latter, most emphatically the requirement that a minimum of 25% of a firm’s shares be sold in an initial listing. It also gave softer backing to calls to allow firms with dual class shares to be treated as ‘premium listings’ and thus eligible for the FTSE 100 index. For example, Wise’s CEO Kristo Käärmann has enhanced voting rights shares, meaning Wise will not enter the FTSE 100.

These rules are overseen by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which is conducting its own review, off of which it has proposed reducing the free float requirement to as little as 10%, and to allow certain forms of dual class share structures to be included as ‘premium listings’. An overhaul of listing rules along these lines is likely to be signed off by year’s end.

Power Play: Rayner’s Labour
“Finding the right alchemy that will woo the older and socially conservative voters of the Red Wall whilst keeping on board the younger, more educated, and socially liberal voters elsewhere has become Labour’s quest for the Holy Grail.” Professor Eunice Goes

Angela Rayner’s position of prominence is secure within the Labour Party. Following its disappointing results in the early May elections, Keir Starmer and his allies attempted to side-line her, failing when Rayner refused to accept what she regarded as a significant demotion. Instead, with backing from party allies, she negotiated retaining her position as Deputy Leader and exchanging her roles as party chair and national campaign coordinator for positions as Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and a newly-created post of Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work.

This is symptomatic of two things – firstly, Keir Starmer’s weakness at the head of the party, unable to reshape his frontbench to his liking. Secondly, it demonstrates that the left-of-centre, though less radical than the left under Jeremy Corbyn, still has some residual strength within Labour. For the time being, Rayner is able to stay in position as Deputy Leader, consolidating her own power base.

What does this mean for Labour? The party’s attention will soon be turning to the next general election, which could come as soon as May 2023. Labour will be keen to stem the flow of so-called ‘red wall’ voters deserting Labour. Some within the party may feel that as a Stockport-born former trade unionist, Angela Rayner may be better able to connect with voters across the North of England and the Midlands than Sir Keir Starmer QC.

There may not be much time for Labour to effectively set out their message, if the election is just two years away. A non-trivial proportion of that time will still be politically dominated by the pandemic, and Labour will need to offer a positive vision of the future, rather than criticise the government’s perceived failings during the pandemic.

The party will continue to position itself as tough on crime and social issues, playing to Starmer’s prosecutorial experience. The Conservatives will always be more credible on law-and-order issues, however, and Labour will need to seek to shift the economic debate onto terms in which it is most comfortable.

Rather than being painted as the party of fiscally irresponsible tax-and-spend, in her newly appointed brief handling the Future of Work Rayner will seek to frame the nature of the post-pandemic recovery as being an opportunity for more socially-just economy rebalanced towards workers. We have already seen the beginnings of this with pledges for a ‘new deal for workers’, with Rayner calling for an enshrined right for workers to work from home.

Although the Opposition’s policy influence is necessarily limited, we can expect Labour to continue to influence policy debates by positioning itself as more socially conservative yet with an economic policy characterised by more targeted interventions in the interests of workers.

Dollars and Sense: VAT’s Back

“Happiness is not in money but in shopping”

Marilyn Monroe

Since the start of 2021, the United Kingdom no longer offers tourists and visitors refunds to the value added tax (VAT) that they pay on UK bought goods. Formerly known as the Retail Export Scheme, similar VAT refunds are available across the European Union and they have proved a boon to growth for big retailers.

Such refunds not only bring in tourist spending – helping drive the development of commercial shopping centres such as the UK’s Bicester Village – but also have provided a fresh income stream to retailers and logistics businesses, who typically take a small portion of the refund in exchange for handling the relevant paperwork. The end of the Retail Export Scheme will not totally end this business, as UK exports shipped directly abroad will still be VAT-free.

Yet certain retailers are likely to be particularly impacted, from famous London outlets that have long been magnets for tourism to the smaller luxury stores and shopping centres in Manchester that have seen high-end spending driven by VAT-free purchases from tourists largely from India, the Middle East and China, in recent years.

The COVID-19 pandemic, resulting lockdowns, and travel limitations have far overridden the impact of the VAT refund’s abolition on retail. However, as the post-pandemic recovery continues and travel slowly opens up with the rollout of global vaccinations efforts, the VAT refund scheme’s abolition risks seeing the UK retail recovery lag behind that of other sectors and even retail in Europe.

Yet the government has so far shown no signs that it plans to reinstate the Retail Export Scheme, or some variety thereof. Simply put, foreign tourists are not a particularly politically salient constituency and the government is wary of being seen as handing valuable tax receipts to retailers in a post-pandemic environment.

Nonetheless, a potential middle ground with benefits to all exists – the digitisation of tax receipts raises the possibility of reinstating at least certain refunds for goods whose export status can thereby more easily be verified. The government has put tech at the forefront of other customs arguments – recently raising the idea again in relation to policing the Irish border – similar arguments about the future of UK retail recovery follow naturally.

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