In the mid-2010s, haunting photos of China’s ghost towns began gracing the pages of international media as cracks emerged in its economy. Once the worst of the pandemic is over, the City of London needs to prevent its own excess empty commercial spaces from meeting a similar fate.
The Square Mile has long fashioned itself as the epicentre of global finance. Agglomeration was the name of the game. By cramming as many banks, insurers and fund houses as possible into a single area, the hope was that the district would benefit from both traditional network effects and alcohol-induced happenstance.
In order to build that ecosystem the City of London Corporation, which governs the Square Mile, ensured residential space and associated services were largely shunned. For the best part of two centuries it was a bet that paid off as half-a-million suits flooded in day after day to trade, meet and dine.
Then Covid-19 arrived. One estimate for the amount of office space in the City that currently stands unoccupied is 6.9m sq feet, a rise of 45 per cent from a year ago, according to commercial real estate agent DeVono Cresa.
Post-pandemic occupancy levels will rise, but with an extra 1m sq feet approved for building this year — and the expectation among many office workers that they will permanently spend at least some days working from home each week — it’s easy to imagine the City’s bustle might never fully return.
So what is to be done? One obvious solution proposed by names including star architect Norman Foster is to repurpose empty offices and shops into housing. But that process can be expensive and requires landlords to forego rents in the meantime. There’s also the issue of demand — finding buyers who want to pay Zone 1 prices in a district were nearly all of its shops, bars and restaurants are closed on the weekend might prove tricky.
Lombard submits something bolder: that the Square Mile considers a makeover as a nightlife hub. Nimbyism has long been the bane of London’s night-time economy, with bars and clubs constantly battling neighbours who would prefer a good night’s sleep. Yet, with just 8,000 residents at last count, this is unlikely to be an issue in the City.
The success of The Ned, a 5-star hotel with bars and restaurants that opened in 2017 next to the Bank of England, should not be ignored. Neither, for that matter, should the area’s proximity to existing nightlife hotspots in Shoreditch to the north and Smithfield and the Barbican centre to the west. Cultural bleed-over from these areas could be easy to encourage. We are heading into the Roaring Twenties, after all.
Whether the Corporation is willing to entertain night entertainment is another matter. But the City of London needs to rethink its purpose and consider a second act. Or it may soon find the only flashing lights are those of photographers seeking their best shot.
Online trading platform Plus500 stopped offering bets on GameStop last June, judging the shares too volatile. But it benefited from the buzz, writes Vanessa Houlder.
Its customer base doubled in 2020. But as Plus500 takes positions as a principal on client bets, its gains were tempered during its investors’ winning streak.
Customers made $109m of gains on their trading in the fourth quarter, compared with just $4.3m the previous year. That pushed down the quarter’s ebitda margins to 22 per cent — although they averaged 59 per cent for the full year.
Gains and losses from customers’ trading performance should even out over time, it says. Even so, the scope to make money from customers’ bad bets is not a good look. The volatility is one reason why Plus500’s shares historically trade at a discount of a third or more to its listed peers, such as IG Group.
Plus500 now says it will now follow its competitors and start to hedge its exposure to reduce market risk. But it will be too limited in scope to justify a re-rating in the shares that trade on a 2021 price-to-forward earnings ratio of 7.5 times, based on numbers from Canaccord Genuity. Even its dividend yield of 4.4 per cent looks shaky, with the company now saying it will only pay half of net income to shareholders, versus 60 per cent before.
Plus500’s goal is to become a broad-based fintech business, rather than a pure provider of contracts for difference. Details are sketchy, though it says it will charge commissions on share dealing business, in line with the preference of European regulators. Such activities are unlikely to be anything like as lucrative as selling derivatives.
A big question is how many of its new traders will continue to punt once normal conditions returns. Investment platform Hargreaves Lansdown insisted recently that its Covid-era clients would persevere. It’s hard to believe Plus500’s customers will be as sticky. The heady combination of market volatility and lockdown ennui will not be repeated.
The Square Mile: