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Future of UK Capital Markets

Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2024

I will call Alun Cairns to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for Mr Cairns to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of UK capital markets.

It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. It is also a pleasure to propose this debate on the future of UK capital markets. I have raised this debate following engagement from stakeholders across the sector. Like many other European markets, we have seen de-equitisation, as well as a slowdown in initial public offerings, with the US strengthening its position against other markets around the world. Arm’s flotation in New York over London last year attracted much attention, and we need to look at why that happened. We should also consider what is happening to the small cap and fledgling indexes, which the UK Equity Markets Association understandably highlights.

There are certainly examples where companies that may well have listed in the UK in the past are now floating in New York. We need to be conscious of that, and if the trend continues, we need to be concerned by it. I am not yet alarmed, but I look to the Government, regulators, fund managers, the London stock exchange and others to consider what can be done to ensure that London maintains its prominence in world financial markets.

The success of the Square Mile is hugely important to the whole of the UK—to its economy, tax revenues and status—and it is equally important to the UK financial infrastructure that is available to companies and individuals all over the UK, whether that is companies seeking capital, or individuals, including pensioners, looking for investment opportunities and potential enhanced financial returns.

The point I am making is that capital markets matter to us all and extend well beyond the world of finance. We need to recognise that domestic investors have moved away from UK equities in recent years. Asset managers’ investment in equities has dropped significantly, from 30% in 2017 to around 20% now. Although the London stock exchange remains the largest in Europe, its capitalisation has declined and the contribution of new international IPOs is down significantly. The number of companies listed in the UK is down by a third over the past 15 years, and UK retail investors have moved away from equities. Around 10% of assets are held in equities in the UK, compared with more than 30% in the United States. That is in spite of technology enabling more and more platforms. It is a far cry from the famous “If you see Sid, tell him” ad of the 1990s.

Some outlets, such as the BBC, sensationalise the reports of London losing its listings. An excellent report written by EY on UK finance last year provided a more balanced perspective, highlighting how London dominates in Europe in every aspect, even after the aggressive marketing by some cities in the EU following Brexit.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan on securing this debate, and I am pretty sure he will agree with what I am going to ask. Does he not agree that we cannot live up to the potential in the City market without implementing the necessary changes to promote safeguarding and safety? Those are critical. Does he believe that the Government and the Minister must be more proactive in that matter?

The hon. Member makes an extremely important point, and I will come on to it as I progress. He is right about the importance of standards. London’s reputation on standards is essential not only to London, but to every part of the United Kingdom and well beyond.

I was highlighting the challenges we have had in the UK. If there are challenges here in London, there are even greater challenges elsewhere. London still dominates the European market. However, the market is always evolving and we need to react. That being the case, I am pleased that the Government are already alive to change and, along with others, have launched a series of initiatives to analyse and act on what the UK needs to do to secure London’s important international role. We have seen the wholesale markets review, the UK listings review, the Kalifa review, the UK secondary capital raising review and the London stock exchange UK capital markets industry taskforce. Those are just some examples of what has been going on in recent times.

The influence of some of the reviews led to the Edinburgh reforms and the Chancellor’s Mansion House speech last year. Those are positive steps but, 12 months on from the Edinburgh reforms and six months on from the Mansion House compact, this is a good time to take stock. There is a need for co-ordination and assessment of developments. I am concerned that there has been a series of reviews, including those I mentioned earlier, but securing outcomes for the benefit of companies and investors must be our focus.

There is clearly a balance to be struck between evolution and revolution. The Chancellor is on record as saying that he favours evolution, which is fair enough, but we do need to see progression, too. We also need to consider the freedom that Brexit provides, against the diversion from standards in our closest markets. I am not saying that is easy, but regular review of progress is a positive step. There are wins available for the United Kingdom, and I look to the Government to respond.

The central piece of the Mansion House speech was an agreement with the largest UK defined contribution fund managers to invest at least 5% in private equities by 2030. There are also clear ambitions for defined benefits schemes, and I hope the Minister can provide a further update on that in his response. After all, when we consider that just 1% of the UK’s near £5 trillion assets are in private companies, the 5% target is a major step. I press the Minister by saying it is a good start but we need to go even further, and monitor progress towards that 2030 target. I also look to the Minister to provide further details on the defined benefits reforms and ambitions.

I recognise that the Chancellor announced plans to consolidate the local government scheme. As he said, when it comes to pension pots, big is beautiful. I get that, and the wider benefits that consolidation will bring. I would, however, add a note of caution. Large funds need large investments, which in general is a good thing, but we could end up squeezing small and mid-sized companies out of the equation. Guidance to secure the role of smaller private equity funds, which usually focus on smaller firms, would be helpful. I am concerned that large pension funds will have few places to go, other than to large private equity firms in the US, defeating much of the Government’s objectives.

The London stock exchange plans for an intermittent trading venue also offer new opportunities to bridge the gap, but it would be helpful to gain feedback on the timing of the regulatory approval. I also welcome the Treasury’s commitment to the replacement of the EU prospectus regulation with the Public Offers and Admissions to Trading Regulations 2023 that stem from Lord Hill’s listings review. That is welcome and will streamline the process significantly.

We obviously await detailed Financial Conduct Authority rules, and look to it to act swiftly in that respect. To credit the FCA, it has streamlined the listings process and loosened the rules for related party transactions. These reforms and others are very welcome, and I pay tribute to the Minister and his colleague for the part they have played. The scale of the reforms should be recognised and will have effect. However, the speed of change and the scale of reform need to increase. The capacity of the regulator will be a challenge, but we need to do whatever possible to support it to make the necessary changes we are asking of it, at pace.

In this technical debate, however, we need to remember why we are doing it, and what else can be done. We need to make it easier to raise capital in London, and the process of listing less clunky, while also focusing on attracting capital from domestic and foreign investors to provide the liquidity and funds for growth. London’s reputation for high standards is a good thing, and something we need to work with. We should continue the momentum to review the access for early stage business finance, to expand the scope and remove the potential cliff edge.

Tax incentives and greater digitalisation of capital markets processes can help too. Enterprise management incentives could play a part in widening the opportunity for staff to take a stake. Stamp duty changes are also relevant. We need a new approach to investing at both fund manager and retail level. Current regulations force fund managers towards bonds and Government debt to de-risk, which almost came back to bite us just a little over 12 months ago. Savers have also been encouraged to remove risk. The classification of investments needs to be reviewed, and better research needs to be available, akin to Rachel Kent’s report.

We need to re-engage the retail market in the opportunities of equities. I can recall—as I am sure you can, Ms Nokes—the privatisation of public services in the 1980s and 1990s, and the opportunities that provided for the public to invest. I have already mentioned, “If you see Sid tell him.” Regulations aimed at protecting the public from risk have removed legitimate opportunities like those. It is almost impossible for an adviser to facilitate investments directly into equities, in spite of today’s reduced costs and swifter processes. Proportionate regulations are required, along with further ISA reform. I can well recall the personal equity plans of the ’90s, which had a specific allowance for a single company PEP. That made capital investment accessible and relevant to the masses.

In closing, I want to recognise the changes and reforms that have taken place but to suggest that we need regular—at least annual—reviews of progress and of the impact of change, with all stakeholders involved. That would show the world that we are determined to get it right and to continue to evolve to ever-changing needs. We must always remember that gaining and accessing new capital is essential to growing business and the economy. By getting this right, we can offer greater returns for the public through better pension and investment returns, while maintaining the UK’s prominence in this vital industry.

I started off by talking about Arm, and I want to highlight a quote from Craig Coben, a prominent journalist in the field. He wrote that

“Arm should float in the US not because London has any particular flaws as a listing location, but rather because the scale, scope and depth of American capital markets make it a more compelling venue… Nasdaq-only flotation offers the broadest access to investors without the complications of two primary listings.”

That is just one example of the sort of change that can be brought about. I look to the Minister to continue his positive agenda.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing the debate, and I thank him for his remarks about our capital market system, which I will address in some detail.

I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the key role that capital markets play not just in our UK economy, but in wider society, which I have long spoken about not just in this House, but in my career in financial services before coming into politics. No matter the size of the company or how many countries it operates in, behind every major listed company are thousands or even millions of investors who own a stake in that company, and own a stake in a country. A FTSE 100 or S&P 500 stock will be owned by teachers, nurses, firefighters and lots of other regular people who, by owning stocks through their pensions, have a stake in the success of the company and the wider economy, and a means to benefit when both those things do well. It is an extension of what Noel Skelton, a former Member of Parliament for Perth, said in the 1920s when he talked about a property-owning democracy. It is the idea that if people have a stake in our economy, they become more engaged with the economic outcomes of the country, which in turn become more equitable, because they engage and affect normal people in more prescient ways. In that way, strong capital markets that people can easily access, interpret and utilise can be an incredible tool for broad-based engagement with our economic systems.

As my right hon. Friend alluded to, capital markets also have a more immediate impact through the allocation of capital, facilitating investment, which drives growth and jobs, and creating investor returns. That helps to build a market that is buzzing with opportunity and optimism and attracts the best and the brightest, bringing new energy and ideas to our economy, all of which drives economic activity in every part of the country. It is worth pointing out that of the about 1 million people employed in the financial services industry, two thirds are outside our capital city. That is not always appreciated.

However, London is an international powerhouse in its own right, with a foreign exchange market three times the size and a derivatives market about 50% bigger than those of the United States, making the UK a genuine global hub for investment. In 2021, more than £17 billion of capital was raised for firms in the UK—a 15-year high. Over 120 deals were completed in that year alone. Of course, we have not been immune to the limited IPO activity caused by market turbulence across 2022 and 2023, yet in 2023 the London Stock Exchange raised more capital than Frankfurt and Amsterdam—the two largest exchanges in the European Union—combined.

More importantly, this Government recognise that there is always more we can do to improve our markets and make them even more open and competitive. My right hon. Friend mentioned that the first step on our reform journey was, as the Economic Secretary to the Treasury stated in a speech last week at Bloomberg, to diagnose the problem—to acknowledge that there was a problem and then seek a way to fix it. That started with Lord Hill’s 2020 UK listings review, alluded to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan, which builds consensus on how to boost IPOs and capital raising on UK capital markets. He will be aware that in 2021, at Mansion House, we launched the wholesale markets review to consider how we could use our new-found regulatory freedoms to make UK markets more competitive.

Next came our solutions to the problems that we had diagnosed. I am happy to say that reform has progressed across all those areas, not only in our legislation and our regulatory regimes, but in the culture and mindset of the Government and of regulators, which is not to be underestimated. The Financial Services and Markets Act 2023 delivered the wholesale market review’s most urgent changes. As a result, firms can now trade in the most liquid market and get the best price for investors. We have also set statutory growth and competitiveness objectives for our regulators and introduced new accountability mechanisms to ensure delivery against those objectives. Following the passage of FSMA 2023, we are taking forward a host of new initiatives, such as the digital securities sandbox, which will test the use of distributed ledger technology in trading and settlement. That is just one of a huge range of reforms coming in the near future.

The result of those reforms is that after three and a half years, we are now within sight of making the UK’s public markets match fit again, which my right hon. Friend and I both seek. But he is right that we must go further and use this as an inflection point to ensure that we are delivering on the promise and opportunity presented by our capital markets. That is why we are taking further steps now and supporting companies through every stage of their investment lifecycle.

First, we will ensure that companies can scale up effectively so that they are primed and ready for listing. To do that, as my right hon. Friend alluded to, we are establishing a world first—a new class of exchange. The private intermittent securities and capital exchange system—catchily named Pisces for short, thankfully—will be established by the end of this year. He asked for assurance, and I can assure him on that timing. The Pisces platform will give private companies better access to capital markets and break down the artificial regulatory cliff edge between public and private markets. This development will allow investors to take advantage of the structural shift to private markets, rather than suffer from it.

Secondly, we want to ensure that, when companies choose to list, the process is as easy and frictionless as possible. A fortnight ago, the Economic Secretary took the UK’s new prospectus legislation through Parliament, paving the way for the FCA to complete its entire rewrite of the prospectus regime’s rulebook to deliver on the recommendations of the Hill and Mark Austin reviews, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan referred to. That will boost the operating environment for our capital markets in two important ways: it will increase the pool of investors participating in capital raises, and it will enable firms to raise larger sums of capital more quickly.

Finally, we want to ensure that, once listed, companies are matched with the best investors for their offering. We welcome the FCA’s commitment to consult on the changes to the unbundling rules this spring. That was a recommendation of Rachel Kent’s investment research review. Subject to the outcomes of that consultation, the FCA will make relevant rules in the first half of this year. We aim to revive the research market by delivering more efficient and accurate pricing, in particular for small and medium-sized enterprises.

In the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced his plans to explore options for a NatWest retail share offer this year, and a wider ambition to get the public buying more shares. My right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan rightly said that we should get Sid investing again. For those who do not know, that is a reference to an advertising campaign that only Members of a certain vintage will appreciate—it is entirely lost on my private office.

I will move on quickly to some of the wider issues. My right hon. Friend talked about Charlie Geffen’s accelerated settlement taskforce, which will upgrade our back-office operations for the 21st century.

This year will mark substantial progress in all three of the investment cycle stages that I have set out. Alongside the regulatory reforms, the Government are looking to reverse the trend of British investors—both institutional and individual—shifting away from investing in UK equities. As my right hon. Friend points out, the statistics are pretty stark. They have been on a downward trend for many years, and that is particularly evident in our pension funds. As he rightly said, at Mansion House the Chancellor began the process of announcing the Mansion House compact, which will see 11 major defined-contribution pension schemes allocate at least 5% of their default funds to unlisted equities, unlocking capital investment in high-growth companies. With the pension reforms now in train, we expect the pension pot of a typical DC saver to increase by as much as £16,000 over the course of an average career.

This agenda is underpinned by a commitment to openness, competitiveness, growth, dynamism and innovation in financial services, as first set out by the then Chancellor, now Prime Minister, in 2021. When those principles are properly applied, they have an impact far beyond financial markets. They can be a way to open the doors of our boardrooms to a far wider range of people, democratising our capital markets and inspiring individuals throughout the country to take an active interest in our markets, while making sure that more people have experience and an understanding of the risks and rewards that are such a vital component of our capital markets.

Our capital markets in this country are a source of great pride, including to me, having worked in them. It is right that we all feel pride in the UK capital market structure, but I want more people to speak with pride about our stocks—the stocks that they own today or may own in the future. Our capital markets have helped shape the country that we live in. They have helped us make this country more prosperous, they have created more jobs and they have made us more competitive overseas. The Government are working to ensure that that remains the case for many years to come by making our markets more attractive, competitive and, crucially, accessible. I am proud to be taking forward that important work with colleagues from across the House, and to have been able to speak about it today under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.