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City poised for overhaul of UK listing rules in dash to catch Spacs wave

A Treasury-backed review of the City has called for an overhaul of company listing rules so London can better compete against rivals in New York and Europe and grab a share of the booming market for special purchase acquisition vehicles.

The review, to be published on Wednesday, also proposes allowing dual-class shares to give founders greater control of their businesses and attract a wave of tech companies to the London market.

The City’s attractiveness has stumbled in recent years as the US and Hong Kong have swept up the majority of in-demand tech listings. New York’s markets have been further swelled this year by a surge of so-called Spacs, which raise money from investors and list on a stock market, then look for an acquisition target to take public. Britain’s edge also has been eroded by a loss of trading businesses to European rivals since Brexit.

Rishi Sunak, chancellor, who commissioned the independent report, said the government was determined to enhance the UK’s reputation after leaving the EU, “making sure we continue to lead the world in providing open, dynamic capital markets for existing and innovative companies alike”.

The review, which was carried out by Lord Jonathan Hill, former EU financial services commissioner, has recommended a wide range of reforms to loosen rules that have tightly governed listings in the UK.

Lord Hill has recommended lowering the limit on the free float of shares in public hands to 15 per cent — meaning founders need to sell fewer shares to list — and wants to “empower retail investors” by helping them participate in capital raisings. 

He has also proposed a “complete rethink” of company prospectuses to cut regulation and encourage capital raising, and suggested rebranding the LSE’s standard listing segment to increase its appeal. The chancellor should also produce an annual “State of the City” report.

The government said it would examine the recommendations — many of which require consultations by the Financial Conduct Authority.

Lord Hill also recommended that the FCA be charged with maintaining the UK’s attractiveness as a place to do business as a regulatory objective. 

The FCA said it aimed to publish a consultation paper by the summer, with new rules expected by late 2021. 

Lord Hill said the proposals were designed to “encourage investment in UK businesses [and] support the development of innovative growth sectors such as tech and life sciences”.

He said the UK should use its post-Brexit ability to set its own rules “to move faster, more flexibly and in a more targeted way”, in particular for growth sectors such as fintech and green finance.

However, the recommendations will cause concern among some institutional investors which have argued that loosening rules around dual-class shares, for example, will risk lowering corporate governance standards. 

The review said London needed to maintain high standards of governance, with various ways recommended to mitigate risk. On dual shares, for example, it recommended safeguards such as a five-year limit.

Amid fears that the government could go too far with a drive for deregulation, Lord Hill said his proposals were “not about opening a gap between us and other global centres by proposing radical new departures to try to seize a competitive advantage . . . they are about closing a gap which has already opened up”.

Other recommendations include making it easier for companies to provide forward-looking guidance when raising capital by amending the liability regime, and improving the efficiency of the listing process. 

The inclusion of a recommendation to help Spacs list in London by no longer suspending shares after a target is picked will be welcomed by many investors.

However, the rapid growth of such vehicles loaded with billions of dollars in speculative cash has also raised concerns about a bubble forming in the market.

Lord Hill said there was a risk that the UK was losing out on “homegrown and strategically significant companies coming to market in London” from overseas Spacs.

The UK has lagged behind New York and Hong Kong in attracting the types of companies from sectors, such as technology and life sciences, that dominate modern economies and attract investors seeking growth stocks. 

London accounted for only 5 per cent of IPOs globally over the past five years, while the number of listed companies in the UK has fallen by about 40 per cent since 2008. The review also pointed out the most significant companies listed in London were either financial or representative of the “old economy” rather than the “companies of the future”. 

Lord Hill referred to the flow of post-Brexit business to Amsterdam to make the point that the UK faced “stiff competition as a financial centre not just from the US and Asia, but from elsewhere in Europe”.

The steps represent a win for the London Stock Exchange Group, whose chief executive David Schwimmer has called for a more competitive listing regime. He said it was possible to strike a balance between being competitive and maintaining high corporate governance standards.

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