Not long ago, reports that Spanish telecom giant Telefónica was moving a big chunk of its business from Madrid to London would have been a shock for locals. With its imposing headquarters in the country’s capital, the former state-owned phone monopoly has been a major employer — and at times a source of pride as it joined the charge of other Spanish firms to expand globally in recent years.
But while Spain’s economy takes a battering during the EU’s debt crisis, Telefónica — the eurozone’s largest telecoms operator by market value — has been facing tough times. Domestic sales have been slumping, and earlier this year it slashed headcount at its Spanish unit, which is now being rolled into a European division.
Still, the company’s announcement in early September that it is launching a major digital unit in London has raised some eyebrows. “It’s a little bit nerve-wracking for Spain if its largest company is relocating centers of decision making, and high-paying jobs are going to go with them,” says Mauro Guillen, a Wharton management professor and director of the Lauder Institute. “It’s not a good omen.”
Is this the beginning of a wider trend of companies — not only in Spain, but across Europe — uprooting their businesses in response to pressures at home? Guillen says that remains to be seen.
There are some motivating factors for these kinds of moves, though. For example, on the heels of new banking reforms announced in the U.K. this month, there is talk once again — though denied by its executives — of HSBC moving its headquarters from London back to Hong Kong, where it had been founded in 1865.
Other factors making EU countries seem inhospitable for business include austerity measures that are dampening local consumption, as well as the prospect of policy makers hiking corporate taxes to plug holes in their public finances. Ireland, for one, has been coming under heavy pressure from other EU members, which accuse it of competing unfairly for foreign direct investment with its low tax rate of 12.5% — about half the regional average.
What about sovereign risk? “Companies can borrow more cheaply if they are German as opposed to Spanish, Italian or Greek. Under the current circumstances, this is becoming very important,” notes Guillen. “I don’t think this is the motivation behind [Telefónica’s] move, but it could be in the future. Then you get into a situation in which companies are essentially arbitraging across borders to get better deals with their financing.”
In Telefónica’s case, a shift outside Spain had already begun before the financial crisis, including its acquisition in 2006 of U.K. mobile operator O2. The company’s new corporate structure placing its digital division in London is one step of several to help it expand in ways that it never could in Spain.
Further down the road — in, say, 10 years — the EU could be more integrated, and national boundaries will not matter as much as they do today, according to Guillen. On the other hand, he adds, “the European project [could fall] apart, and then it could become a very controversial thing” for companies to play one EU country against another.
But in the near term, Guillen says there could be reason for optimism as companies in countries like Spain increasingly go global. That includes Telefónica and its new digital division, which will reportedly have up to 2,500 employees. “I don’t have the data, but I have a suspicion that they would be relocating quite a few managers from Spain, and that’s not a bad thing,” he says. “It will be good for those managers, and it would arguably be good for the company because [Telefónica] would have a larger set of managers with international experience.” All told, “there are negative aspects to be sure, but there are also some positive ones. I don’t know what the net effect will be, but we should look at both sides of the balance sheet here.”