Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Brexit makes for EU banking shake-up

British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) attends a meeting with and European Council President Donald Tusk (L) and European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker (C) during a European Union leaders summit addressing the talks about the so-called Brexit and the migrants crisis in Brussels on February 19, 2016.
Yves Herman | AFP | Getty Images

The banking industry is set for big changes if Britons vote to quit the European Union in June.

It's a difficult subject, to say the least. At least one bank reportedly has banned the term "Brexit" in the workplace. Elsewhere in the banking business, executives mostly duck the topic of a referendum vote coming June 23 that could have the United Kingdom dumping the European Union.

"They aren't commenting publicly," said one person employed by a bank in London, who asked to not be quoted. "They don't want to be seen as trying to influence the outcome."

But changes to the European banking industry would be profound. While the short-term ramifications of the U.K. exiting the EU would result in wholesale staffing changes at European and British banks, a bigger impact could come in the form of jolts to central bank planning and the cost of capital.

"The real issue is how the market treats funding costs," said Ryan Caldwell, partner and CIO at Chiron Investment Management.

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That could result in spreads widening on bond deals, and might cause near-term turmoil on bank balance sheets, which have been hit hard to start 2016. Caldwell predicted credit spread pain could extend into the U.S. as well.

One of the biggest questions facing disparate regulatory regimes in the U.K. and EU would entail regulating banks, many of which took to London to use as a hub for business operations. After numerous European banks shuttled staffers into the U.K., and expanded their presence, it is expected that a Brexit would force virtually all of them to pull back. What it means for U.K. banks operating in Europe is even less clear.

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The Markets in Financial Instruments Directive, which was implemented to provide smooth coordination of financial services policy among countries in the European Union, provides a framework for banks establishing international offices. But the threat of the Brexit, and uncertainty as to how MiFID would be applied to the U.K. post-Brexit, would put British banks and other European banks into flux.

Banks including Barclays, Standard Chartered and Lloyd's, may encounter new regulatory processes to continue operations in European countries should the Brexit vote result in the U.K.'s departure from the 28-nation bloc. A March report from Goldman Sachs analysts points out that a Brexit "would allow the U.K. to curtail perceived EU regulatory and legal excesses," viewed as a constraint by British businesses on their home turf.

Standard Chartered declined to comment when reached; Lloyd's and Barclays did not respond to requests for comment.

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While many banks do not want to discuss the prospect of a Brexit, the chances of it happening have increased. The Financial Times' Brexit poll tracker showed in early April a tightening in U.K. sentiment toward the June 23 vote, with 43 percent of respondents favoring a "stay" vote compared to 41 percent of those favoring leaving the EU.

"It looks like a coin toss," Caldwell said.

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Financial services firm CEOs have mostly avoided talking up the prospect of a Brexit, but JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon hasn't been shy about publicly addressing what others are only thinking. He still envisions a best-case scenario where the U.K. can get along with partners on the other side of the English Channel.

"One can reasonably argue that Britain is better untethered to the bureaucratic and sometimes dysfunctional European Union," he wrote in his annual letter to shareholders earlier this month. "The European Union began with a collective resolve to establish a political union and peace after centuries of devastating wars and to create a common market that would result in a better economy and greater prosperity for its citizens. These two goals still exist, and they are still worth striving for."