Monday, June 03, 2019

Case for HSBC to move HQ to Hong Kong looks stronger than ever

ft.com

 

David Crow 5 hours ago

A prediction: by the end of the next decade, HSBC will no longer be headquartered in the UK.
It is more than three years since Europe’s largest bank by assets completed a review of where it should base its global head office, which resulted in the lender sticking with London rather than moving to Hong Kong.
However, it would be wrong to interpret that decision as the last word on the matter. Several executives, past and present, have said they still expect the bank to move back to the place where the The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank was founded in 1865. “It is in their DNA,” says one.
To be clear, the bank says “there are no discussions to review HSBC’s global headquarters and no plans to reopen the issue”.
And relocating to Hong Kong is not without its risks, especially at a time of trade tensions between China and the US. Many residents in the autonomous region fear that the Communist Party will eventually impose its command-and-control model, which would pose unique challenges for HSBC.
But the rationale for redomiciling is stronger today than it was in 2015, when HSBC kicked off a review of whether London was the right place for its headquarters. Back then, Asia accounted for 84 per cent of profits. By last year, that figure was 90 per cent, and it will continue to rise as the bank invests in the region as part of its “pivot to Asia”.
Add to that the fact that the UK is set to leave the EU, hindering HSBC’s ability to serve its European clients from London, along with the spectre of a far-left Labour government, and the case for moving back to Hong Kong becomes stronger still.
Lower taxes could also boost HSBC’s profits: when the bank last considered relocating to Hong Kong, analysts estimated that this would result in $14bn of savings in subsequent years.
It makes little sense for a global bank focused on Asia to be run from the UK, not least for logistical reasons: the company’s top executives waste time travelling between the two regions, while the seven-hour time difference means managers in Hong Kong and China must sometimes wait for colleagues in London to wake up before decisions are approved.
In the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, HSBC would have a principal regulator that already knows the bank well. Although the watchdog would have to hire some additional staff if it were to become the bank’s primary supervisor, officials privately say the organisation could rise to the challenge with relative ease.
HSBC only moved its headquarters from Hong Kong to London in 1993 to smooth the way for its takeover of Midland Bank, part of a global dealmaking spree in the 1990s and early 2000s designed to lessen the bank’s reliance on Hong Kong.
But two of those deals proved disastrous: the takeover of Household Finance left the group badly exposed to the US subprime crisis; and the lender it bought in Mexico, Grupo Financiero Bital, was a bank of choice for the country’s drug cartels, resulting in a money-laundering scandal that threatened HSBC’s very existence.
Stuart Gulliver, chief executive between 2011 and 2018, recognised the error of HSBC’s international expansion and instituted the shift back to focus on Asia’s fast-growing economies. Today, the bank’s strategy sounds remarkably similar to the one it outlined in 1884, when its chairman told shareholders: “It [is] not advisable to extend the interests of the bank, however brilliant the prospects, to places which cannot be considered as being . . . of immediate importance to the trade of China.”
The bank’s current chairman, Mark Tucker, who has been in charge for 19 months, would be an ideal candidate to spearhead the move. He led the successful demerger of AIA, the Asian insurer, from its US parent AIG, before presiding over a dramatic increase in profits.
The move would also be made simpler by UK ringfencing regulations that were signed into law earlier this year, which forced HSBC and its rivals to separate their British operations from their global businesses. HSBC UK, now headquartered in Birmingham with its own management and board, is already a de facto standalone bank that could easily be hived off as a separate entity or run as a subsidiary from Hong Kong.
When HSBC announced the most-recent review of its headquarters on the eve of the 2015 general election, it put the bank at the centre of exactly the kind of political firestorm that the conflict-averse company tries so hard to avoid. Although the threat of quitting London resulted in a reduction of the size of the bank levy HSBC must pay to the UK Treasury, the public contest also irritated officials in Hong Kong and Beijing who felt spurned when the group stuck with London.
So next time round, investors should expect no such public review. Instead, HSBC could simply announce it is returning to Hong Kong, bringing down the curtain on a period that would eventually be seen as a brief anomaly in its 154-year history.
david.crow@ft.com

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