HSBC 'must be sorely tempted' to make Hong Kong its HQ

HSBC's next review on its domicile will be the most important in a generation

The head of UK fund management group Schroders has stoked fears HSBC could shift its headquarters from London to Hong Kong to escape wide-ranging banking reforms unveiled on Monday.

Speaking at a conference in London on Tuesday to promote trade with the former British colony, Schroders chairman Michael Miles said: "After the banking report ... they must be sorely tempted...they must be thinking about where their real home is."

HSBC, which generates more than half its profit in Asia, and whose chief executive Stuart Gulliver works out of Hong Kong, is to review the question of its domicile in the coming months.

The exact timing will depend on when the government publishes the bill containing details of reforms outlined by the Independent Commission on Banking (ICB) and which have been designed to reduce the possibility of another financial crash.

HSBC insiders said the bank - founded in Hong Kong in 1865 - has carried out reviews about its domicile every three years since 1992 and should not be taken out of context.

But analysts say the reforms, set out by ICB chairman Sir John Vickers, will make HSBC's next review the most important in a generation. The proposals, which force banks to separate their high street businesses from investment banking, will cost banks an estimated £4bn-£7bn, but will not be introduced until 2019.

Ian Gordon, banking analyst at Evolution Securities said: "HSBC faces higher tax and capital requirements as a result of its decision to base itself in London." Another analyst pointed out "even before you take account of Vickers, HSBC could save $600m a year by escaping the industry-wide banking levy, introduced earlier this year."

The City is divided over what HSBC will do, with one observer emphasising the value of Britain's stability. "Don't underestimate the benefits of being based in a stable democracy which can't be easily replicated elsewhere," he said.

A report from UBS on Tuesday said reforms would mean that Barclays was "incentivised to break itself up; RBS to shrink materially further; and HSBC to leave".

However, a spokesman for HSBC, when asked to comment about its future intentions, said: "We're studying the report and how best to implement it."

If HSBC relocated to Asia, it could deprive the UK exchequer of millions in lost taxes and lead to hundreds of job losses in London. Donald Tsang, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Government, told Bloomberg the territory would "absolutely" welcome HSBC if it decided to move headquarters.

But Tsang, who attended Tuesday's London conference, said it was a decision for the banks, and he did not "want to encourage a move that would impair relations" with China's trading partners.

The London conference, organised by Hong Kong's trade development council, was designed to encourage British businesses to set up there and then expand into mainland China.

Tsang said: "No doubt, these are testing times for businesses around the world. But when you think of Asia many people think of strong economies, vibrant emerging markets and increasingly affluent consumers.

"Hong Kong is the perfect entry point to the huge Asian market - as hundreds of British companies already know."

The conference was addressed by Lord Green, a former chairman of HSBC, who is now minister of state for trade and investment. He urged UK companies to think internationally and look at opportunities abroad, or via export.

Green said: "We need to find new sources of growth in the wake of the financial crisis, via a global orientation, not fuelled by debt or government spending."

• This article was amended on 12 September 2011. The original referred to Donald Tsang as a leading Communist official in Hong Kong. This has been corrected.


Richard Wachman

The GuardianTramp

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