Sunday 6 March 2011

HSBC 'may leave' UK: is this deja vu all over again?

The big banks have certainly not won too many awards for public relations. But you have to admire how they have managed to keep using the threat of exit to frame the debate about the banks and financial sector.

So the Telegraph reports that HSBC investors believe it is more likely than not that the bank will choose to move its HQ to Hong Kong, when it next reviews its domicile.

There were similar reports in the Telegraph last November.

But one could also find similar reports in the Telegraph back in September 2008 HSBC reviews London base amid tax row, that "HSBC, Britain's largest bank, is reviewing whether it should retain its headquarters in London, piling pressure on the Government amid an exodus of companies angered by the uncertainty over tax policy".

News reports threatening such an exodus are very common. Very few newspapers - except the Financial Times - have ever attempted to dig into the issue of whether the predictions prove to be true. As we noted when Barclays made noises about quitting last October, we have had two or three years of imminent exodus reports. After all of that, we appear to have a strong surplus of anecdotal fears this might happen, but more of a deficit when it comes to any hard evidence.

(This, however, can be used to show that - even if current approaches have not been as damaging as was loudly proclaimed - we might be on the very tipping point now!)

There is a widespread perception - including in government itself - that Project Merlin was largely deal by bankers, of bankers and for bankers.

Yet the banks are certainly not content to declare victory. Rather, they wish everybody to know that this has really been a rather painful defeat.

Though the banks were certainly relieved that the Osborne bank levy was a fair bit smaller than they had anticipated ("UK Levy not taxing for banks ... the UK sector can "count itself lucky" as the Wall Street Journal reported when it was first announced).

Of course, there are genuine issues about both economic competitiveness as well as the stability of the banking sector (who are complaining about increased capital requirements, perhaps demonstrating rather short memories) including in the financial sector, and about the factors which drive decisions about where businesses are located. But we could do with more forensic analysis of what they are, and a bit more scepticism about these hit and run 'threat to quit' reports with little or no analysis of follow-up.

So the Telegraph report follows the modern tradition in also quoting an HSBC spokesman as saying:

HSBC spokesman said: "London is ideally positioned as an international financial centre and we have been clear that it is our preference to remain headquartered here. However, we are routinely asked by institutional investors about the costs of being headquartered in the UK and it's clear that the City's competitive position needs protection."

So the new tax and regulatory framework has put their presence here in doubt.

They are very keen to influence the forthcoming Independent Commission on Banking, being led by John Vickers, which will look at systemic risk and moral hazard in the banking sector. Perhaps the threat of exit will help there too.

It might be that HSBC, which has strong links to Hong Kong too, may one day decide to shift its HQ there.

And yet. And yet. Don't bet against them sticking around for a little bit longer to see if London might turn out alright after all. As long as their concerns are listened to.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Let them go and if they then go bust let Hong Kong bail them out.

I'm sick and tired of hearing the threat they will go let them go and then help the other banks who decide to stay but only if they pay the share of taxation