So, marks out of 10, what would you award the UK and Hong Kong for “long-term stability”? We Brits win that one, surely, if we’re talking political stability: possible exit from the EU looks more comfortable than having the Chinese Communist party breathing down your neck.
How about “high Transparency International score”? Another easy victory, you’d think. And “tax system”? Well, given HSBC’s grumbles about the UK bank levy, we probably wouldn’t play our joker on that round.
Welcome to HSBC’s “Structured review of Location of Holding Company to maximise long-term shareholder value”. It comprises 11 criteria HSBC will use to decide whether to quit the UK. The process seems to be a little like choosing a new car. Model A goes from 0-60mph faster and the seats are terrific; but model B has more room in the boot and lots of those useful cupholders.
Is this really a suitable process for choosing where to domicile a bank? The problem with Hong Kong remains as it did in 1992, when HSBC moved to the UK with the purchase of Midland Bank: the lack of democracy under Chinese rule. Hong Kong’s post-handover experience may have softened HSBC’s worries on that score but, really, can anyone say with any confidence what the position will be 10, 20 or 30 years from now?
By moving to Hong Kong, HSBC might save £750m-a-year on the bank levy. There are established models to calculate that capital value: call it £8bn in today’s money, say analysts. But how on Earth do you put a similar financial value/deduction on moving a large international bank to a territory under the rule of a non-democratic regime? It’s impossible.
That’s the problem with HSBC’s criteria. The bank may call its review structured but it comes down to management’s appetite for political risk. That issue towers above all others.
In practice, one suspects, the process is an elaborate dance designed to persuade the chancellor, George Osborne, to go soft on the bank levy, perhaps by levying it solely on UK assets once the banks have ringfenced their UK operations by 2019. Perhaps the chancellor will give ground on that score: it would not be irrational to recognise that ringfencing, when complete, reduces the risks of future banking crises to UK taxpayers.
However, Osborne should avoid any appearance of joining HSBC’s bizarre game of Top Trumps.
This article was written by Nils Pratley, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 9th June 2015 14.08 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010