HSBC Threatens To Quit The UK

Published in Company Comment on 3 September 2010

HSBC could head east to avoid being broken up, and RBS cuts another 3,500 jobs.

Global mega-bank HSBC (LSE: HSBA) has given a clear warning that it could move its London headquarters to the Far East if forthcoming banking regulations were too restrictive.

Go East, big banks

At Thursday's session of the annual Nomura Financial Services Conference, HSBC's chairman of Europe, Middle East and Global Businesses, Stuart Gulliver, warned that the UK's biggest bank by market cap could relocate its headquarters overseas.

In particular, Gulliver warned that any plans by the government's Independent Commission on Banking to break up universal banks could see HSBC and other rivals relocate their headquarters to more lightly regulated regimes. The Commission, chaired by ex-head of the OFT Sir John Vickers, is expected to produce its report by next September.

Were the Commission on Banking to order risky investment banking to be split from high-street banking, this would mean the end of universal banking in the UK. The most likely new home for the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation would be -- surprise, surprise -- Hong Kong, the home of its CEO Michael Geoghegan since February.

Who would follow suit?

Of course, were Europe's biggest bank to head abroad, then other major banks could follow suit. 

Like HSBC, Standard Chartered (LSE: STAN) makes most of its money in emerging markets, so its UK-registered status could be considered a flag of convenience. Hence, it would be the most likely candidate to jump ship, possibly followed by Barclays (LSE: BARC) in order to hang onto its Barclays Capital investment bank.

However, given the large taxpayer shareholdings in Lloyds Banking Group (LSE: LLOY) and Royal Bank of Scotland (LSE: RBS), it is unthinkable that these high-street giants could or would move offshore.

Of course, relocating to a lightly regulated environment would probably bring lower tax and wage bills, too. Hence, moving abroad could sharply increase shareholder value for owners of emigrating banks -- although there would be large job losses were they to close their UK headquarters.

RBS to cut 3,500 more jobs

Speaking of job losses, Royal Bank of Scotland (84%-owned by taxpayers) is to cut a further 3,500 jobs from its 160,000-strong workforce, the bank has revealed.

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As part of this cost-cutting exercise, ten of RBS's 20 processing centres will be closed over the next two years, leading to job losses in Bolton, Bradford, Bristol, Harrogate, Leeds, Liverpool, Milton Keynes, Norwich, Plymouth and Telford. In addition, there will be further job losses in Borehamwood and Enfield. So, these RBS cutbacks will affect almost every region of England between now and 2012.

Since Stephen Hester took over as CEO of RBS in November 2008, his turnaround plan for the bailed-out bank has lead to 23,500 jobs being lost. The latest announcement will mean that 27,000 RBS employees will have departed the bank under Hester's watch.

One reason for the latest cutback is the sale of 318 RBS branches to Santander in August for £1.65 billion. While branch staff will be leaving RBS for its Spanish rival, back-office workers are not needed and therefore face the axe. This is all part of RBS's plans to shrink its balance sheet in return for European Union approval for state aid.

Again, while these job losses and asset sales are likely to boost returns to RBS shareholders in the long run, it is the workforce which will take the short-term pain.

Standard Life to axe 500 more

In another sign that the economic recovery has not improved job stability, leading Scottish life assurer Standard Life (LSE: SL) has announced plans to trim its 10,000-strong workforce by 500.

Standard Life's new-broom CEO (appointed in January) cost-cutting initiative involves losing 500 jobs at its head office, international and UK divisions. However, 100 jobs will be created over the next 15 months, helping to offset some of these redundancies.

So, three years after the credit crunch froze financial markets and panicked investors, the world of financial services is still in a state of upheaval. Were the economy to weaken further, then we could expect many more announcements in a similar vein, so watch this space...

More from Cliff D'Arcy:

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Chrysostom 04 Sep 2010 , 8:58pm

Plus ca change?

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation doggedly pursued the UK's Midland Bank so they could evade the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to mainland China and move their HQ from Hong Kong to the UK.

Where do they want to go now? (a lip-curled question)

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