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HSBC tries delicate balancing act to keep both London and Beijing happy

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The HSBC logo with UK and China's flags (illustration)
The HSBC logo with UK and China's flags (illustration)

When the London-based finance chief of HSBC's commercial bank retires, her replacement won't be taking the seat in its Canary Wharf headquarters.

Instead the role will move to Hong Kong, where HSBC was founded in 1865 as the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. This is where the bank sees its future.

With commercial banking boss Barry O'Byrne among four top executives picked to move from London to the Asian city, it was only a matter of time before senior members of his team would follow suit. As the bank places all of its bets on growth in Asia, the axis of power is shifting.

"Naturally there will be more senior people [in Hong Kong] over time," says Ewen Stevenson, HSBC's finance chief, who remains in London. "If I look at my finance team, we're building more finance capability in Hong Kong at the moment. Over time you’ll see all of us try and increase staff in Hong Kong."

Its pivot makes financial sense. The lender makes most of its money in mainland China and Hong Kong and has every intention of seeing those numbers get bigger.

China's overall wealth market is expected to boom in the coming years and its economic hit from the pandemic is largely in the past - earlier this year the country chalked up its strongest annual growth since quarterly records began in 1992. HSBC chairman Mark Tucker said the opportunities are "too big to ignore".

On Monday the bank posted a 74pc rise in pre-tax profit to $5.4bn for the three months to September, with Asia accounting for more than half.

It told investors that business was boosted by wealthy clients in Asia and continued volatility in the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges, while insisting it expects no material fallout from the saga surrounding debt-riddled Evergrande – the property giant whose potential collapse has rocked China's property sector.

But questions remain over whether HSBC, dual-listed in London and Hong Kong, can navigate the politics.

The lender has been attacked in its home market for backing an unprecedented crackdown in Hong Kong which outlaws anything Beijing deems to be subversive.

Earlier this year chief executive Noel Quinn was hauled in front of MPs questioning why HSBC had frozen accounts of democracy activists such as Ted Hui.

Quinn argued it has to comply with police requests anywhere in the world. The argument is still ongoing.

In the most recent escalation, China criticised the foreign secretary Liz Truss after she spoke out in defence of political freedoms and warned against the UK becoming reliant on the world’s second largest superpower.

Rising tensions between the two sides has fuelled speculation HSBC might want to relocate headquarters to focus on wealth management in the Far East in peace.

But, following a review in 2016, bosses decided against shifting global headquarters to Hong Kong. Stevenson says he would be shocked if that happened in the next decade: “I don’t view it as a question.”

He also insists London won't be hollowed out of senior management – both him and Quinn are staying put.

For HSBC the argument for a shift is simple: it is chasing the money.

According to Goldman, more than $35 trillion in Chinese household savings will be allocated to products such as securities, mutual funds and wealth management products by 2030.

The investment bank recently won approval to take 100pc ownership of its securities joint venture in China, joining an industry-wide push to gain a bigger foothold in the country.

"You’d expect me to say this, but we’re massive bulls on Asia," says Stevenson.

But one former senior HSBC executive argues it is "difficult to succeed if all eggs are in the China basket whilst regulated and governed in the UK. Tucker hasn't convinced the market on this [given the share price has dropped in recent years]."

Some, meanwhile, are hoping the UK will remain attractive as a business location, not only a base.

"The hope is that rising UK interest rates will make the UK a more meaningful contributor to group profits, but this is from a low base," says Ian Gordon, a bank analyst at Investec.

For Stevenson, the biggest worry is new Covid variants – a problem that could apply anywhere in the world.

He bats off questions about Hong Kong's strict travel restrictions, which forces visitors from 25 countries including the UK and US to remain in a hotel room for three weeks.

"Plenty of people are happy to move to Hong Kong. If we go down [to Hong Kong] we just go for an extended period of time. For us the most important border to reopen is the mainland China border,” he says, arguing he too can’t visit his home country of New Zealand. “The Hong Kong government is doing what it feels is right for its people."

It puts HSBC at odds with the Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, a major financial lobby group, which warned the former British colony's zero-case approach to Covid could hit its status as a finance hub.

"We have no problem convincing people to have an interview with us," Stevenson says.

HSBC backs Hong Kong’s strict Covid rules

HSBC has backed a strict Covid elimination regime imposed by the Communist government in Hong Kong, despite warnings from other financial firms that it risks damaging the territory's international status.

Ewen Stevenson, the bank's chief financial officer, broke with fellow Western businesses to stress his support for a rule which forces visitors from 25 countries including the UK and US to remain in a hotel room for three weeks.

Speaking as HSBC unveiled a jump in pre-tax profit to more than $5bn (£3.6bn) for the third quarter of 2021, Mr Stevenson said: "Plenty of people are happy to move to Hong Kong.

"If we go down [to Hong Kong] we just go for an extended period of time. For us the most important border to reopen is the mainland China border.

"I come from New Zealand, if you're not a New Zealander you can't get near New Zealand. The Hong Kong government is doing what it feels is right for its people."

It puts HBSC at odds with the Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, a major financial lobby group whose members include Goldman Sachs and Blackrock, which warned the Hong Kong government that its zero-case approach to Covid could hit the former British colony's status as a finance hub.

The association claimed that 48pc of members are considering "moving staff or functions away from Hong Kong" due to uncertainty over when the rules will be eased.

It said: "We fear that if Hong Kong does not develop and communicate a clear and meaningful exit strategy from the current zero-case approach, as is the case in many other jurisdictions, Hong Kong risks losing its vital international status."

HSBC posted a rise in pre-tax profit to $5.4bn for the three months to September, up 74pc on a year earlier, as a result of improving economic conditions which allowed it to release $700m of cash put aside to cover toxic covid debts.

The strong results led it to announce a stock buyback of up to $2bn. Shares rose 1.1pc.

Noel Quinn, chief executive, said: "While we retain a cautious outlook on the external risk environment, we believe that the lows of recent quarters are behind us."