HSBC keeps headquarters in London, rejects move to Hong Kong

Mon Feb 15, 2016 7:37am EST
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By Rachel Armstrong and Lisa Jucca

LONDON/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Banking group HSBC Holdings (HSBA.L: Quote) has decided to keep its headquarters in Britain, rejecting the option of shifting its center of gravity back to main profit-generating hub Hong Kong after a 10-month review.

The decision by HSBC's board, which Europe's biggest bank said was unanimous, gives a boost to London's status as a global financial center, under threat since the financial crisis of 2007-09 from tougher regulation and rising costs.

Yet Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver immediately warned that the bank could not stick with the status quo were Britain to vote in favor of leaving the European Union in a promised referendum, saying it would consider moving around 1,000 employees from London to Paris.

Some investors had encouraged HSBC to consider moving its HQ from Britain, partly because of a tax on banks' global balance sheets brought in after the financial crisis which had cost it $1.1 billion in 2014.

But following extensive lobbying by the banking industry, British finance minister George Osborne said in July he would halve the levy and, crucially for HSBC, no longer apply it to the overseas assets of British banks, part of efforts to help to keep Britain an attractive place for banks.

The bank denied using the threat of moving to force the British government to rein in the tax.

"We had no negotiation with the government," HSBC Chairman Douglas Flint told BBC radio on Monday. "The government was very well aware of our view ... but there certainly was no pressure put on, or no negotiation".

The waiver on applying the levy to HSBC's overseas assets will only come fully into effect in 2021 at the earliest, leaving the bank exposed to shifting political winds in Britain in the interim, said Investec analyst Ian Gordon in a research note, who nonetheless kept a "buy" rating on its shares.   Continued...

A Swiss International aircraft flies past the HSBC headquarters building in the Canary Wharf financial district in east London in this February 15, 2015 photo. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/Files