HSBC executives rue missed chance in HQ choice

Thu Feb 18, 2016 3:54am EST
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By Lawrence White and Simon Jessop

LONDON (Reuters) - British Finance Minister George Osborne's relief at HSBC's choice of London over Hong Kong as its headquarters is not shared by several top executives who rue a missed opportunity for its China-centered growth strategy.

With its historical roots in China -- HSBC was founded in Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1865 -- Europe's biggest lender has stepped up efforts in recent months to become chief cheerleader for Beijing's 'one belt, one road' infrastructure plan.

"A move to Hong Kong would have sent very positive signals to the region in the longer term," one senior Hong Kong-based executive told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue within the bank.

HSBC had a taste of what China's outbound investment drive can offer earlier this month as sole international adviser to state-owned China National Chemical Corp on its $43 billion bid for seeds and fertilizer giant Syngenta, the biggest ever overseas takeover offer by a Chinese company.

China's plan for a new silk road and economic belt, which Beijing envisages spreading from Western China to Central Asia and onwards to Europe, has echoes of The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation's original 19th century vision, when Thomas Sutherland founded the bank to meet the demands of China's growing business communities and their need for more reliable and sophisticated banking.

Fast forward 150 years and some members of HSBC's management feel a move back to its original hometown of Hong Kong would have helped the bank win more advisory business, along with the financing for some of the huge infrastructure projects expected on China's new silk road.

HSBC's history tells how Sutherland weathered a financial storm in Hong Kong in 1866 by maintaining the bank's payment period for bills of exchange when others were cutting theirs, a move which kept him in business as other banks collapsed.

After Sunday's historic board meeting in London, HSBC said that Asia remained at the heart of the group's strategy, a line a spokeswoman for HSBC reiterated when asked about any divisions within the bank's senior echelons.   Continued...

The HSBC headquarters is seen in the Canary Wharf financial district in east London, Britain February 15, 2016. REUTERS/Hannah McKay