Why HSBC is threatening to move its HQ to Hong Kong

With the bank levy raised yet again in the last Budget, HSBC's getting homesick for its original base.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 18 Jun 2015

Formative years

The clue is in the name - the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation began its life in 1865 as a commercial finance house operating in, you guessed it, Hong Kong (then a British colony) and Shanghai. It was founded by careful Scot Thomas Sutherland as a prudent bank operating on 'sound Scottish principles' to finance the growing trade between China and Europe - not least in opium.

The bank's HQ moved temporarily to London during WWII in anticipation of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. After the war, it expanded in India, the Middle East and America, and in 1964 it sealed its Asian market leadership by buying rival Hang Seng bank - after which Hong Kong's market index is named. But it wasn't until the formation of the HSBC Group in the 1980s and the subsequent acquisition of the Midland Bank, that HSBC became one of the UK's 'Big Four' clearing banks and a familiar sight on the high street.

Recent history

In the early 21st century, HSBC polished its halo by becoming one of the few banks to survive the global crash of 2008 without a government bail-out. Indeed at the height of the crisis its UK branches struggled to cope with the surge of panicked punters moving accounts from stricken rivals like RBS and Lloyds.

And despite a few lapses - US consumer finance giant Household International, bought for $14bn in 2003, turned out to be worthless - HSBC has had a good decade. Dual listed in Hong Kong and London, with a market cap of around £120bn, it vies with Shell as the FTSE 100's largest company.

But even the hardest-won reputation is easily damaged. Scandals including a £216m charge from the FCA over forex rigging led to the announcement earlier this year of a $3.7bn provision for fines and customer redress. Full-year profits for 2014 were down from $22.6bn to a mere $18.7bn as a result.

Who's the boss?

The current CEO of HSBC Holdings, Stuart Gulliver, took over the hot seat in January 2011. A relative rarity - an investment banker running a UK bank - Gulliver has ordered a review of the firm's UK domicile with a view to moving the HQ back to Hong Kong. Last year Gulliver took home a cool £7.6m in pay and bonuses.

Don't mention

Tax avoidance. Perhaps the biggest hit to HSBC's good name came from one of its smallest subsidiaries earlier this year, when the bank became mired in allegations that its Swiss private banking arm had been dishing out suitcasefuls of cash to help wealthy clients avoid taxes. Even Gulliver had been using a Swiss account to pay his bonuses into, although he voluntarily declared all such payments to HMRC.


HQ: London (for now)
Revenues: $61.2bn
Pre-tax profits: $18.7bn
Employees: 266,273

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