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Hong Kong banking giants defy dire predictions

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THERE MAY BE protests, wafts of tear gas and the occasional burning Starbucks along the street, but inside Hong Kong’s biggest financial firms the outlook for business is surprisingly status quo.

That was the takeaway this week as two banking giants in Hong Kong — HSBC Holdings Plc and Standard Chartered Plc — posted quarterly results that showed business there held up despite civil unrest. Now, one of the top experts on the financial hub is weighing in with his evaluation: Don’t expect the city to lose any stature among global markets.

“It would take a huge structural change,” for Hong Kong to cede its position as a financial center, K.C. Chan, the city’s former secretary for financial services and the treasury, said in an interview. “That’s not what I see today. The reason Hong Kong’s financial markets are doing so well is because they have been serving China’s economy. Has this changed? No.”

Demonstrations led by pro-democracy activists have indeed disrupted local commerce and discouraged tourism, tipping the city toward a technical recession. Then there are more dire predictions: The unrest could prompt investors to move their wealth to rival hubs such as Singapore or lead major financial firms to rethink their presence in town.

But the votes of confidence by Chan and executives atop major banks in recent days underscored Hong Kong’s unique position as China’s gateway to international markets.

The city’s regulatory framework and laws, the argument goes, make it the indispensable venue for companies in the world’s second-largest economy to tap capital from abroad.

That, in turn, has generated wealth in the city, drawing legions of private bankers and money managers to tend it.

“If you have your liquidity here in Hong Kong, you won’t just move your money to Singapore in a flick,” Chan said.

CONTINGENCY PLANS
Few global companies have tied their fortunes as much to Hong Kong as London-based HSBC. When the firm posted third-quarter results Monday, it described operations in Asia as resilient. Adjusted pretax profit from Hong Kong, the bank noted, climbed 1% in the quarter to $3 billion.

Still, HSBC took a $90 million credit charge because of the dimming outlook for the local economy, where small- and medium-sized businesses in particular are suffering. And on Thursday it lowered its best lending rate in the city for the first time in more than a decade, a move that the lender said should help the local economy and companies.

Some ultra-wealthy clients are drawing contingency plans for parking cash elsewhere, the company said, but very little has actually moved. Across the city, there hasn’t been significant capital outflow, Hong Kong Monetary Authority Chief Executive Eddie Yue added at a briefing on Thursday.

Standard Chartered said it earned more in Hong Kong, too.

“Business is actually continuing to perform pretty well,” Chief Financial Officer Andy Halford told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday, referring to the city. “Maybe not growing quite as much as it’d have done previously, but absolutely still growing.”

Some clients, he acknowledged, have explored whether to set up additional accounts elsewhere. For now, the number of people doing it isn’t large, he said. And even if they shift money, the bank can just serve them from other locations.

To be sure, the situation is much starker for local banks, especially those catering to the residents and small businesses. Declines in home prices, office rents and the retail sector threaten to increase credit costs. Potential capital outflow and the monetary authority’s intervention could squeeze net interest margins.

A stress test performed by analysts at JPMorgan Chase & Co. estimated lenders such as Hang Seng Bank Co. and Bank of East Asia Ltd. could see earnings slump 24% to 45% next year and 39% to 67% in 2021.

Others suggest things will snap back to normal.

“If you look back in history there have ebbs and flows in Hong Kong and it has a proven track record of resiliently coming through difficult situations,” Standard Chartered’s Halford said. “It is a very vibrant economy. It has got a huge reputation. Our hope and our belief is that over a period of time it will plow through this.” — Bloomberg





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