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Safra's murder casts shadow over HSBC deal

Rupert Wright reports on the mysterious death of the century's most secretive banker
The sudden and brutal death of 67-year-old financier Edmond Safra on Friday morning - burnt to death in his flat in Monaco - signals the end of one of the century's most successful financial stories. It also calls into question the recent acquisition by HSBC of Safra's two main banks, Republic National Bank of New York and Safra Republic.

In November Safra shocked the financial community by agreeing a personal reduction of $450m (pounds 281.2m) from his share in the sale. Even so, he was set to pick up nearly $3bn from the deal.

The sale had been put in doubt by potential liabilities stemming from an investigation by the Japanese Financial Services authorities into the operations of a subsidiary of one of Safra's banks. As well as agreeing a personal price reduction of $450m, Safra agreed to guarantee the first $180m of any losses to keep the deal alive.

HSBC is expected to press ahead with the purchase, due to be completed by the end of this month, even with the loss of the banks' charismatic leader. "HSBC will uphold the banking tradition and integrity which were the hallmark of Edmond's life," said Sir John Bond, the group chairman of HSBC. However, he would not comment further on the deal. "We extend our sympathies to Mrs Safra."

Edmond Safra was introduced to banking at an early age. His father used to take him on his daily tour of the bazaar in Aleppo, Syria, where he was a money lender. Edmond's job - aged just five - was to slip into the stockrooms of his father's clients. While pretending to be playing, he had to check whether the stock had dust on it, or whether it was selling as quickly as the trader was assuring his father in the next room. When they left, his father would ask him a simple question: "Should I trust that man?"

Safra's own banking career began in Brazil in the 1950s, built mainly on the basis of trust. He persuaded rich immigrants to the country, largely Jewish, that he would look after their money. His mantra was that while he would not make them a lot of money, he would not lose it. He invested 95 per cent of these assets in AAA-rated bonds, speculating with the last 5 per cent. This approach made him enormously rich.

He expanded into the US, setting up the Trade Development Bank, which he later sold to American Express. Although the subject of a bitter wrangle with Amex, he went on to set up Republic National Bank of New York and Safra Bank.

"He was the ultimate in secret banking," says an insider. "In some ways he was a prehistoric creature. He would sit in his house in the South of France, the former home of King Leopold of Belgium, at a desk that used to belong to Napoleon, asking disarmingly simple questions such as 'Is Yeltsin a good man?' "

Safra's seemingly Forrest Gump-like approach was highly successful. It was also visionary. He spurned commercial lending, focusing on asset management many years before his competitors raced to copy him.

He ran the banks with a minimal management structure, working with a small cabal of advisers. He spent most of the day on the telephone, to the extent that there was even a telephone in his shower.

Safra's personal tragedy was that he failed to produce the heir that he so desired. When his brothers, Joseph and Moise, were either unwilling or unsuitable to take over his American holdings, he cut a deal with HSBC. Safra had suffered from Parkinson's disease for a number of years, and wanted to sort out his affairs before the disease affected him too much.

The motives behind his murder are unlikely ever to be fully revealed. Financiers expressed surprise that such an outrage should happen in Monaco - one of the most highly policed states in the world. "It could have been just a couple of hoods," says one international banker. "But it is more likely to be an inside job, from someone unhappy with the resolution of the sale of Safra's share in his banks."

There is a certain irony in the fact that the century's most secretive banker will probably take the motives for his death with him to the grave.