HSBC in throes of buying dead man's bank

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EDMOND SAFRA built up Republic New York Corporation (RNYC) from one small New York branch in 1966 to an international business with 30,000 clients which this year became prey for HSBC Holdings, Britain's largest bank.

Mr Safra's talent for meeting the needs of his wealthy customers saw the bank expand to 44 offices worldwide, giving it a value of $50.4bn (pounds 31.9bn).

After he sold his Trade Development Bank to American Express in 1983, he complained it treated customers like "ordinary Joes" by bombarding them with tacky marketing.

He left American Express five years later to set up Safra Republic Holdings in competition. A public slanging match,involving allegations of drug trafficking, was concluded with an apology from American Express and an $8m donation to charities of Mr Safra's choice.

RNYC and Safra Republic Holdings, its subsidiary, are now central to HSBC Holdings' strategy to double in value in the next five years. HSBC's proposed acquisition of RNYC will strengthen HSBC's private banking exposure in regions where it is unrepresented. It will give HSBC an 30,000 more clients, making it the world number two in private banking.

Mr Safra's death comes just weeks after HSBC renegotiated the $10bn deal (pounds 6.3bn) when liabilities relating to possible fraud emerged. Shares in HSBC Holdings fell 18.5p to 802p, but recovered to close up 28.5p at 849p as the group said the acquisition was intact.

The question mark over the deal is the status of Mr Safra's guarantees to bear a share of losses from a fraud case involving a client of one of Republic's subsidiaries. The client was accused of a $1bn fraud in Japan involving funds held in the bank. Some analysts said Mr Safra's guarantees were to be paid by another of his companies, which may not have received sufficient funds before his death to cover the liabilities. But others said Mr Safra's guarantees were legally binding on whoever inherited his stake in Republic.

He had also accepted a $450m cut in the sale price of his stake, to $2.75bn, after the liability emerged in September. That cut the total purchase price from $10.3bn to $9.85bn.