Tell us, Mr Gulliver: is Hudson Bay really the next Pearl River Delta?

Outlook: It strains credibility to see HSBC establishing its headquarters in New York, Toronto, or anywhere else on the North American continent

HSBC in Singapore
HSBC in Singapore

“O Canada! Our home and native land! True patriot love in all thy sons command.”

Is that what they’ll be singing, at the annual Christmas luncheon of the bank’s board, before they raise their glasses of first-growth claret to toast the location of HSBC’s headquarters?

Apparently so, if the latest reports concerning the HSBC’s review of its headquarters are to be believed.

It wasn’t so long ago that the US was the hot tip, which provided some brief amusement, given the trouble the bank has had with Uncle Sam’s regulators.

Will Toronto’s financial mounties be any kinder? Is it really worth posing the question?

Let’s face it: it strains credibility to see HSBC establishing its headquarters in New York, Toronto, or anywhere else on the North American continent, for that matter.

HSBC’s centre of gravity is increasingly located in Asia. Its chief executive, Stuart “Pearl River Delta” Gulliver, makes that clear every time he opens his mouth. If the bank does decide on a move away from London, its direction of travel will be eastwards.

The latest reports have nothing to do with HSBC’s thinking. They’re simply about Toronto securing some publicity for its financial centre during the Christmas silly season. It is against that backdrop that Mayor John Tory told the Toronto Star that the city’s leaders “just felt that when we saw news of them taking a look at moving their head office that we should be a part of that”.

But no doubt HSBC listened politely to what they had to say.

The real issue here, and the reason I’ve highlighted the story, is not so much Mr Tory’s entry into the beauty parade, but the fact that there is one in the first place.

Mr Tory has joined the mayors of Hong Kong, Singapore and London as a supplicant. Each will have applied a heavy coating of makeup to their city’s relative merits, and especially their tax and regulatory regimes, to make them look as attractive as possible. HSBC will pick the one it thinks is prettiest.

The lucky city will doubtless strut its stuff on the global stage, hailing its glorious victory. But the only thing it will have won is a global game of beggar thy neighbour. HSBC, meanwhile, has been playing and winning a similarly global game of tax and regulatory arbitrage. It’s a sport beloved of transnational corporations that in the long run makes losers of us all.

Change is coming at the FRC. Sometime. Maybe

With the Treasury Select Committee chairman Andrew Tyrie breathing down its neck over its refusal to take any action over KPMG’s audit work for HBOS, it is understandable that the Financial Reporting Council might want to be seen to be doing something.

Mr Tyrie will no doubt be delighted, then, to see that it has published plans to reform its, erm, investment “stewardship code” on the same day he told it to hurry up and look again at its incomprehensible decision to sit on its hands.

What on earth is this “stewardship code”, and why should I care, is what you’re probably asking at this point.

Well, it’s not such a bad idea in theory: many fund managers take their inflated fees without doing fairly elementary things such as voting at annual meetings of the companies in which they invest on our behalf, let alone doing anything resembling active engagement. The code was set up with the stated aim of changing that. It’s just debatable whether it has.

Fear not, though. The FRC is on the case! From July 2016 (it’s not just Mr Tyrie who finds the FRC’s glacial pace infuriating) code signatories will be divided into two groups. Those who fail to meet reporting obligations, manage conflicts of interest and devote resources to “stewardship” will find themselves on the investment naughty step. We might even be told who they are, at some point.

The trouble is, as ever with the FRC, that there are so many get-outs to what is at best a box ticking affair that it’s hardly worth it. In the meantime, the City remains awash with scandal that has, at its core, shoddy corporate governance together with the unwillingness among institutional investors to take meaningful steps towards doing something about it (see Sports Direct for the most recent example). The code hasn’t done much to change that, and nor will these latest revisions.

Shell should pay the money and run, Standard Life says

One fund manager that does do things like voting and making sure its customers know what action it is taking their behalf is Standard Life Investments.

The latest example of the latter is its public expression of misgivings about Shell’s merger with fellow energy giant BG, which has just received regulatory approval from the Chinese and now looks set to create Britain’s biggest company.

The problem is that the deal was struck with the oil price very much higher than the $40 or so it’s bouncing around today. Standard’s David Cumming doesn’t think the numbers add up any more.

Mr Cumming points out that the break fee is low and says Shell would serve its investors by paying it and moving on. The problem is that the deal has taken thousands of man hours to get it to this stage. Big egos, reputations and bonuses are at stake, and they have momentum in their favour.

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