Danny Alexander says HSBC worries about UK leaving EU show dangers of Conservatives and UKIP

HSBC has said today that it might consider pulling out of the UK and cited uncertainty over Britain’s position in the EU as part of its reasoning. From the Guardian:

HSBC, Britain’s biggest bank, has issued a stark warning about the economic risks of the UK pulling out of the European Union as it revealed it was considering moving its headquarters out of London.

The surprise announcement of a full-blown review into where the bank should base its operations will stun politicians on the general election campaign trail.

HSBC listed the economic uncertainty created by the risk of the UK going alone – a blow to the Conservatives which have pledged to hold an “in-out” referendum on the EU.

It would be a massive deal if HSBC were to leave as 48,000 jobs would go.

Danny Alexander said that this highlighted the dangers of a Conservative/UKIP government:

Today’s HSBC announcement confirms fears that businesses have over a swing to the right and the prospect of a ‘Blukip’ coalition pulling us out Europe.

David Cameron, held hostage by UKIP partners and the right wing of his party, would drive the country further towards a ‘Brexit’ – which would hit both jobs and business.

As I revealed today, the markets and businesses are increasingly showing their concern at the prospect of an unstable government.

Only stable government with the Liberal Democrats in the mix will stop Britain from being pulled sharply to the right with Nigel Farage, or to the left with Alex Salmond.

On the BBC News Channel, he appealed to the public to vote Liberal Democrat to ensure stable, responsible government.

He had earlier revealed a “dossier” of evidence that Conservatives and Labour governing alone would threaten jobs for different reasons:

Apparently, markets fear a Labour Government would:

  • Cost the economy more than £10bn-a-year as growth decrease by 0.6 of a percentage point (pp).
  • Cost the average household at least an extra £800-a-year in mortgage payments as interest rates jump 0.7pp.
  • A 1pp in gilt rates would increase the cost of government debt interest by over £4bn.

While a Conservative Government risking ‘Brexit’ would:

  • Reduce economic growth and threaten the UK credit rating.
  • Threaten UK, trade jobs and business investment.
  • Negatively affect markets and increase the cost of Government borrowing.

In a speech in Aberdeen, he said:

We will ensure our country doesn’t lurch to left or right, but sticks to the centre ground. We have shown that we can deliver strong and stable government, and not allow or country to be pulled to the extremes or be paralysed with indecision.

There needs to be a plan to rebalance our economy. There needs to be a plan to further reinvigorate our infrastructure. There needs to be a plan to boost the life chances of every child in the UK, not just those who are born into privilege. And yes, there needs to be a plan to balance the books, in a responsible way, in a fair way, in a way that allows us to invest in our public services and reduce the debt burden. That is our plan.

Five years ago, my Labour predecessor left a note on my desk which said ‘sorry, there’s no money left.’ I finally got round to replying today. It says: ‘Sorry for the late reply-I’ve been busy fixing the economy. ‘The deficit halved, jobs up, growth up. That’s the Lib Dem record. We won’t let you-or the Tories screw it up.’

And that is why is why the country needs as many Liberal Democrat MPs in Parliament as possible come May 8th.  We have a track record of strong government. We have a track record of stable government. We have a track record of delivery. A vote in this election for the SNP or for UKIP is a vote for instability. Neither Desperate Dave nor Muddled Miliband can win a majority.

That is why you need Lib Dems as a part of the next government. The heart in a Conservative coalition. The head in a Labour coalition.

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  • jedibeeftrix 24th Apr '15 - 1:22pm

    Flint also said:

    “We are beginning to see the final shape of regulation, the final shape of structural reform and as soon as that mist lifts sufficiently, we will once again start to look at where the best place for HSBC is,”

  • jedibeeftrix 24th Apr '15 - 1:38pm

    I’ve just been listening to a HSBC spokesman discussing the review on R4.

    In five minutes discussing the regulatory and tax regime for banks in the UK he didn’t mention the EU at all…

  • Ah so Libdem voice is quoting that most reliable source of Europhiliac ppropaganda, The Guardian. There is a problem. If it were just about withdrawal from the EU why is it that HSBC are not talking about moving to Paris or Bonne or Luxembourg? Why is it they are talking about returning to Hong Kong eventhough it is now under Chinese rule. The reason why is that the EU like much of the left wing establishment in this country is persecuting the banks with reckless abandonment and as such is making the thought of Chinese rule much more acceptable than European rule.

    When will the left understand that the politics of envy is malicious and malevolent and only alienates business and people alike. To think HSBC would rather work under a semi-totalitarian human rights abusing Chinese Government than a left of centre British one. Who’d have ever thunk it?

  • Simon McGrath 24th Apr '15 - 2:05pm

    Lets hope they don’t leave but it is tax which is the real driver for their review of where HSBC should be based:

  • Kent.
    The banks are not being persecuted by anyone. They simply think the public purse should prop them up when they fail or are involved in dubious practices and then pay back nothing in return. Next time, and there will be a next time, probably sooner rather than later, let them collapse and let them loose their shirts like they did in the old days before week willed politicians like Gordon Brown convinced themselves they were too big to fail.

  • What a load of waffle from Danny Alexander again

    “Today’s HSBC announcement confirms fears that businesses have over a swing to the right and the prospect of a ‘Blukip’ coalition pulling us out Europe.”

    So is this going to be a red line in the coalition negotiations for the Liberal Democrats That there will be NO Referendum on the EU in 2017?

    You keep spouting on how Labour should tell the electorate whether they will do a deal with the SNP or not.

    Now you are claiming that people should vote Liberal Democrats to avoid a Brexit…

    So come on be straight with us, Will the Liberal Democrats go into coalition with the Tories if there is going to be a referendum in 2017?

  • Alex Sabine 24th Apr '15 - 3:03pm

    It’s clear to me that large businesses with multinational operations do, by and large, want the UK to stay in the EU. Access to the single market is particularly important to these companies and they do not want to put the terms of that access at risk.

    More generally it reflects the tendency of large businesses to support the status quo, to dislike uncertainty and instability – particularly political uncertainty and instability – and, whatever their reservations about the EU, to ‘hold on to nurse for fear of something worse’.

    They also have a tendency towards ‘groupthink’, in that if there is a project that other European countries are undertaking then we should join in in case we lose our ‘seat at the table’. Thus the CBI and the business establishment were enthusiastic supporters of our membership of the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM) and the single currency. They got their way on the former, with mixed results (helping to finally tame the British disease of inflation but at the expense of deepening and prolonging a recession) and a humiliating denouement on ‘Black Wednesday’. The sterling depreciation and large interest rate reductions which our departure from the ERM enabled were the engines of the post-1992 economic recovery. The CBI and co lost the argument on the euro, for which most sensible people and nearly all economists now count our blessings.

    So the fact that large businesses and banks support something doesn’t in and of itself make it the right policy. Small businesses are much more qualified in their support for the EU and find many of its activities unhelpful, notably in the field of regulation where they are disproportionately affected since they do not have HR departments and compliance departments to deal with the steady stream of directives. Particular sectors such as fishermen and small farmers are often hostile to it, while larger grain and arable farmers benefit directly from the Common Agricultural Policy (at the expense of consumers, taxpayers and the environment) and therefore have a strong financial interest in our membership.

    The wider British public seems split down the middle, but with some recent polls showing a narrow majority for staying in. Most of those who want to stay in are not exactly enthusiastic and want to see the EU substantially reformed (although one of the areas where they are most keen to see reform – free movement – looks unlikely to be significantly changed).

  • Alex Sabine 24th Apr '15 - 3:04pm

    Certainly we should take account of the views of large businesses that employ a lot of people in the UK. They have every right to contribute to the debate, and they highlight the fact that our membership of the EU has benefits as well as costs. But they should not be the arbiters of public policy.

    I also note that when large multinationals threaten to relocate for other reasons – say the tax or regulatory climate, both of which are in fact highly relevant in this HSBC case – the Guardian and left-wing commentators typically dismiss this as empty bluster, or alternatively advise that we say ‘good riddance’. Yet when the reason cited is uncertainty over EU membership, suddenly the risk is wholly credible and we are supposed to sit up and take notice. The lopsidedness and partiality is very telling.

    In fact there are a number of reasons HSBC are considering moving their headquarters. As Simon says, one of the main ones is the bank levy, which last year wiped out £750 million of the UK bank’s profits, which George Osborne has ratcheted up in virtually every budget. The regulatory change requiring a ‘ring-fence’ between retail and investment banking activities seems to be another factor.

    On the other hand, the UK still offers real advantages – a robust legal system, well developed capital markets, suitable time zone etc – and alternative locations have their drawbacks. The BBC’s business editor Kamal Ahmed explains these issues in some detail here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-32446342

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Apr '15 - 3:10pm

    The left and right are destroying financial services and it isn’t fair. The right is against the internationalism and plenty of people on the left, as evidenced by Twitter, would rather HSBC left and have less money for public services, as long as it means they can hit HSBC. Middle class leftism at its worse.

    The people at the top of the Lib Dems, the ones who I think are the best, need to stamp their authority on the party.

  • HSBC.
    have been it by scandals involving laundering for drug cartels. tax evasion. insider trading. deals with Iran and a host of other legal infringements still under investigation here and in the US. They are victims of nothing except being asked to pay back some of the money used to prop up the banking system from 2008 onwards. The Left and Right are not destroying the financial sector. This is about the financial sector refusing to take the hit for its often incompetent and sometimes corrupt practices. So in a fit of pique they are threating to move their operation to a dictatorship because they won’t ask too many questions. What we’re hearing here is a variation of the financial mumbo-jumbo that inflicted “too big to fail ” on the general public.

  • HSBC does not want to hold the massive reserves as demanded by the EU.

  • stuart moran 24th Apr '15 - 4:40pm

    Manny Kent

    A number of these banks would no longer be in business if it was not for the largesse showered on them…..my money as well if you please and I ask that in return they show some responsibility in their actions

    The global crash was mainly in part due to their reckless lending aided by a poor regulatory environment (of which all Western Governments were culpable, including our own…and I think you will find the Tories were calling for even lighter regulation before we have the normal exclusively anti-Labour tirade)

    Have they learnt anything….I doubt it if Libor and Forex is anything to go by? They have actually got off lightly…how many bankers are currently doing bird for almost destroying the financial system…..compare that to anyone of the plebeian classes who transgresses?

    If HSBC decide to pull out of Europe then let them go but also make them pay for it….globalization should not be a one way street and they should be made to pay a high price for being allowed to continue operating in the West – in fact HSBC are very lucky to still being allowed to trade here at all based on their recent behaviour

  • The suspicious part of my brain suspects that HSCB might be in serious trouble and is hinting at a move closer to an economy that is borrowing at record levels and has an incentive bail it out.

  • I find it strange that HSBC head office has 48k employees or are the 48k including branches if it includes branches are they intending closing all the accounts. Just my 2 cents politicians are in the main elected by the normal men and woman of the UK not CEO’s they should consider what the electorate want regarding EU. Today Ed Milliband claims those who do not agree with globalisation are small minded not very complementary is that how LibDems feel.

    The UK can not be home to all the worlds big businesses and as far as I know HSBC has only been here for 20 years or so how did we pay for services before they arrived

  • well, let’s hope that hsbc customers also vote with their feet.
    and I hope that their staff enjoy life in the people’s republic.

  • @Alex Sabine 24th Apr ’15 – 3:04pm
    “In fact there are a number of reasons HSBC are considering moving their headquarters.”

    I suspect one benefit of Hong Kong would be less press attention – or rather less embarrassment over press attention.

  • Alex Sabine 24th Apr '15 - 9:02pm

    @ Glenn
    Next time, and there will be a next time, probably sooner rather than later, let them collapse and let them loose their shirts like they did in the old days before week willed politicians like Gordon Brown convinced themselves they were too big to fail.

    Like you, I am affronted by ‘socialism for the banks’ (really state capitalism) and capitalism for other businesses. Part of the response to the crisis should be to make such a scenario less likely in future.

    You clearly feel that the idea of ‘too big to fail’ – that the major banks were of systemic importance to the economy – was a propaganda tool. The whirlwind unleashed by the collapse of Lehman suggests otherwise (although one can certainly argue that it was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back: ie if Lehman had been rescued it would only have postponed the reckoning).

    You pose an interesting counter-factual, but it was not a risk that any government anywhere in the world has been willing to take when faced with what they perceived to be an existential threat to the financial and payments system and thereby to the real economy.

    Do you discount the possibility that the likely collateral damage from the wholesale liquidation of the major banks would have been devastating for ordinary savers and households? It is possible to argue – this is the so-called ‘Austrian’ view – that this may well have happened but that it would have been a price worth paying for the long-term sustainability of the system and prevention of ‘moral hazard’. But it is one heck of a gamble.

    The core issue is that, like it or not, the major commercial banks do play a systemic role. This reflects the reality that we have delegated to the banking system responsibility for money creation and treat deposits as equivalent to real money. As a result, the socialisation of losses (at least on a temporary basis) has been a feature of every financial crisis in the world, irrespective of the political colour or ideology of the government in office – except where governments themselves have been bankrupt – since it reflects the wider public interest in a functioning banking system. Any advanced financial system based on fractional reserve banking is inherently dynamic and unstable, and susceptible to periodic crises.

  • Alex Sabine 24th Apr '15 - 9:09pm

    The question is what can be done to limit the exposure of ordinary savers and taxpayers (shareholders are a different issue, and they got pretty well creamed in 2008) in the event of future crises, and to reduce the likelihood of those crises to the extent that this is possible . The dilemma for policy-makers is how to achieve these things while still allowing banks to perform their core economic function of financing creditworthy households and businesses.

    Broadly speaking, the policy response in the UK (and to a large extent in the US as well) has been to pile on an extraordinary volume of regulation – the detail of which is so arcane as to be incomprehensible even to the likes of Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist – while leaving the pre-crisis structure of the banking system more or less intact. I am not at all sure this is the right response.

    There have been improvements to the Bank’s resolution mechanisms to provide for the orderly winding-up of bankrupt firms without exposing the taxpayer to losses – but these are unlikely to be sufficient to prevent a ‘too big to fail’ scenario arising in the future with the big banks given the scale of leverage that they will still be able to build up. The problem is easier to state than the solution.

    At some point we are going to have to get beyond simply railing against “the bankers” as though they are a kind of sub-human species. We need to think, as ever in economics, about incentives: about what practical steps can be taken to mitigate the perverse incentives and contain ‘moral hazard’. The aim should be for banks to face the maximum possible market discipline, and I’m not sure the largely unreformed structure combined with a quite absurdly prescriptive rulebook takes us in this direction. For a while the banks probably will be safer, at some cost to economic growth and the productive capital stock, but it could all easily blow up again within 10 years unless there are more fundamental reforms.

  • Nick Clegg dismisses any Labour deal involving SNP

    “Mr Clegg said he would not join a coalition with Labour that required a deal with 40-50 SNP MPs to survive. Current polls suggest Ed Miliband, the Labour party leader, would need SNP support to secure a Commons majority.
    “I totally rule out any arrangements with the SNP — in the same way I rule out any arrangements with Ukip — because there is no meeting point for me with one party that basically wants to pull our country to bits and another party that wants us to pull out of the EU,” Mr Clegg said.”

    So on that basis is Nick Clegg going to rule out a coalition with the Tories if the Tories insist on going ahead with an in / out referendum on the EU in 2017?

    Nick Clegg seems to think it is acceptable to demand that Labour sets out all it’s red lines for Government, so how about practicing what you preach and tell us where you stand on the Tories Referendum,
    The electorate has right to know 🙂 surely

  • Alex Sabine 24th Apr '15 - 9:38pm

    The clumsiness of the regulatory response to the crisis is very well exposed in Howard Davies’s new book Can Financial Markets be Controlled? which I highly recommend as it explores these issues in clear, lucid language and with similarly clear thinking. Davies charts the genesis of the crisis, with low interest rates fuelling a search for decent returns through investment in ever more complex products. Regulations proliferated and became ever more complex and abstruse in response. This has intensified since the crisis and financial firms are now regulated as never before.

    But as Davies argues, fighting complexity with complexity is counterproductive and doomed to fail. The financial services industry thrives on complex regulation, which creates all sorts of unintended opportunities for profit, and makes it much harder for new entrants to challenge large incumbents. Regulation is now so labyrinthine that the major banks have big departments dedicated to compliance; start-ups cannot hope to match this.

    He observes: “The reforms are a confusing mix of a few measures to strengthen market discipline, together with many more which impose more detailed and complex rules and draw regulators closely into management decision-making. Meanwhile there has been a failure to address the gaps in global monetary policy coordination, in the policy approach to the financial cycle and leverage and in the enforcement of regulatory standards. The tax system has been left untouched. [Davies is referring here to the bias towards debt over equity funding. And he points out that, at present, the tax system incentivises banks to hold more debt while the regulatory system tries to push them in the opposite direction.] Governments have neglected these macro problems in favour of the easier option of recruiting large battalions of regulators armed with a battery of micro controls.”

    In answer to his own question, Davies concludes: “Financial markets cannot be directly ‘controlled’ by public authorities except at unsustainable cost. In attempting to do so, governments will damage their positive functions, primarily the allocation of credit and risk capital, and create new liabilities for the state. But a revised system of incentives, buttressed by a realistic fear of failure, could reorient financial firms and markets towards a more constructive role in the economy and society.”

  • Policy should be based on what is good for the UK not what is good for HSBC. Their threats should not be a factor in any decision. They want people to believe that they would throw away 48,000 experienced staff that make them huge profits and find another location with 48,000 experienced but unemployed bankers to take their place. What nonsense. Violet Elizabeths totally lacking in credibility.

    In any case, if HSBC were to leave the UK they would leave a gap in the market that other banks would fill. Bye.

  • Alex.
    I just sometimes wonder if bailing out RSB and Bear Stearns actually contributed to the panic IMO the effort should maybe have gone no further than guaranteeing the savings and wages of ordinary customers because in the end they were blameless, where as err to the belief that share holders and institutions should not be protected from the consequences of poor decisions. I think this would also have made it easier to distinguish between criminality and stupidity. Lehman Brothers went and the world doesn’t really miss them. Iceland didn’t indulge the panic and it recovered fine. So yeah, to an extent I think the too big to fail idea was maybe a bit on the fear mongering side.

  • @ Stevan
    “Policy should be based on what is good for the UK not what is good for HSBC.”

    Agreed. But this should not just apply to the demands/threats of the big bad banks but other interest groups too. And Lib Dems like Danny Alexander should not be cherry-picking the one issue cited by HSBC that suits them while ignoring the other reasons that are inconvenient.

    And anyway, the problem is that the post-crisis response and the regulatory morass that has been created are not “good for the UK” for the reasons I set out above. I’m not saying HSBC should dictate what the policy should be; I’m saying current policy has indeed created a lot of extra cost and complexity without making the system safer or exposing the banks to sufficient market discipline. As Paul Tucker has pointed out, “detailed rulebooks are the meat and drink of regulatory arbitrage”.

    “In any case, if HSBC were to leave the UK they would leave a gap in the market that other banks would fill. Bye.”

    There is no obvious reason why that would happen, especially when the political and regulatory pressure is for a shrinkage of the financial sector. If it doesn’t then you would be saying “bye” to thousands of jobs and circa £500 million of annual tax revenue. That, by the way, wipes out the entire estimated yield from Labour’s policy of restoring the 50p top rate of income tax! (I’m taking HMRC’s figures not the dubious Labour ones.) It is also half the estimated yield of the Lib Dems’ high-value property tax.

  • Manny Kent
    HSBC could set up their HQ in Singapore. The British colonial banks, the other one being Standard Chartered, are not doing so well in the far East. The national banks give them a run for their money these days.
    The Asian crisis of 1997 resulted in sweeping changes to the Thai banks.Today they are as good as any.
    In the UK the big four need to be broken up, bringing an end to the ” too big to fail” syndrome.

  • Stevan Rose 25th Apr '15 - 8:34am

    “There is no obvious reason why that would happen, especially when the political and regulatory pressure is for a shrinkage of the financial sector. ”

    If it is total withdrawal then the demand for domestic banking services has to be met by another player. They would sell their branch network along with the staff rather than close them down. Exactly as Midland Bank did to allow HSBC in. Competition rules would prohibit sale toan existing big player. And you would need HQ functions to serve that branch network. You may even see the return of the Midland Bank brand and a share sale.

    So you’re now down to 8,500 jobs in Canary Wharf some if whom serve the UK market and others the International market. Again if HSBC are withdrawing completely they would sell not close the UK operations. They would look to take their best experienced International staff with them, and indeed many of these will be top bankers from all over the world rather than London born and bred. So we’re left with inexperienced or unskilled jobs currently serving International services. Let’s say 2,000 jobs. It’s a big number but not the 48,000 one designed to be scary. It’s a number you might see in a “normal” round of banking redundancies as a result of shrinkage. Losing the high risk side of current HSBC operations, is that really a bad thing for the country?

  • So HSBC sees terrible dangers to leaving the EU, as it plans to move itself out of the embrace of the EU.

  • Alex Sabine 25th Apr '15 - 2:31pm

    Stevan: I agree it would not be a net 48,000 jobs, although I’m not sure it would be as few as 2,000. The estimate of £500 million of lost tax revenue that has been bandied about by business journalists does not assume that all the revenue currently paid by HSBC would not be replaced. But HSBC pays an especially large share because of its large balance sheet: £750 million of the total £1.9 billion bank levy proceeds last year.

    Again, you are right that public policy decisions should be based on an overall assessment of what is right for the health of the financial sector and the wider economy. My point was that I don’t think current policy on tax, regulation, reserve ratios, incentives etc is coherent or will reduce the likelihood of another crisis once the trauma of the last one (and the associated risk aversion) has passed.

    Also that it is tendentious to hype up the EU referendum factor in HSBC’s decision-making when they also cite the tax and regulatory climate and when analysts suggest the repeated increases in the bank levy (which bears heavily on HSBC because of their large balance sheet) is probably the biggest factor.

    If Lib Dems are going to cite big business nervousness as a reason why an EU referendum shouldn’t be held, fine; but they shouldn’t be so selective about which messages they want to hear, or piously declare when it suits their agenda that these businesses should not be weighing in on politically sensitive questions. As I said, I think the right approach is to listen and address concerns but not let the tail wag the dog – and that applies both to the EU question and the other issues business opines about.

  • Let’s face it, Danny’s comment about HSBC pulling out of London over worries about the UK quitting the EU was not the brightest comment of the election, given that the likely HSBC destination would be Hong Kong.

    Banking, like most other businesses is global and the regulations are decided at a global level. The alarmism about leaving the EU being bad for business is now no more than a scare story of dubious honesty and integrity. As discussed above, there are some more local taxation reasons for a bank such as HSBC to see leaving the EU as a financial benefit.

    Lib Dems must be careful to avoid propping up the case for retaining EU membership with outdated reasons which today are effectively lies. The argument that a significant change in sovereignty should be required to justify a referendum is already considered to be a sick joke.

  • Peter.
    I don’t think fears over the EU referendum are scare mongering. Personally, I suspect it would have a very negative effect as 2017 closes in and people are just kidding themselves when they think it won’t. The markets and banking system are all inter connected globally and your taking about a major economy possibly pulling out of a major trading block! There will be severe financial jitters.

  • First: people talking about HSBC moving to China. No, it would consolidate in Hong Kong (where it is already part based), which has its own financial system, independent of the Mainland.

    Second: HSBC would not being the leaving the UK because of its EU exit, it would be leaving the EU because of the UK’s exit. The UK has a very different policy to most EU countries, when it comes to the financial sector (an horrid neo-liberal policy), which currently prevents the EU from having a much stricter banking system than it does. Were the UK to leave the EU, this would change rapidly; however, economically, the UK would no longer be a place where it would make sense to stay. There are countries in the East which have equally (or even more extreme) neo-liberal policies on finance, which also would (following a UK exit of the EU) also have much clearer access to other markets.

    @Alex Sabine: You are a knowledgeable person, but to suggest that the banks are being over-regulated in the UK is to fall for the normal banker’s bluff. I spent a short time working in financial regulation – and was stuck by two things: the hyperbolic portrayal of bankers in films such as Wolf on Wall Street (OK, he is a broker, but anyway) was not that far from reality, both morally and in how they conduct their business. The Law to them was a set of barely acknowledged guidelines. The second point was just how self-pitying bankers were. I have never met people from a profession who felt so hard done by and were so sensitive about their negative press. When Libor happened, they seemed to actually believe they were the victims in that affair. Bankers believe that any regulation is too much regulation.

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