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HSBC relocation to Hong Kong looks to be off

HSBC

The possible relocation of HSBC to Hong Kong - a move widely seen as an attempt to reduce its global tax bill - has been called off by the bank, which now looks set to keep its headquarters in London.

Reports suggest the bank is leaning away from the move after chief executive Stuart Gulliver played down the case for leaving the UK over the course of a series of private meetings in recent weeks.

Mr Gulliver had once been a key boardroom advocate for a move to Hong Kong, amid various tax increases and intensified regulations on corporations across Britain.

But he has now seemingly gone back on his decision, with speculation suggesting he has argued that the environment is a lot more stable than previously thought.

If confirmed, the decision to remain in the UK is likely to come as a significant boost to the City of London and the government, with HSBC currently the country's largest bank and a major source of employment and tax revenue.

Doubt from the beginning

Some analysts may well be unsurprised at reports, particularly those at Reuters, who recently suggested that the perceived tax benefits of such a move may have been overestimated.

The possibility of moving its headquarters was first mentioned by HSBC last year, amid growing concerns over higher taxes and tighter regulations, as well a willingness to be closer to a fast-growing Asian market.

Hong Kong emerged as the most likely destination for HSBC's new home, due to its tax rate of 16.5 per cent against a British rate set to rise to 26 per cent.

However, recent weeks saw the bank's plans come under scrutiny, with the main concern surrounding HSBC's ability to move the amount of profit to benefit from the lower tax rate.

Some experts even predicted that more profits would have to be made in Britain if the move went ahead, with many of the overhead and borrowing costs made in Britain may be offset against more lightly taxed Hong Kong profits.

Hong Kong's less generous attitude to share bonuses was also cited as a disadvantage, amid the possibility of it costing millions of dollars in tax deductions a year.

Crawford Spence, Professor of Accounting at Warwick Business School, said the Reuters analysis showed the "commonsense understanding" that HSBC would receive a big tax benefit was too simplistic.

“They may not be saving much money at all on this particular aspect," he said.

Changing backdrop

The debate around the location of HSBC's headquarters has taken place against a change in the global taxation climate.

Front-page stories surrounding how much is paid in tax by global corporations has piqued the interest of many political leaders around the world, with corporate tax policy pushed to the top of the agenda.

Base erosion and profit sharing (BEPS) is a key issue, with governments around the world deciding on making reformations to corporate tax policy in a bid to crack down on avoidance.

The OECD and its BEPS project aims to bring working groups and officials from some of the world's largest economies together in order to try and focus on several prominent issues that have an impact all over the world.

These include rules for the digital economy, which as has been brought into sharp focus in the light of cases involving Google and Amazon, and whether there needs to be a specific set of guidelines for the digital economy.

Other areas include dealing with financial loopholes, international transfer pricing and documentation.

Whether that ongoing shift has played a role in HSBC's decision to flirt with a move to Hong Kong is unclear, with a final decision set to be released later this month.