The chief executive of SBI Holdings, the financial conglomerate that owns Japan’s biggest online brokerage, said he plans to pull his company’s operations out of Hong Kong because “without freedom, there is no financial business”.
The decision by Yoshitaka Kitao will make SBI the largest Japanese financial institution to opt for a full withdrawal from Hong Kong and comes as the group is also reviewing London’s status as the optimal financial centre in Europe.
The introduction last year of Hong Kong’s controversial National Security Law, under which 47 activists were arrested earlier this month, had created increasing fear in Japanese boardrooms, said Kitao. In particular, he said, it was “not a good place for financial institutions”, adding that increasing numbers of Japanese companies were reconsidering the scale of their operations in the former British colony.
Japanese financial institutions, he said, had become “very much afraid” of developments in Hong Kong. Kitao, who is among the most outspoken figures in Japanese finance and who is invited to regular discussions with prime minister Yoshihide Suga, said he was looking at Singapore and Shanghai as alternatives as he prepared to relocate his 100-person operation in Hong Kong.
“If I want to do business in China, I would rather have an office in Beijing or Shanghai or somewhere,” said Kitao, arguing that the regulatory uncertainty and the ability to simply set up in China and operate under its rules meant that Hong Kong was now less necessary as a gateway to mainland business.
For now, said Kitao, SBI was likely to be the only major Japanese institution to speak so openly about pulling out of Hong Kong.
“They are unlike me. I’m a very straightforward guy. But all the others, in their bellies, they think they should move out or won’t invest more in Hong Kong,” said Kitao. He added that while Japanese financial institutions might be wavering on their decisions, the country’s manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers were becoming more decisive about moving operations from Hong Kong to mainland China.
In a further signal of tectonic shifts in global finance, SBI is also reconsidering the attractiveness of post-Brexit London as it rolls out a planned expansion of its global underwriting business. SBI aspires to become Japan’s fourth megabank and overtook Nomura last year as the country’s largest retail brokerage,
Britain’s exit from the EU, said Kitao, meant that while London would previously have been the straightforward choice, SBI was now forced to look at alternative financial centres as it sought to grow a wholesale banking business with which he planned to compete with Nomura, Daiwa and other Japanese rivals.
“Now we are still thinking whether we will have an office or our facility in London, or Amsterdam, Luxembourg or Frankfurt . . . a lot of money is actually going out of London to other cities,” said Kitao. A UK-educated Anglophile who previously worked in London, he said he regretted that the city was no longer the simple choice.
The uncertainties over Hong Kong and London, said Kitao, had heightened the potential appeal of the western Japanese city of Osaka — seat of the country’s largest derivatives exchange — as a possible global finance hub.
In particular, he said, London could benefit from a direct tie-up with the Osaka Exchange and the time difference would allow round-the-clock trading in UK and European instruments.
“London still will be OK. Although a lot of money is starting to move, it will be OK,” said Kitao.