The sandwiches and coffee were standard fare at HSBC’s annual meeting. But it took mere minutes for political red herrings to be added to the menu.
Take the bank’s confirmation it is reviewing its headquarters’ location.
Labour’s attempt to blame HSBC’s action on a Conservative-inspired EU referendum was misguided, but inevitable.
Douglas Flint, its chairman, did refer to uncertainty over Europe as an economic risk. But if Brexit was a real factor in the judgement about whether it should up sticks to Hong Kong, the bank would wait until after any referendum to make a call.
The reality is different. Ring-fencing and the UK Bank Levy have combined to radically alter the economics of its UK domicile.
For Flint, the exercise raises an awkward issue: his advisory position on the Treasury’s Financial Services Trade and Investment Board will be untenable if the bank does move.
But for HSBC shareholders, the review is a signal that its board is heeding concerns that tax increases are undermining a supposedly progressive dividend policy.
Where Flint and CEO Stuart Gulliver have to be careful is to avoid the impression that any relocation idea is driven by the hostile reaction to its Swiss tax scandal.
Sources suggest that when prosecutors raided HSBC’s private bank in Geneva in February, they seized no information of which they weren’t already in possession.
French prosecutors’ demand for a €1bn bail-bond, the Bank Levy hike and recent parliamentary hearings at which Gulliver was effectively accused of personal tax avoidance have fomented a sense that leaving the UK could be a commercially and politically logical decision.
True, moving to Hong Kong would expose HSBC to the unpredictability of Beijing and relocating would be very complex and far from cheap.
But as one insider suggested, if proximity to Western democracies looks the way it does to HSBC now, can the alternative really be worse?
A PRUDENT PACE TO REPLACE TIDJANE
It is now 50 days since Prudential announced the departure of Swiss-bound Tidjane Thiam.
How many more will there be until Mike Wells is formally named as his successor? Given that the Pru’s board anointed Wells on 10 March to take the helm, it’s not an insignificant question.
The Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) wants to be sure that the chief executives of the UK’s biggest insurers are suitable.
Hold on, though: Wells already sits on the Pru’s main board. Surely something would have to go catastrophically awry for him not to be approved as Thiam’s replacement.
Many industry executives are mystified by the delay. If the vacuum persists any longer, investors might get jittery about the appointment.
The PRA should move swiftly to allay any doubts that Wells has its confidence or provide the Pru with a compelling reason why he does not – otherwise people may start to suspect that the Prudential Regulation Authority has taken the first part of its name rather too literally.
FIGHTING FOR MORE THAN THE CUP
With four games to go, up-for-sale Aston Villa’s Premier League survival hangs in the balance.
They might have reached the FA Cup Final, but if they succumb to relegation, Randy Lerner, the club’s owner, will probably wish he’d emulated David Cameron, by trying to buy Villa in 2006 – only to discover he’d taken over mid-table West Ham United instead.
Mark Kleinman is the City Editor of Sky News @MarkKleinmanSky