Blunder brings faraway cash jitters

Editorial | Mary Ma 24 Jun 2021

Was the commotion in relation to HSBC's notice updating its terms of services that stoked fears over access to its banking services in Hong Kong from overseas a case of much ado about nothing - or something more than that?

HSBC insisted nothing had changed and its clients could continue to access their accounts from outside the SAR. The hiccup was likely an administrative blunder.

But it's equally likely that, due to the blunder, many of its clients - especially those who have emigrated to Britain or other countries or plan to move soon with offshore accounts already opened - would rather avoid the slightest risk and transfer a major part of their capital elsewhere.

This would be consistent with the old Chinese wisdom of keeping money close to where one stays.

HSBC's mistake on Tuesday was most unfortunate. When government officials, including Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu, have tried hard to persuade Hongkongers to remain in the SAR or at least keep their wealth here, the HSBC notice instantly blew the efforts apart.

It would be interesting to find out how much money was transferred out of the SAR from HSBC in Hong Kong to accounts elsewhere during those several hours between the notice and the subsequent clarification.

Will the bank reveal the information? I highly doubt it.

It may be humiliating to HSBC, but disclosure of such data would be meaningful since the information would provide a fairly accurate assessment of how feeble people's confidence has become after so much that has happened in the city.

HSBC has lived up to its clarification as overseas access to the bank's Hong Kong services was reported to be normal.

Were the incident not a public relations blunder, it would be very difficult to explain the bank's back and forth movement.

Admittedly, few people would go through the terms of services carefully every time they are updated.

Most bank account holders would usually skip the e-mail or simply press the "agree" button without studying the lengthy text.

In any case, they cannot choose otherwise unless they are prepared to close the accounts.

Nevertheless, the blunder did awaken the public to what lawmaker and Bank of China adviser Ronick Chan Chun-ying described as a common practice among most banks here.

The HSBC notice states categorically that online and mobile banking services are limited to HKSAR clients and for their use in the HKSAR only.

It also says that customers may be unable to use these services outside of Hong Kong.

Does it mean that, while the terms are provided for, it is up to the bank or concerned authorities to decide whether to stop the access or not?

If they do, customers thus notified cannot blame the bank because they have already agreed to it.



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