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OPINION

Hong Kong’s financial summit faces storms both political and literal

The great and the good of global finance gather in Hong Kong this week for a summit that aims to remind the world of the city’s status as an international financial centre.

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Photo: Reuters

The Global Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit, backed by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA), has a bit more on the line than the usual conference.

After three years of isolation through Covid restrictions and draconian lockdowns, which followed a period of civil unrest and clampdown, Hong Kong needs to demonstrate that it is still Asia’s key gateway for finance, even as more bankers and fund managers leave in favour of Singapore and elsewhere.

It’s probably no surprise to find the event facing a range of challenges from the practical to the Biblical. Firstly, key attendees including Citi chief executive Jane Fraser and Blackstone president Jonathan Gray have cancelled because they tested positive for Covid – the very illness Hong Kong and China have been so belligerent in keeping out.

Then, there’s political noise: last week, two US lawmakers, senator Jeff Merkley and representative Jim McGovern, called upon US bank chief executives to reconsider their attendance on the grounds of human rights abuses in China. Key US attendees include Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon, Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman, and BlackRock’s president Rob Kapito.

Nalgae

Not much can be done about a more elemental foe: the weather. The summit starts on Tuesday evening, with a welcome dinner at M+ in the West Kowloon Cultural District, according to an agenda. Then it all kicks off on Wednesday at the Four Seasons with a truly high-end panel moderated by HKMA chief Eddie Yue, featuring Gorman, Solomon, UBS chairman Colm Kelleher and Bank of China president Liu Jin; Gray was meant to be there too until he contracted the virus.

But both these things could coincide with the arrival of severe tropical storm Nalgae, heading in Hong Kong’s direction and expected to arrive on Wednesday if the wind doesn’t change beforehand. The storm has already proven lethal in the Philippines. The norm in Hong Kong is that once a certain storm signal is reached – signal eight – the whole city pretty much shuts down.

The city’s financial sector could do with a break. The Hang Seng Index is down 38% so far this year, 41% in 12 months; Hong Kong stocks are at levels not seen since the global financial crisis. That said, international investment banks insist they are busier than ever. But even if the conference is disrupted, bankers will be hoping that what follows it goes head: the rugby Sevens, in its first iteration since 2019.