Hong Kong’s Mr. Risk Struggles to Meet Demand as Protests Roll

There are few peo­ple as syn­ony­mous with risk analy­sis in Hong Kong as Steve Vickers.

A forty-year vet­er­an of the finance hub, Vick­ers’ career has spanned roles that includ­ed head of intel­li­gence for the old colo­nial police force to pri­vate sec­tor consultancy.

Flu­ent in Can­tonese, Vick­ers has dealt with every­thing from kid­nap­pings to extor­tion and runs Steve Vick­ers and Asso­ciates Lim­it­ed, a risk mit­i­ga­tion, cor­po­rate intel­li­gence and secu­ri­ty con­sul­tan­cy. Their work includes due dili­gence on ini­tial pub­lic offer­ings and inves­ti­ga­tions for invest­ment banks.

While he has seen a lot, Vick­ers has nev­er expe­ri­enced the con­vul­sions cur­rent­ly grip­ping Hong Kong.

Things have changed real­ly rad­i­cal­ly,” he said in an inter­view. Polit­i­cal risk typ­i­cal­ly was nev­er in Hong Kong. Our rev­enues are 120% up over the past three months because peo­ple want infor­ma­tion now.”

The fol­low­ing is a con­densed ver­sion of an inter­view con­duct­ed in his offices that are fes­tooned with police and intel­li­gence mem­o­ra­bil­ia, and close to areas where police and pro­test­ers have been clash­ing for months.

Q: How do you assess con­di­tions in Hong Kong?

A: From a com­mer­cial point of view I have not seen an impact on Hong Kong’s econ­o­my as bad as this.

Q: What has it meant for your own business?

A: Huge, it has been huge, we are strug­gling to meet the vol­ume of client requests. Things on the polit­i­cal risk side local­ly are big­ger than they have ever been, which has not hap­pened us before in Hong Kong. We have always looked at the Philip­pines, Thai­land, Indone­sia, we have looked at every­one else and now — lo and behold — right in our own back­yard we have this. The local due dili­gence busi­ness has died over the past two months; this is because peo­ple aren’t mak­ing deals. But the busi­ness intel­li­gence side has gone nuts.

Q: Can you describe your client base, what kind of queries are you getting?

A: It’s U.S., U.K., Japan­ese, Euro­pean and some main­land com­pa­nies with exter­nal prob­lems. Big brands are now des­per­ate­ly con­cerned and are keen on pro­tect­ing their wider main­land busi­ness and are wor­ried that they might be direct­ly iden­ti­fied with Hong Kong protests. It’s a bal­anc­ing act and frankly it’s very hard for brand­ed goods com­pa­nies to tell their staff that you can’t do this or you can’t do that’ for fear of los­ing the big­ger main­land fran­chise. Not encour­ag­ing overt polit­i­cal activ­i­ty in the work­place and, for exam­ple, not hav­ing a Lennon Wall in your office is prob­a­bly a good start.

Q: What sort of advice are you giving?

A: We give risk and secu­ri­ty advice, which is prac­ti­cal advice, such as how to pro­tect peo­ple. What to do if CS smoke is sucked into your air con­di­tion­ing sys­tems and so on. Pro­tect­ing your brand fran­chise is crit­i­cal between Hong Kong, Tai­wan and the main­land. If your brand is per­ceived as being mil­i­tant­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the demon­stra­tions, then the brand could end up being very seri­ous­ly dam­aged. This is the first time I have seen this risk on this scale.

Q: What are you sens­ing among finan­cial ser­vices clients?

A: Pri­vate wealth is a big one. There is huge move­ment of clients on the pri­vate wealth side not sur­pris­ing­ly because what they have is liq­uid. We also do quite a lot of IPO work for spon­sors, but that is down a lot cur­rent­ly because of a com­bi­na­tion of the U.S.-China prob­lems, and the Hong Kong demon­stra­tions. A lot of fam­i­ly offices have been call­ing us for tac­ti­cal intel­li­gence, and these are local peo­ple based here, who you’d think would know the deal but are now find­ing them­selves wrong footed.

Q: How are hedge funds play­ing it?

A: Hed­gies are ask­ing tac­ti­cal ques­tions like how vul­ner­a­ble are the Hong Kong finan­cial, bank­ing and prop­er­ty sec­tors. There are some quite deep ques­tions now being asked. Peo­ple are ask­ing whether some small­er Hong Kong banks are over exposed to the main­land prop­er­ty sec­tor. There have been a lot of ques­tions about that.

Q: What’s the les­son for busi­ness from the Cathay Pacif­ic episode?

A: That was a clear and direct mes­sage from the main­land: that you had bet­ter pick a side and this is the first time I have seen it so bald and so direct in all the time I have been here. If you are a big brand and per­haps you have peo­ple in your com­pa­ny who have — which they are per­fect­ly legal­ly enti­tled to do — been very active on social media in sup­port of protests, that can blow back real­ly quite hor­ren­dous­ly in the main­land now.

Q: What does it all mean for your own views?

A: I am apo­lit­i­cal, I actu­al­ly was ini­tial­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to the bill with­draw­al at the begin­ning. How­ev­er I just don’t like anar­chy and vio­lence, I find that com­plete­ly inex­cus­able. A lot of peo­ple love Hong Kong, includ­ing myself, but I have to hon­est­ly say that these demon­stra­tions have spawned fun­da­men­tal changes to PRC gov­ern­ment atti­tude to long-estab­lished Hong Kong firms such as Cathay Pacif­ic and oth­ers. What hap­pened to those British inter­ests will soon­er or lat­er also hap­pen to the U.S. firms in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is now in play as a proxy card in the cur­rent U.S.-China trade war, we are now caught firm­ly in the mid­dle with demon­stra­tors appeal­ing direct­ly to the U.S. Sen­ate to pass leg­is­la­tion impact­ing Hong Kong. Bei­jing will respond.

Q: What’s the end game then?

A: The longer it goes on, the worse it will get. This is a polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion that requires a polit­i­cal solu­tion. If you’d asked me three months ago, I would have said the odds of any demo­c­ra­t­ic change were very low and that the pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic move­ment was mori­bund. It’s as if the Hong Kong chief exec­u­tive has kicked over an anthill and off we go. There’s no doubt the way we do busi­ness has changed, things aren’t going back to what it was but it is not the end of Hong Kong, it’s just the next iteration.