Let the Lawsuits Begin – Banks Brace For a Storm of Litigation

In an article in The San Francisco Chronicle in December 2007, attorney Sean Olender suggested that the real reason for the subprime bailout schemes being proposed by the U.S. Treasury Department was not to keep strapped borrowers in their homes so much as to stave off a spate of lawsuits against the banks. The plan then on the table was an interest rate freeze on a limited number of subprime loans. Olender wrote:

“The sole goal of the freeze is to prevent owners of mortgage-backed securities, many of them foreigners, from suing U.S. banks and forcing them to buy back worthless mortgage securities at face value – right now almost 10 times their market worth. The ticking time bomb in the U.S. banking system is not resetting subprime mortgage rates. The real problem is the contractual ability of investors in mortgage bonds to require banks to buy back the loans at face value if there was fraud in the origination process.

“. . . The catastrophic consequences of bond investors forcing originators to buy back loans at face value are beyond the current media discussion. The loans at issue dwarf the capital available at the largest U.S. banks combined, and investor lawsuits would raise stunning liability sufficient to cause even the largest U.S. banks to fail, resulting in massive taxpayer-funded bailouts of Fannie and Freddie, and even FDIC . . . .

“What would be prudent and logical is for the banks that sold this toxic waste to buy it back and for a lot of people to go to prison. If they knew about the fraud, they should have to buy the bonds back.”1

The thought could send a chill through even the most powerful of investment bankers, including Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson himself, who was head of Goldman Sachs during the heyday of toxic subprime paper-writing from 2004 to 2006. Mortgage fraud has not been limited to the representations made to borrowers or on loan documents but is in the design of the banks’ “financial products” themselves. Among other design flaws is that securitized mortgage debt has become so complex that ownership of the underlying security has often been lost in the shuffle; and without a legal owner, there is no one with standing to foreclose. That was the procedural problem prompting Federal District Judge Christopher Boyko to rule in October 2007 that Deutsche Bank did not have standing to foreclose on 14 mortgage loans held in trust for a pool of mortgage-backed securities holders.2 If large numbers of defaulting homeowners were to contest their foreclosures on the ground that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue, trillions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities (MBS) could be at risk. Irate securities holders might then respond with litigation that could indeed threaten the existence of the banking Goliaths.

STATES LEADING THE CHARGE

MBS investors with the power to bring major lawsuits include state and local governments, which hold substantial portions of their assets in MBS and similar investments. A harbinger of things to come was a complaint filed on February 1, 2008, by the State of Massachusetts against investment bank Merrill Lynch, for fraud and misrepresentation concerning about $14 million worth of subprime securities sold to the city of Springfield. The complaint focused on the sale of “certain esoteric financial instruments known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) . . . which were unsuitable for the city and which, within months after the sale, became illiquid and lost almost all of their market value.”3

The previous month, the city of Baltimore sued Wells Fargo Bank for damages from the subprime debacle, alleging that Wells Fargo had intentionally discriminated in selling high-interest mortgages more frequently to blacks than to whites, in violation of federal law.4

Another innovative suit filed in January 2008 was brought by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson against 21 major investment banks, for enabling the subprime lending and foreclosure crisis in his city. The suit targeted the investment banks that fed off the mortgage market by buying subprime mortgages from lenders and then “securitizing” them and selling them to investors. City officials said they hoped to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from the banks, including lost taxes from devalued property and money spent demolishing and boarding up thousands of abandoned houses. The defendants included banking giants Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citigroup. They were charged with creating a “public nuisance” by irresponsibly buying and selling high-interest home loans, causing widespread defaults that depleted the city’s tax base and left neighborhoods in ruins.

“To me, this is no different than organized crime or drugs,” Jackson told the Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer. “It has the same effect as drug activity in neighborhoods. It’s a form of organized crime that happens to be legal in many respects.” He added in a videotaped interview, “This lawsuit said, ‘You’re not going to do this to us anymore.'”5

The Plain Dealer also interviewed Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann, who was considering a state lawsuit against some of the same investment banks. “There’s clearly been a wrong done,” he said, “and the source is Wall Street. I’m glad to have some company on my hunt.”

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the courthouse. Like New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General Dann wound up resigning from his post in May 2008 after a sexual harassment investigation in his office.6 Before they were forced to resign, both prosecutors were hot on the tail of the banks, attempting to impose liability for the destructive wave of home foreclosures in their jurisdictions.

But the hits keep on coming. In June 2008, California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued Countrywide Financial Corporation, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, for causing thousands of foreclosures by deceptively marketing risky loans to borrowers. Among other things, the 46-page complaint alleged that:

“‘Defendants viewed borrowers as nothing more than the means for producing more loans, originating loans with little or no regard to borrowers’ long-term ability to afford them and to sustain homeownership’ . . .

“The company routinely . . . ‘turned a blind eye’ to deceptive practices by brokers and its own loan agents despite ‘numerous complaints from borrowers claiming that they did not understand their loan terms.’

“. . . Underwriters who confirmed information on mortgage applications were ‘under intense pressure . . . to process 60 to 70 loans per day, making careful consideration of borrowers’ financial circumstances and the suitability of the loan product for them nearly impossible.’

“‘Countrywide’s high-pressure sales environment and compensation system encouraged serial refinancing of Countrywide loans.'”7

Similar suits against Countrywide and its CEO have been filed by the states of Illinois and Florida. These suits seek not only damages but rescission of the loans, creating a potential nightmare for the banks.

AN AVALANCHE OF CLASS ACTIONS?

Massive class action lawsuits by defrauded borrowers may also be in the works. In a 2007 ruling in Wisconsin that is now on appeal, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman held that Chevy Chase Bank had violated the Truth in Lending Act by hiding the terms of an adjustable rate loan, and that thousands of other Chevy Chase borrowers could join the plaintiffs in a class action on that ground. According to a June 30, 2008 report in Reuters:

“The judge transformed the case from a run-of-the-mill class action to a potential nightmare for the U.S. banking industry by also finding that the borrowers could force the bank to cancel, or rescind, their loans. That decision was stayed pending an appeal to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to rule any day.

“The idea of canceling tainted loans to stem a tide of foreclosures has caught hold in other quarters; a lawsuit filed last week by the Illinois attorney general asks a court to rescind or reform Countrywide Financial mortgages originated under ‘unfair or deceptive practices.’

“. . . The mortgage banking industry already faces pressure from state and federal regulators, who have accused banks of lowering underwriting standards and forcing some borrowers, through fraud, into costly adjustable loans that the banks later bundled and sold as high-interest investment vehicles.”

The Truth in Lending Act (TILA) is a 1968 federal law designed to protect consumers against lending fraud by requiring clear disclosure of loan terms and costs. It lets consumers seek rescission or termination of a loan and the return of all interest and fees when a lender is found to be in violation. The beauty of the statute, says California bankruptcy attorney Cathy Moran, is that it provides for strict liability: the aggrieved borrowers don’t have to prove they were personally defrauded or misled, or that they had actual damages. Just the fact that the disclosures were defective gives them the right to rescind and deprives the lenders of interest. In Moran’s small sample, at least half of the loans reviewed contained TILA violations.8 If class actions are found to be available for rescission of loans based on fraud in the disclosure process, the result could be a flood of class suits against banks all over the country.9

SHIFTING THE LOSS BACK TO THE BANKS

Rescission may be a remedy available not only for borrowers but for MBS investors. Many loan sale contracts provide by their terms that lenders must take back loans that default unusually quickly or that contain mistakes or fraud. An avalanche of rescissions could be catastrophic for the banks. Banks were moving loans off their books and selling them to investors in order to allow many more loans to be made than would otherwise have been allowed under banking regulations. The banking rules are complex, but for every dollar of shareholder capital a bank has on its balance sheet, it is supposed to be limited to about $10 in loans. The problem for the banks is that when the process is reversed, the 10 to 1 rule can work the other way: taking a dollar of bad debt back on a bank’s books can reduce its lending ability by a factor of 10. As explained in a BBC News story citing Prof. Nouriel Roubini for authority:

“[S]ecuritisation was key to helping banks avoid the regulators’ 10:1 rule. To make their risky loans appear attractive to buyers, banks used complex financial engineering to repackage them so they looked super-safe and paid returns well above what equivalent super-safe investments offered. Banks even found ways to get loans off their balance sheets without selling them at all. They devised bizarre new financial entities – called Special Investment Vehicles or SIVs – in which loans could be held technically and legally off balance sheet, out of sight, and beyond the scope of regulators’ rules. So, once again, SIVs made room on balance sheets for banks to go on lending.

“Banks had got round regulators’ rules by selling off their risky loans, but because so many of the securitised loans were bought by other banks, the losses were still inside the banking system. Loans held in SIVs were technically off banks’ balance sheets, but when the value of the loans inside SIVs started to collapse, the banks which set them up found that they were still responsible for them. So losses from investments which might have appeared outside the scope of the regulators’ 10:1 rule, suddenly started turning up on bank balance sheets. . . . The problem now facing many of the biggest lenders is that when losses appear on banks’ balance sheets, the regulator’s 10:1 rule comes back into play because losses reduce a banks’ shareholder capital. ‘If you have a $200bn loss, that reduced your capital by $200bn, you have to reduce your lending by 10 times as much,’ [Prof. Roubini] explains. ‘So you could have a reduction of total credit to the economy of two trillion dollars.'”10

You could also have some very bankrupt banks. The total equity of the top 100 U.S. banks stood at $800 billion at the end of the third quarter of 2007. Banking losses are currently expected to rise by as much as $450 billion, enough to wipe out more than half of the banks’ capital bases and leave many of them insolvent.11 If debtors were to deluge the courts with viable defenses to their debts and mortgage-backed securities holders were to challenge their securities, the result could be even worse.

PUTTING THE GENIE BACK IN THE BOTTLE

So what would happen if the mega-banks engaging in these irresponsible practices actually went bankrupt? These banks are widely acknowledged to be at fault, but they expect to be bailed out by the Federal Reserve or the taxpayers because they are “too big to fail.” The argument is that if they were allowed to collapse, they would take the economy down with them. That is the fear, but it is not actually true. We do need a ready source of credit, so we need banks; but we don’t need private banks. It is a little-known, well-concealed fact that banks do not lend their own money or even their depositors’ money. They actually create the money they lend; and creating money is properly a public, not a private, function. The Constitution delegates the power to create money to Congress and only to Congress.12 In making loans, banks are merely extending credit; and the proper agency for extending “the full faith and credit of the United States” is the United States itself.

There is more at stake here than just the equitable treatment of injured homeowners and investors in mortgage-backed securities. Banks and investment houses are now squeezing the last drops of blood from the U.S. government’s credit rating, “borrowing” money and unloading worthless paper on the government and the taxpayers. When the dust settles, it will be the banks, investment brokerages and hedge funds for wealthy investors that will be saved. The repossessed will become the dispossessed; and unless your pension fund has invested in politically well-connected hedge funds, you can probably kiss it goodbye, as teachers in Florida already have.

But the banking genie is a creature of the law, and the law can put it back in the bottle. The imminent failure of some very big banks could provide the government with an opportunity to regain control of its finances. More than that, it could provide the funds for tackling otherwise unsolvable problems now threatening to destroy our standard of living and our standing in the world. The only solution that will be more than a temporary fix is to take the power to create money away from private bankers and return it to the people collectively. That is how it should have been all along, and how it was in our early history; but we are so used to banks being private corporations that we have forgotten the public banks of our forebears. The best of the colonial American banking models was developed in Benjamin Franklin’s province of Pennsylvania, where a government-owned bank issued money and lent it to farmers at 5 percent interest. The interest was returned to the government, replacing taxes. During the decades that that system was in operation, the province of Pennsylvania operated without taxes, inflation or debt.

Rather than bailing out bankrupt banks and sending them on their merry way, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) needs to take a close look at the banks’ books and put any banks found to be insolvent into receivership. The FDIC (unlike the Federal Reserve) is actually a federal agency, and it has the option of taking a bank’s stock in return for bailing it out, effectively nationalizing it. This is done in Europe with bankrupt banks, and it was done in the United States with Continental Illinois, the country’s fourth largest bank, when it went bankrupt in the 1990s.

A system of truly “national” banks could issue “the full faith and credit of the United States” for public purposes, including funding infrastructure, sustainable energy development and health care.13 Publicly-issued credit could also be used to relieve the subprime crisis. Local governments could use it to buy up mortgages in default, compensating the MBS investors and freeing the real estate for public disposal. The properties could then be rented back to their occupants at reasonable rates, leaving people in their homes without the windfall of acquiring a house without paying for it. A program of lease-purchase might also be instituted. The proceeds would be applied toward repaying the credit advanced to buy the mortgages, balancing the money supply and preventing inflation.

LOCAL AND PRIVATE SOLUTIONS

While we are waiting for the federal government to act, there are also private and local possibilities for relieving the subprime crisis. Chris Cook is a British strategic market consultant and the former Compliance Director for the International Petroleum Exchange. He recommends getting all the parties to settle by forming a pool constituted as an LLC (limited liability company), in a partnership framework that brings together occupiers and financiers as co-owners under a neutral custodian. The original owners would pay an affordable rental, and the resulting pool of rentals would be “unitized” (divided into unit interests, similar to a REIT or real estate investment trust). Among other advantages over the usual mortgage-backed security, there would be no loans at interest, since the property would be owned outright by the LLC. Eliminating interest substantially reduces costs. The former owners would be able to occupy the property at an affordable rental, with the option to buy an equity stake in it. For the banks, the advantage would be that they would be able to find investors again, since the risk would have been taken out of the investment by insuring full occupancy at affordable rates; and for the investors, the advantage would be a secure investment with a dependable return.14

Carolyn Betts is an Ohio attorney who served in Washington as issuer’s counsel for MBS trusts formed by various federal governmental entities, and represented Resolution Trust Corporation in its auction of defaulted commercial mortgage loans during the last real estate crisis. She proposes a squeeze play by the states, in the style of that brought against the tobacco companies by a consortium of state attorneys general in the 1990s. She notes that at the end of 2007, at least 20% of the funds held by the Ohio Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) were in mortgage backed securities and similar investments. That makes Ohio public money a major investor in these mortgage-related securities. Ohio governments have an interest in not having homes foreclosed upon, since foreclosures destroy local real estate markets, contribute to lower tax revenues and losses on PERS investments, and cause a strain on state and local affordable housing systems. A coordinated series of actions brought by state attorneys general could eliminate the culpable banker middlemen and return the properties to local ownership and control.

Andrew Jackson reportedly told Congress in 1829, “If the American people only understood the rank injustice of our money and banking system, there would be a revolution before morning.” A wave of private actions, class actions and government lawsuits aimed at redressing injurious banking practices could spark a revolution in banking, returning the power to advance “the full faith and credit of the United States” to the United States, and returning community assets to local ownership and control.

1 Sean Olender, “Mortgage Meltdown,” San Francisco Chronicle (December 9, 2007).

2 See Ellen Brown, “The Subprime Trump Card,” webofdebt.com/articles, June 26, 2008.

3 Greg Morcroft, “Massachusetts Charges Merrill with Fraud,” MarketWatch (February 1, 2008).

4 Henry Gomez, Tom Ott, “Cleveland Sues 21 Banks Over Subprime Mess,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, January 11, 2008).

5 Ibid.

6 Marc Dann Resigns as Attorney General,” NBC24 (May 14, 2008).

7 E. Scott Reckard, “California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown Sues Countrywide,” Los Angeles Times (June 26, 2008).

8 Cathy Moran, “And the Truth (in Lending) Shall Set You Free,” mortgagelawnetwork.com (June 11, 2008).

9 Gina Keating, “Mortgage Ruling Could Shock U.S. Banking Industry,” Reuters (June 30, 2008).

10 Michael Robinson, “City of Debt Shows US Housing Woe,” BBC News (December 30, 2007).

11 “Is the Latest Liquidity Crunch in Remission?”, NakedCapitalism(March 26, 2008).

12 See E. Brown, “Dollar Deception: How Banks Secretly Create Money,” webofdebt.com/articles (July 3, 2007).

13 For more on this funding solution and why it would not inflate prices, see E. Brown, “Waking Up on a Minnesota Bridge: How to Solve the Infrastructure Crisis Without Selling Off Our National Assets,” ibid. (August 4, 2007).

14 Chris Cook, “Peak Credit and a Flight to Simplicity,” Asia Times (April 3, 2008).

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How and Why to Open a Bank Account in Hong Kong

Hong Kong today remains one of the best offshore banking jurisdictions. It offers a great combination of bank secrecy, corporate secrecy, a financially and politically stable environment, and strong banks. But perhaps most importantly, it’s a secure offshore investment haven for those who want to diversify out of sinking western currencies into booming Asian markets, and China in particular.

So how can you go about opening an offshore bank account in Hong Kong? Do you have to travel there? This article will answer these questions and give you some practical hints and tips. But first some background.

A Successful Free Market Experiment For East and West Alike

Hong Kong, in my opinion, is the only practical example in the world of a major city that has been developed from scratch and run as something of an offshore, free market experiment – first by the British, then by the Chinese.

The main Island (and later Kowloon and the New Territories, parts of the mainland) was a British colony for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During this time it grew from a fishing village and opium trading hub, into a city-state of seven million people. It became known as a free-wheeling, free market paradise for capitalists, with an economy characterized by low taxation, free trade and no government interference in business.

In 1997 the British returned sovereignty over Hong Kong to China. The former colony became one of China’s two Special Administrative Regions (SARs), the other being Macau. Many people were initially doubtful about one of the world’s capitalist bastions being run by a communist power, and at the time a lot of investors pulled out, many taking their dynamic business acumen heading to places like Singapore and Vancouver.

However, the “one country, two systems” model adopted by Beijing to coincide with free market reforms and the growth of China into an economic superpower has proven very successful. The Basic Law of Hong Kong, the equivalent of the constitution, stipulates that the SAR maintains a “high degree of autonomy” in all matters except foreign relations and defence. The SAR today operates as a major offshore finance center, discreetly oiling the wheels of commerce between East and West.

These days, rather than being put off by the Chinese influence, most international investors who are attracted to Hong Kong are coming precisely because of this Chinese connection. Hong Kong is the point of access to Chinese trade, without the legal and cultural difficulties of doing business in mainland China.

Those who do not trust their own governments are reassured by the fact that under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s foreign relations are run from Beijing. While most offshore jurisdictions humbly submit to demands from the USA and other western countries, in the case of China, the relationship is definitely reversed. Hong Kong does have a number of Tax Information Exchange Agreements (see below) but these are sensibly policed and do not allow for fishing expeditions.

Offshore Banking in Hong Kong

The region’s population is 95 percent ethnic Chinese and 5 percent from other groups, but English is very widely spoken and is the main language in businesses like banking.

One thing I like about using Hong Kong for offshore bank accounts is the same argument I have used for Panama and Singapore: it’s a ‘real’ country with real trade going on. The Hong Kong dollar is the ninth most traded currency in the world. Compare this to doing business on a small island or other remote banking jurisdiction, where everybody knows your only reason for doing business there is offshore banking. It also means that there is no problem doing your banking in cash, if you so wish.

For now the HKD, the local dollar, still tracks very closely the US dollar, but this appears to be changing as the Chinese Yuan circulates freely in Hong Kong, both in cash and in bank deposits. We think this represents an excellent opportunity to diversify funds out of the US dollar now, gaining exposure to Chinese growth in the meantime. (Of course, you can also hold HKD in banks in other parts of the world too)

Bank accounts in Hong Kong are almost all multi-currency by default, allowing all major local and international currencies to be held under one account number and exchanged freely and instantly within the account at the click of a mouse.

There is no capital gains tax, no tax on bank interest or stock market investments, and no tax on offshore sourced income. This, combined with a welcoming attitude to non-resident clients in the banks (including US citizens by the way, who are generally unwelcome in traditional offshore banking havens like Switzerland), and strong cultural and legal respect for financial privacy, makes Hong Kong one of Asia’s best offshore banking jurisdictions.

For those who want to establish a small offshore account under reporting limits, or simply to have the bank account established in view of future business, Hong Kong is also attractive given the low minimum deposits demanded by the major banks there. The minimum bank account balance can be as low as HK$ 3,000. Of course, you can’t expect red carpet, VIP private banking at this level – but you get a perfectly good functioning bank account with all the technological trimmings.

Offshore Corporate Bank Accounts in Hong Kong – Do’s and Don’ts

Typically, offshore clients choose to open accounts using corporations, as opposed to personal accounts. This not only offers greater privacy, but also flexibility and can – depending of course on how things are structured – offer significant tax and asset protection advantages.

Accounts can easily be opened both for pure offshore companies like Panama, BVI, Nevis or Marshall Islands, or for local Hong Kong companies that are set up using nominee directors and shareholders.

When contacting local corporate service providers in Hong Kong, you’ll find that most of these corporate service providers will recommend you use a Hong Kong company to open the account. The reason they do this is that it’s simpler and more profitable for them. They can incorporate a local company at low cost, opening the bank account is smoother and faster with a local company, and they can carry on billing nominee director fees every year. But it may not be the right thing for you.

Whilst it is true that Hong Kong companies do not have to pay any tax provided they do not make any local source income, administering such a company is not so simple. For example, Hong Kong companies are required to file audited accounts every year. They must file pages and pages of documents to convince the Inland Revenue Department (HKIRD) that they don’t have any local business, and, from practical experience, the HKIRD is getting much stickier about this. Long-established companies are normally left unmolested but newly established companies can expect a lot of compliance work in their first few years. Again, this suits the Hong Kong corporate service providers who charge handsomely for such services.

Another factor to consider is Controlled Foreign Corporation (CFC) legislation in your home country. (For an explanation see Wikipedia ) Many clients choose to set up LLCs as they can be treated as passthrough entities, vastly simplifying reporting requirements in some countries like the USA. Hong Kong corporations are not LLCs and cannot be treated as passthroughs for tax purposes.

My advice – assuming you don’t intend to do any business in Hong Kong besides banking and perhaps the occasional trip to visit your money – would be to open the account in the name of a company from a foreign offshore tax haven. It’s a little more work and expense at the beginning, and the bank might ask you more questions, but it will save you a lot of money and headaches in the long term. If you want a local look and feel for your company, numerous virtual office services are available.

Hong Kong Tax Information Exchange Agreements

Contrary to what you will read on some out-of-date websites, Hong Kong has signed a number of Tax Information Exchange Agreements (TIEAs). However, the HKIRD is at pains to point out that fishing expeditions are not going to be tolerated.

The HKIRD has issued Practice Note 47, available on the internet, which usefully explains how the HKIRD seek to achieve a balance between the requirements of compliance with the OECD requirements, whilst providing checks and balances to protect the rights of businesspeople.

The HKIRD are professionals and should be well positioned to deal with TIEA requests properly and justly in accordance with the treaties and guidelines. I am confident not going to allow their ‘clients’ rights to be trampled on.

Regulation of Banks in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s Banking Ordinance was revamped in 1986. It has since undergone several amendments to improve prudential supervision. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) was formed in 1993 as a one-stop financial regulator, responsible for everything from banks to stored value anonymous debit cards.

The SAR maintains a three-tier system of deposit-taking institutions, comprising licensed banks, restricted license banks, and deposit-taking companies. Only licensed banks may operate current and savings accounts, and accept deposits of any size and maturity. RLBs are only allowed to accept deposits of HK$500,000 and above, while DTCs are only permitted to accept deposits of a minimum of HK$100,000 with original maturity of not less than three months.

Both these latter categories provide an opportunity for overseas banks to conduct wholesale, investment or private banking activities in Hong Kong without having to jump through the hoops of applying for a full banking license. In addition, some foreign banks have chosen to open representative offices in Hong Kong, which are not allowed to take deposits but can assist in opening accounts at other offices within their groups.

As Hong Kong is an international financial centre, it is an explicit policy of the HKMA that the regulatory framework in Hong Kong should conform as much as possible with international standards, in particular those recommended by the Basel Committee.

Hong Kong’s five largest banks, in terms of total assets, are as follows:

– Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC)

– Bank of China (Hong Kong)

– Hang Seng Bank Ltd

– Standard Chartered Bank

– Bank of East Asia Ltd.

A full list of updated Hong Kong banks can be found on Wikipedia.

Visiting Hong Kong to Open a Bank Account

If you are visiting Hong Kong to open your account, it can normally be opened the same day provided you have made some arrangements with a local service provider, or directly with the bank, in advance. This is assuming you use one of the major banks, that nearly everybody does. You can then simply visit the bank, sign documents and receive the bank account number immediately. This will be a full multi-currency account and you will typically receive a digital token for internet banking, a password and a debit card.

The documents required for opening offshore bank account are:

1) Formation documents (in the case of corporate accounts. Apostilles are required in the case of foreign corporate accounts – your offshore provider will know how to obtain these.)

2) Bank forms and business plan/expected activity (a corporate service provider will normally supply these as part of the service)

3) Passport copies of each director, signatory and shareholder (take special note of this requirement if you are using nominee directors – if the persons are not present, copies will have to be notarized.)

4) Proof of address (such as updated bill statement which shows up your name and address) and signed (of each director and shareholder)

A bank reference is generally required if you are dealing direct with the bank. If you go through a corporate service provider, they normally write a reference so you do not need to supply a bank reference. However, if you can obtain a bank reference it is better.

Opening an account without visiting Hong Kong

It is also perfectly possible to open accounts without visiting Hong Kong (known as ‘remote account opening’) though this process tends to take substantially longer as banks will ask a lot more questions. In this case, your bank or service provider will generally e-mail you the forms, that you will need to print out and sign.

Depending on the bank, there may well be certain special instructions about how and where to sign – for example, HSBC in Hong Kong will typically request that you have your signature witnessed in the HSBC Bank nearest to you. As with all foreign bank accounts, you should be sure to use the same signature that appears in your passport, otherwise the documents will be rejected.

In the case of remote account opening the bank will normally courier the password, debit card, and token direct to your address in your home country. Then you need to activate them via the bank’s website.

Conclusion

Hong Kong competes very favorably with Singapore, the other Asian banking jurisdiction we favor. If you have not yet diversified your offshore holdings into Asia, you should seriously consider doing so. I hope this article will be helpful in this regard.

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