Some banks start moving staff to back-up premises on HK's outskirts

HONG KONG - Some banks and other financial firms have begun moving staff to back-up premises on the outskirts of Hong Kong to prevent growing unrest in the financial hub from disrupting trading and other critical functions, two business services firms said.

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters have blocked parts of the Central financial district since Friday in protest against Beijing's decision to limit voters' choice in elections due in 2017.

The protests, which have been largely peaceful, represent the biggest potential business disruption since the outbreak of Sars in 2003, when several banks moved some of their dealing operations to other Asian trading hubs.

While business disruption has been limited to the temporary closure of a few bank branches, the decision by some firms to move or prepare moving staff to peripheral locations highlights deeper concerns that the protests could have wider repercussions in Asia's biggest financial centre.

Kam Poon, vice-president at telecom company Wharf T&T Ltd, which provides up to 1,000 desks for banks and other financial firms, said clients had been calling up since Sunday to ask for space at its primary facility in the New Territories, away from Central, which is on Hong Kong island.

He said 15 clients had called to say they wanted the firm to prepare reserved space, while five others had put the company on standby.

"We do have people coming in already," said Mr Poon, whose company leases desks, PCs, phones and phone lines, as well as services for traders such as market data feeds and voice-recording. The company's clients are financial firms, including local and foreign banks.

Alan Mackay, chief operating officer of serviced offices provider Compass Offices in Hong Kong, said his clients had started to reserve space and some had begun to move in staff.

Compass Offices, which has 4,200 desks for lease around Hong Kong, said clients such as big international banks and hedge funds began putting in place short-term contingency arrangements three to four months ago, when pro-democracy activists belonging to the so-called Occupy Central protest movement stepped up their campaign.

During the past five days, those banks and hedge funds had activated their plans, he said. "We might move in or we might not, but we want that office there ready," Mr Mackay said, quoting typical conversations with clients. The largest reservation so far was for 25 staff, he added.

Both Mr Poon and Mr Mackay declined to name any of their clients, citing confidentiality issues.