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Unilever becomes Unistayer but other blue-chip companies may quit the UK

As the Clash sang: should I stay or should I go? Any number of mining companies, big pharma, Diageo, Ferguson, Aggreko and Ashtead could all make the jump but three companies in the financial sector look the most likely to up sticks.
Junk in Hong Kong harbour
London's loss could be Hong Kong's gain

The attempt by Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever plc (LON:ULVR) to up sticks and go Dutch blew up in its face.

That does not mean other companies won’t consider quitting dear old Blighty although it might make them think twice.

READ Unilever withdraws plans to scrap dual listing and relocate out of UK

Unilever’s aborted move came about as a consequence of it being created by a merger of British soap maker Lever Brothers and Dutch margarine maker, Margarine Unie.

(I should explain for the benefit of younger readers that margarine was a spread that was a cheap alternative to butter).

There seem to have a lot of these Anglo-Dutch mash-ups over the years.

Take, for instance, Koninklijke Nederlandse Petroleum Maatschappij – probably better known to you and me as Royal Dutch Shell, or simply Shell (if you want to upset the Dutch). Like Unilever, it had a convoluted management structure involving two boards of directors to ensure harmony between the Dutch and British segments.

Royal Dutch Shell resolved this dichotomy in 2004 but Unilever ploughed on with its polycephalous form.

RELX Group, created by the merger of Reed Industries and Elsevier, was another Anglo-Dutch entity that had a dual parent company structure that it finally cast off last month.

So, we can probably rule out any other Anglo-Dutch portmanteau companies doing a bunk – Reckitt Benckiser already has its European and North American headquarters at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport.

Eliminating the Dutch connection still leaves plenty of other companies that look like decent candidates for relocation.

East is East and that’s where the sun is rising

HSBC PLC (LON:HSBA) – the initials stand for Hong Kong & Shanghai Baking Corporation – has been one of Britain’s Big Four banking groups ever since it took over the Midland Bank – once the biggest deposit-taking bank in the world – in 1992.

From time to time, rumours have surfaced that the group is considering relocating its headquarters (HQ) to Asia. These rumours usually start circulating when the company feels the UK government is not giving it enough love.

In 2015, the company undertook a review of whether it was still appropriate to have its HQ in the UK but rather than move to Hong Kong, Shanghai or somewhere else in the mysterious east it decided to relocate to Birmingham, in the Midlands.

HSBC has around 16mln customers in the UK but it makes the vast majority of its profits in Asia.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority has previously observed that HSBC is the largest bank in Hong Kong and had deep historical links to the territory. The authority was quoted as saying it would take “a positive attitude should HSBC consider relocating its headquarters back to Hong Kong.”

If HSBC is tempted to move east, so might Standard Chartered PLC (LON:STAN), which unlike HSBC has no retail outlets at all in the UK.

Around nine-tenths of its profits come from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It has already announced plans to turn its Frankfurt office into a European base after Britain withdraws from the European Union.

With no commercial outlets at all in Britain, some pundits regard it as a more likely candidate than HSBC to do a flit.

Demerger of M&G from Prudential should make a relocation easier for the insurance giant

Prudential PLC (LON:PRU) is another big London-listed financial stock that has its eyes firmly on the Asian market.

It has already fired a shot across the government’s bows, back in 2012, about increased regulations required for insurers based in Europe.

The group is on record as saying it “regularly reviews its range of options to maximise the strategic flexibility of the group”.

The company recently announced plans to demerge its M&G Prudential business and sell £12bn of its UK annuity portfolio.

Prudential M&G, a UK and European savings, investment and retirement business, will be separated from the group and operate as a stand-alone entity.

Chief executive Mike Wells said after the separation, Prudential will be able to focus on the "attractive returns and growth potential of its market-leading businesses in Asia and the US."

Ahead of the demerger, Prudential will transfer the legal ownership of its Hong Kong insurance subsidiaries from its UK regulated insurance entity, The Prudential Assurance Company Limited, to Prudential Corporation Asia Limited. The transfer is expected to be completed by the end of 2019.

After that? A full relocation to Hong Kong would not be too much of a surprise.

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