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HK lawmakers slam HSBC role in Lehman bonds sale

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[December 30, 2008]  HONG KONG (AP) -- Hong Kong lawmakers slammed HSBC for helping to sell Lehman Brothers bonds in the Chinese territory, questioning if Europe's largest bank should have done more to protect local investors from products that may be worthless in the aftermath of the Wall Street firm's collapse.

InsuranceMore than 40,000 Hong Kongers bought Lehman-backed investment products through banks, with the total outstanding value of the products estimated at HK$20.2 billion ($2.6 billion), according to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which is the territory's de facto central bank. The majority of the investments, about HK$12.6 billion ($1.6 billion), are so-called "mini-bonds."

Investors -- among them retirees who invested their life savings -- have complained that bank salespeople were misleading and failed to fully explain the product's connections to Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., which sought bankruptcy protection in September.

Plans by local banks to buy back the bonds from investors have been put on because of legal issues raised by Lehman's lawyers.

At a legislative hearing Tuesday, legislators turned their attention to HSBC Holdings PLC, one of the most respected banks in Hong Kong.

Lawmaker Abraham Shek said HSBC had "betrayed" investors.


London-headquartered HSBC provided the directors for the company that was set up to issue the mini-bonds and the bank also served as the trustee that held the collateral that backed the investment products. Other Hong Kong banks, not HSBC, sold the mini-bonds to retail investors.

HSBC officials told the hearing that the bank wasn't involved in designing the mini-bonds and didn't have a responsibility to ensure their quality.

The company created to issue the bonds, known as a special purpose vehicle, was "for all intents and purposes a creature of Lehman's design," said Susan Sayers, deputy head of legal for the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp., HSBC's Hong Kong unit.

"It is not our responsibility as trustee to comment or have any view on the product that is being sold," she said.

But legislators argued that HSBC bore more responsibility to the investors.

"You said you are not a designer of that scheme, but knowing that as a bank, an experienced bank, an international bank, you must be aware that this is a product that is an entrapment of people," said Shek.

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"To society, you cannot really wash your hands of the entire matter ... You are the director," said another legislator James To.

HSBC's Sayers said Lehman Brothers had a high credit rating when the mini-bonds were sold and that the Hong Kong government had approved the products.

"None of us, unfortunately, had the benefit of foresight to know what terrible circumstances would happen," she said.

Meanwhile, the local banks that offered to buy back the mini-bonds from investors have put that plan on hold because of legal issues raised by Lehman's lawyers.

The Hong Kong Association of Banks said in a statement to the legislature on Monday the market prices of the mini-bonds depends in part on the value of the collateral they are backed by.

But those prices are now inaccurate because Lehman's lawyers claim the failed investment bank should receive proceeds from any sale of the collateral first, the association said.

"The banks have said clearly they will continue to support the buyback plan, but they need to clarify the legal issues ... Right now I can't give you a clear timetable," Hong Kong Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury K.C. Chan told legislators Tuesday.

[Associated Press; By MIN LEE]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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