How financial firms are fighting SARS

The financial services community has taken a proactive approach to fighting the virus at their Hong Kong HQs.

Last Tuesday, 17 major financial firms got together to discuss the SARS outbreak that has crippled Hong Kong over the last 10 days. Those present say they have rarely, if ever, seen the Territory's investment banks cooperate with each other and share information so freely.

All the major firms have initiated action to ensure the disease does not spread. So far no one at any of the major investment banks has contracted SARS.

Most have adopted similarly cautious approaches.

JPMorgan, for example, has two "business continuity" meetings per day, at 2.30pm and 5.30pm to discuss SARS and sends out a daily email updating staff. In fact these special SARS taskforce committees seem to have become ubiquitous within all the firms. When another bank chief was asked if it too had a taskforce that met daily, he replied yes, and it even had subcommittees.

The committees aside, the banks have been proactive on many fronts.

Goldman Sachs has been giving out free face masks and asking staff to wear them in the office. It has also employed one of the city's top doctors to come in each day for three hours. It is also reimbursing taxi fares for staff that would normally take public transport to work and back - a practical measure designed to keep its staff from higher risk areas such as the MTR and buses.

CSFB staff are given new masks each day and also have a nurse on standby. Staff have also been told that they can work more flexible hours so as to miss rush hours.

HSBC's whole trading floor is wearing masks these days, with the measure being made mandatory after some staff complained that a certain section of staff weren't putting them on. About 50 traders and sales staff were given last week off to separate them from other staff. They were told not to fraternise with them and as of this week will be relocated to a second 'contingency' trading floor in Kowloon Bay. That way, there will be a back-up trading floor if anyone gets infected. Lift buttons in HSBC's HQ are being cleaned every two hours.

AIG has instructed its staff to come to work in casual clothes because it is easier for them to wash these each evening.

Hygiene is obviously being taken very seriously. Salomon's staff have even been given a lecture by AIA on the proper manner to wash hands.

Moreover Salomon staffers, like those at JPMorgan, have also been told that if they travel from Hong Kong to another territory they cannot visit their local offices for seven days. CSFB bankers have additionally been told they have to visit a doctor before leaving Hong Kong.

These travel constraints are less of a problem - relatively - for those firms with offices, and by extension, bankers, spread throughout Asia. But for those 'suitcase' bankers who hub out of Hong Kong, the SARS disease has hit especially hard. As one banker put it, clients simply don't want to see them.

A private bank noted how one of its senior relationship managers had decided not to travel, but had been asked for a meeting by a very high net worth individual in Thailand. He had flown down only to then have the meeting cancelled as the tycoon became more concerned about the seriousness of the disease. To make matters worse, the Thai government had just announced that morning its policy of making all new arrivals from Hong Kong wear masks or else be fined/ imprisoned. So he had to spend the rest of the afternoon trawling around Bangkok to buy a face mask.

Barclays reacted quickly when the disease broke and 10 days ago sent all of its coverage officers to the countries they look after. The UK bank told them to stay there until the problem was over. No one from the bank is allowed to come to Hong Kong without special permission.

Indeed, most banks now have a policy that all travel has to be signed off by senior business managers. Only highly essential travel is permitted. US firms anecdotally suggested that their colleagues in New York had made it fairly clear that they had no wish to see Hong Kong colleagues making any business trips to America at this point in time.

The same goes for Japan. One unlucky (and very senior) gaijin banker who came to Hong Kong for the Sevens, was then told by his Japanese colleagues in Tokyo that he would not be welcome in the offices till today (Monday).

The irony of the SARS outbreak is that those firms that have their staffs split between different buildings - something previously viewed as a disadvantage - are now finding it a bonus. CSFB, for example, has half its staff in Exchange Square tower 2, and half in tower 3. In what has been nicknamed, "The Two Towers Policy", the staff of each tower have been told to avoid each other, and thus avoid the potential for spreading the disease between the two locations.

These are just some of the approaches we have heard. From travel policy changes to soft measures (such as CLSA handing out vitamin C drinks daily), all have sought to fight SARS in the most constructive way possible.

Are we winning? There are positive signs that the virus is being contained in Hong Kong, but they are not conclusive, and it looks likely that many firms will not be returning to normal business practices and travel policies for a few weeks.