Hong Kong’s banks say they have adequate cash to meet demand, even as calls circulate online for protesters to empty out ATMs

Chad Bray

Hong Kong’s biggest banks said they have enough currency notes on hand to handle any extraordinary increase in demand for cash, as calls circulated online for protesters to empty out automated teller machines (ATMs) to disrupt the banking system in Asia’s financial hub.

HSBC, the largest of the city’s three currency-issuing banks, said it “has sufficient supply of banknotes and is committed to supporting its customers and the smooth operation of the financial system in Hong Kong,” according to a bank spokeswoman.

Bank of East Asia, DBS, OCBC Wing Hang Bank and Hang Seng Bank said they have put contingency plans in place, and are keeping their eyes on withdrawals via their teller machines.

The call-to-action is the latest in a series of attempts to disrupt Hong Kong’s infrastructure, after protesters occupied the airport earlier this week, forcing the airfield to cancel flights as many as 1,000 flights over two straight days. In late June, protesters disrupted services at key stations on the city’s subway network, as they stepped up their campaign to oppose a controversial extradition bill.

Even though the unpopular bill was declared “dead” by the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, her reluctance to formally withdraw it has sparked 11 weeks of persistent protest rallies that have deteriorated into street clashes with police. Demonstrations have evolved into complaints about the city’s government and the police response to the protests, involving tear gas and rubber bullets in violent clashes with some hardened groups of demonstrators.

Throughout the protests, word had circulated online, calling on protesters to empty out ATMs around the city at various points.

“I don’t think it will be a problem,” because the demand for new currency ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations every year “when the public exchange old notes for new ones for their lai see packets” is “much more” than any run on ATMs, said George Leung Siu-kay, an adviser to HSBC, Asia-Pacific.

Most banks set daily limits on ATM withdrawals at between HK$20,000 (US$2,548) and HK$40,000, but some accounts authorise up to HK$80,000 to be taken out everyday. Daily withdrawal limits are also usually in place for foreign currencies.

Some messages on an online forum called LIHKG and circulated via the Telegram messaging platform have called on protesters to convert their Hong Kong dollars into US dollars to drive down the value of the local currency.

Some netizens on LIHKG have expressed frustration as some ATMs had run out of the US currency. On Telegram, with more than 1,700 subscribers, some users are providing updates of the ATMs around Hong Kong that have run out of US dollars.

HSBC said that its Hong Kong dollar ATMs were “operating as normal,” but that it had to replenish some of its US dollar ATMs on Thursday.

Hong Kong’s currency has been pegged at HK$7.8 to the US dollar since 1983, with a trading band of between HK$7.75 and HK$7.85 per dollar added in 2005. The local currency changed hands between HK$7.8320 and HK$7.8474 this week, never weakening to touch the lower end of the trading band.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the city’s de facto central bank, said that commercial banks’ operations remain normal.

“The banking system of Hong Kong is safe and sound. Local banks are well capitalised and highly liquid, and their asset quality is good,” an HKMA spokesman told the Post. “The HKMA calls on the public to avoid affecting banks’ operations and respect other bank customers’ rights to access banking services when expressing their opinions.”

Wing Wong, 43, an MTR operations staff at the city’s subway network, withdrew Hong Kong dollars at the ATM today, after buying £100,000 (US$121,000/HK$949,200) at HSBC’s headquarters on Thursday, as he was afraid that the local currency would weaken amid the city’s ongoing political turmoil.

“I think the political crisis would affect the economy and make the exchange rate fall, but not because of a single cash withdrawal day,” he said. “The protesters don’t have enough power to shake the Hong Kong economy.”

ATMs at HSBC's headquarters in Central in Hong Kong on 5 November 2012. Photo: SCMP

“The banking system in Hong Kong is very solid and has adequate liquidity,” Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po said on Thursday, when asked about the protesters’ call to action. “We have confidence in our banking sector. People have the freedom to express their views, but [that] should not affect [how] the public uses the banks’ services.”

Standard Chartered Bank declined to comment.

“We are closely monitoring the situation and will continue to do so throughout the day,” a Citibank spokeswoman said on Friday.

A DBS spokesman said the bank has “adequate backup and business continuity plans in place” to support the bank’s operations.

“We have heard about the rumour. [Today] is a normal banking day and thus all our branches and ATMs are in operations as usual,” according to a spokeswoman at OCBC-Wing Hang Bank. “We have ensured all branches have sufficient banknotes available for customer withdrawal. All ATMs are filled with sufficient banknotes as well.”

With additional reporting by Rachel Yeo

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