Expat bankers and finance workers are leaving Tokyo in the aftermath of the severe earthquake and the on-going nuclear crisis.
A week since the earthquake and tsunami struck staff from BNP Paribas, Standard Chartered and Morgan Stanley are among the banks whose staff have left.
Expat staff at most foreign banks in Tokyo make up a small portion of the total, by some estimates less than 10%, but many are often in senior positions so their departure can have a significant impact.
‘The foreign banker presence on the ground in Tokyo now is very thin and depending on how long it takes them to return there could be lasting implications of that. Every time there’s a washout of foreigners in Japan they never quite return in the same numbers,’ one banker told Reuters.
With bankers joining the growing exodus, private jet operators reported a surge in demand for evacuation flights that sent prices surging as much as a quarter. One jet operator said the cost of flying 14 people to Hong Kong from Tokyo was more than $160,000.
‘I got a request yesterday to fly 14 people from Tokyo to Hong Kong, a five hour trip. They did not care about price,’ said Jackie Wu, chief operating officer of Hong Kong Jet, a newly established private jet subsidiary of China’s HNA Group.
Radiation leaking from the crippled nuclear power plant spread panic across the country, emptying out Tokyo’s normally bustling streets. Scores of flights to the city were halted and embassies warned citizens to leave or avoid the region.
The Tokyo based International Bankers Association (IBA), which represents 16 major investment banks, issued a statement on Tuesday saying that none of them had closed business or ordered evacuations.
‘We are watching the situation as it unfolds, but right now, it’s business as usual,’ Christopher Knight, Japan chief executive officer for Standard Chartered, adding that his office was staffed and open. Other banks, including Citigroup, J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley, said they are operating as usual.
While Japan markets remained open, and banks were indeed open, many financial professionals, particularly those from outside Japan, were doing everything they could to get out of the country. They are leaving for Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul.
And despite the statements, foreign bankers choosing to remain in Tokyo and Japanese bankers said that it was anything but business as usual at the moment with communications patchy, rolling blackouts, thinly manned desks and so many people looking to leave.
While the banks were not officially relocating people, they were accommodating employees and their families who wanted to leave. ‘At the end of the day, it’s the employees choice whether they flee or stay back,’ a banker at a European investment bank said.
Several bankers compared the situation to the outbreak of SARS in 2003 that prompted hordes of foreign professionals to leave Hong Kong.
BNP Paribas has moved about 10 people away from Japan for business continuity purposes out of a staff of about 900, according to the bank’s spokesman, Daniel Boyd. A number of senior Standard Chartered staff left Japan for Hong Kong and Singapore.
Others are preparing to leave. ‘We have contingency plans and if the situation changes this may involve moving some staff to other locations as needed to ensure business continuity,’ a Citi spokesman said.
The low foreign banker presence in Tokyo has also been exacerbated by many bankers on business trips abroad not returning to Tokyo.