March 16, 2011

Japan Quake: Radiation Fears Force Foreign Bankers to Flee Tokyo

Rising radiation drives bank staff exits as cost of evacuation jumps

The danger of radiation sent foreign bankers looking for physical safe havens on Wednesday, as worries continued over the potential for nuclear meltdown at Japan’s earthquake-damaged reactors. Prices for evacuation flights had risen by as much as 25%.

According to Reuters, foreign bankers from such institutions as BNP Paribas (BNPP.PA), Standard Chartered (STAN.L) and Morgan Stanley (MS.N) have left either Tokyo or Japan itself on commercial and charter flights as ongoing problems at Fukushima Daiichi continued to release elevated levels of radiation that have been detected in Tokyo. Workers at Fukushhima Daiichi were briefly evacuated because of heightened radiation levels, then allowed to return, but efforts to cool the reactors by water dropped from helicopters were canceled, also due to high radiation levels.

France has, according to The Guardian, characterized the situation at Fukushima as just short of Level 7 (Chernobyl was Level 7) in severity, and urged French nationals to leave Japan or at least relocate to the southern portion of the country, but Japan itself has given no such orders. Such a move may provide only relative safety, however, as not only the region around Fukushima continues to be hit with aftershocks, but a 6.0 magnitude quake hit eastern Japan on Wednesday that could be felt in Tokyo.

While the Tokyo-based International Bankers Association (IBA) said in a Tuesday statement that none of its 16 member banks had closed or given orders for staff to evacuate, private jet operators were cashing in on the exodus. Jackie Wu, COO of Hong Kong Jet, a new private jet subsidiary of China's HNA Group, said in the

report, "I got a request yesterday to fly 14 people from Tokyo to Hong Kong, 5-hour, 5-minutes trip. They did not care about price." One jet operator said evacuation of 14 people by air from Tokyo to Hong Kong topped $160,000.

While the quantity of expatriates making up foreign bank staff in Tokyo is not large, perhaps less than 10%, that percentage is often made up of senior personnel whose exit can significantly impact business. One unnamed banker was quoted as saying, "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."

Christopher Knight, Japan CEO for Standard Chartered, said Wednesday in the report that his office was open and working, saying, "We are watching the situation as it unfolds, but right now, it's business as usual." Citigroup (C.N), J.P. Morgan (JPM.N) and Morgan Stanley all said that business was as usual as well.

 However, both remaining foreign bankers and Japanese bankers said it was anything but, as they coped with rolling blackouts, on-and-off communications, fleeing people, and low staff levels. And while Morgan Stanley in the report denied evacuating any staff, an unnamed source told Thomson Reuters' IFR that the bank's credit team had been moved from Tokyo. IFR was reported to have spoken with 14 bankers from the bond syndicate and equities desks of Citigroup, J.P. Morgan, Deutsche Bank (DBKGn.DE), Morgan Stanley, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch (BAC.N) and BNP Paribas who had already departed for Singapore, Hong Kong or Seoul or who were trying to leave.

One European investment banker was quoted as saying, "At the end of the day, it's the employees' choice whether they flee or stay back." When asked who was leaving, he replied, "Who isn't? Everyone is trying to get out. Wouldn't you?"

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