HSBC will not “flip-flop” on strategy every time there is a flare-up in tensions between Beijing and the west, according to chief executive Noel Quinn, rebuffing criticism of the bank for moving closer to China as it cracks down on Hong Kong.
Europe’s largest bank is being used as a political piñata, trapped between two superpowers in an increasingly belligerent confrontation that shows little sign of abating under US President Joe Biden.
“We’ve been in that role for 156 years,” Quinn said in an interview. “You’re cognisant of those tensions, you try to manage them to the best of your ability, but you can’t redraw the core strategy of the bank based on what is a relative moment in time.
“We’re not a political organisation and we don’t want to be,” he said, adding that HSBC supports all human rights and conventions. “We operate in 60 countries around the world and we’re a guest in most . . . I don’t look at it from a nation state perspective. I look at it from a customer-by-customer perspective.”
Quinn, a straight-talking commercial banker from Birmingham, has had a turbulent first 20 months in charge.
US diplomats have repeatedly attacked the lender on Twitter. China has threatened to add HSBC to its “unreliable entities” list in a long-running spat over its role in the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer.
And in January, the 59-year-old was grilled for hours by UK politicians over HSBC’s implicit support of Hong Kong’s national security law and for freezing the accounts of pro-democracy activists.
“We are the principal bank in Hong Kong and it has had a tough 12, 18 months,” said Quinn. “It’s reasonable to expect scrutiny, it is difficult, but . . . I still have a huge amount of strong, positive feelings for Hong Kong. That is not a party line, that is genuine. I will never walk away.”
In reality, he has little choice. Founded in 1865 in the territory, Asia contributes more than 90 per cent of HSBC’s profit, increasingly from mainland China. Last year it made a big loss in Europe and barely anything in the Americas or Middle East combined.
Some have called for HSBC to abandon the global strategy that it has pursued since the mid-1970s and break itself up.
Autonomous analyst Manus Costello has argued that the bank’s “three-legged stool” strategy, with outposts straddling Asia, the Americas and Europe, is now too wobbly to justify.
Quinn rejects this. “I do believe there’s still a place for an international bank, one headquartered in London, bridging east and west,” he said. “My evidence is my clients. Even in a year of low growth, geopolitical tensions, a slow economic environment, we saw an increase of 8 per cent in the international activity” of commercial customers.
Still, he has continued slashing back the perimeter of the bank, driven by his fearsome chair, Mark Tucker, whom many see as the true power behind the scenes. The former insurance executive has publicly criticised the sprawling, bureaucratic institution, which one former boss suggested became too big to manage.
Quinn was appointed permanent group chief executive of HSBC in March last year, after holding the position on an interim basis since August 2019 when his predecessor John Flint was fired by Tucker. He stepped up to the position with some conditions.
“The one thing I did say at the time is I really wanted to have the mandate for change, change of people, change of structure, change of strategy,” Quinn recalled. “Mark knows I would only ever do it as CEO . . . he’s given me all the headroom that I wanted . . . [and] I’ve enjoyed executing that mandate to the fullest degree possible.”
Such change is overdue. Earnings have stalled under pressure from new regulations and ultra-low interest rates, exacerbated by a plunge in global trade during the pandemic. In 2020, HSBC’s pre-tax profit dropped 45 per cent. It made a 3.1 per cent return on equity, less than a third of its target.
Under Quinn, the bank has tried to be more radical. In February, it announced it would further shrink in Europe and the US and double down in the Chinese mainland, hiring thousands more wealth advisers in a region when it already manages $1.6tn of wealthy clients’ assets.
Seven top executives have been changed and four division managers relocated to Hong Kong from London. Quinn described this as “moving the heart of the business to Asia”, while promising to keep its headquarters in the UK.
Quinn has flip-flopped on one aspect of his strategy: the US business. After initially deciding to try to turn round the loss-making retail network, it is now up for sale. He hopes that, after the disposal, regulators will approve the release of $5bn of capital to be used for growth or returned to investors.
HSBC is counting on an extra $6bn of investment promised to Hong Kong, China and Singapore to galvanise a pre-Covid overhaul it announced in early 2020. It pledged to redeploy as much as $100bn of risk-weighted assets to Asia and slash 35,000 jobs.
Quinn said that $52bn had already been cut and another $30bn would be slashed by the end of 2021. HSBC also raised its cost-saving target by $1bn, to $5.5bn. The bank has cut 11,000 staff and contractors since the start of 2020, but still has 226,000 full-time employees.
Despite the new strategic urgency, and a consistent dividend, investors remain unconvinced. HSBC’s shares hit a 25-year low in September and even with an 11 per cent rebound this year, are down 36 per cent over the past decade.