HSBC’s strategic overhaul is already heading for a place in the business school curriculum. This was, after all, the group that called itself “the world’s local bank” in its advertising campaigns and once relocated its chief executive to its traditional Asian hub in Hong Kong. But current, (firmly London-based) incumbent Stuart Gulliver has more modest international ambitions.
As an old student of HSBC – or, as I prefer to call it, Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation – I found Stuart Gulliver’s remarks about the inadequacy of its structure following the Mexico money laundering scandal fascinating.
HSBC’s chief executive told the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards on Wednesday:
“Our structure was not fit for purpose for a modern world. Our geographic footprint became very attractive to transnational criminal organisations, whether they are terrorist in origin or criminal in origin.”
The $2.6bn in fines levied against HSBC and Standard Chartered indicates that what used to be regarded as these banks’ biggest virtues – their exposure to emerging markets and new growth economies – are also weaknesses.
Foreign banks have been having a tough time at the hands of US bank regulators recently, and these fines have a hint of protectionism. There is clearly a feeling that foreign banks have destabilised the US financial system and systematically breached laws.
One indication of the mood in Washington is a proposal by Daniel Tarullo, a senior Federal Reserve regulatory official, to top up capital requirements on foreign banks to ensure they are in line with domestic banks.
Barclays: "a Britain-and-onetime-colonies bank"
It’s common to think of Barclays and HSBC as global banks. Certainly, they’re more international than their big UK rivals, as their recent interim results demonstrate. But Pankaj Ghemawat, professor of global strategy at IESE Business School and author of World 3.0, points out that they are more geographically concentrated than most people think – and that’s a good thing.
One way of viewing the explosive argument in the HSBC boardroom that has led to the departure of Michael Geoghegan as chief executive is purely as a personality clash between him and John Thornton, the former Goldman banker who might have been appointed as chairman.
The other is as the latest round in a very long tussle between Hong Kong and London over who should be in charge of HSBC. Confusingly, both sides of the argument are represented by white middle-aged men since Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank was a British colonial institution.
(A further way of looking at this, incidentally, is as the Scots versus the English, given that HSBC was at its heart Scottish Presbyterian).
It dates back to the HSBC acquisition of Midland Bank in 1992, when the Bank of England insisted not only on the combined bank being supervised from London, but on Sir Willie Purves, the entertainingly fierce former head of HSBC splitting the roles of chairman and chief executive.
Lady Bracknell would have something to say about the current proclivity of the British high street banks for losing chief executives.
First it was John Varley at Barclays, then it was Eric Daniels at Lloyds and next it may be Michael Geoghegan of HSBC, who has threatened to quit if he is not appointed chairman. Are you sitting comfortably, Stephen Hester of Royal Bank of Scotland?