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…
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