Can HSBC Come Home Again?

HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, is seeking to pivot back to its Asian roots in an effort to raise its return on equity. That goal has a cosy feel in the year the bank celebrates its 150th anniversary. The problem is that its roots are now actually more in British and western commerce in Asia than in independent Asia itself.

Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver may need reminding that it was recognition of this imperial origin that 40 years ago spurred the then Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation to raise its sights beyond its home territory of the China coast treaty ports and a Southeast Asia dominated by ethnic Chinese and foreign business.

That territory, it perceived, was no longer the whole future. China itself, Vietnam and Indonesia were for all practical purposes closed to HSBC. Singapore and Malaysia remained profitable but branch expansion to take advantage of fast-growing economies was limited by nationalist rules to foster locally-owned banks, such as state-controlled Development Bank of Singapore and Malayan Banking. India too was largely state bank territory.

HSBC did not miss any boat by not continuing to focus on Asia. It had little option but to use the surging profits from its Hong Kong banking oligopoly to diversify in new directions. First it consolidated its imperial base by acquiring British bank of the Middle East and Mercantile Bank, then launched into acquisitions in the US with Marine Midland and Midland Bank in the UK, at the same time taking tentative steps into investment banking.

Eventually 25 years of expansion driven by a combination of financial globalization and management ambition led to overextension. Not only did it seek to be a major player from its London base in capital-intensive global financial markets, but expanded its network to all corners of the earth where it saw growth – Brazil, Turkey, Russia etc. – and mature ones such as France and Australia. “The World’s Local Bank” it called itself.

That might have worked even within the limited time horizons of a management driven more by pressure for return on equity than by longer term vision. But two other acquisitions at the extreme, grubbier ends of the financial industry spectrum not only cost HSBC tens of billions of dollars but showed a management set on rapid expansion but unable to understand the value of HSBC’s reputation for being staid and trustworthy: Aggressive US sub-prime US lender Household Finance and Republic Bank, best known for keeping the affairs of the very rich under Swiss wraps, legal or otherwise.

Write-downs, fines, opportunity costs and reputational losses from these two, plus HSBC’s Mexican money laundering, may total US$30 billion. All that in addition to the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Losses arising from efforts to build sustainable businesses in Brazil, Turkey, Russia and other major countries have been minuscule by comparison.

So now back to Asia. But which Asia? In its previous cost-cutting exercise it ended its attempt to establish networks in Japan and Korea. It closed its branch in Thailand in 2011 despite having been the first bank there in 1888 and despite being allowed to expand its network. However it is expanding in India, Vietnam and Indonesia and maintains a modest presence in Philippines and Bangladesh.

China has been increasingly profitable thanks to investment banking and the spin-off from China trade growth. But the latter is slowing and there is scant chance of foreign banks being allowed more than a marginal presence in mainland retail banking. Hong Kong itself is a mature market which is growing but where HSBC’s share may well come under increased pressure from mainland banks. The surge of nationalism in China and the slow erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy suggest that a wholesale retreat to the China coast would be foolhardy.

Management is also in another muddle over its identity. For a decade it has been promoting HSBC as a global brand. But its retail name in the UK, its single largest market is now probably to be changed back to what it was before HSBC acquired it – Midland Bank. (Meanwhile an Indonesian acquisition Bank Ekonomi is to become HSBC!) Separating a national retail operation from the rest does not require a change of name in the UK any more than in Malaysia.

Defining a 21st century identity for HSBC is no easy task, particularly for a chief executive under pressure for short term performance. But as an observer of HSBC since the early 1970s, it is hard for this writer to see much more than cost cutting for its own sake in Gulliver’s latest announcement. If there is an Asian focus it is only one defined by cuts elsewhere, not by a clear strategy.