The Bankers are at it Again

Despite all the lessons they have supposedly been taught since the 2008 financial crisis, some of the world’s biggest banks are still driven by executives motivated largely by short-term, bonus-focused greed – and to hell with the interests of their customers.

Count among them HSBC, one of the world’s biggest and oldest banks, and Goldman Sachs, once famously described by Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

First HSBC. The tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who daily walk past, board or alight at the bus and tram stops outside HSBC’s headquarters in Hong Kong are being treated to a huge display advertising how HSBC can help you lose a bucket of money very quickly while the managers make off with whatever may be their rewards for selling such potentially toxic products.

The advertisements are clearly aimed at attracting mass market interest in Warrants and Callable Bull/Bear Contracts, to which it gives the cozy-sounding initials CBBCs. These are self-evidently complex and extremely highly leveraged products entirely unsuitable for more than a few knowledgeable and experienced investors willing to gamble on winning or losing a lot of money very quickly.

Indeed, as the advertisement further boasts its execution abilities for trades “where time doesn’t count in minutes but seconds”. In addition to Warrants and CBBCs, the masters of the universe at HSBC can also off the public a wide range of other derivative products.

Thus HSBC is using the space in front of what has been its headquarters since its founding in 1865 to miss-sell to the masses just the kind of management greed driven products that it has cost it billions of Hong Kong dollars, and reputation, in fines and lawsuits since 2008.

These even include a rap on the knuckles from Hong Kong’s notoriously bank-friendly authorities for miss-selling the toxic products of Lehman Bros, which went under in 2008. More than just this one product, it was fined for systemic miss-selling of structured products. Meanwhile elsewhere, HSBC was hit with huge fines for, among other things, laundering Mexican drug money, a lack of internal controls which enabled traders to conspire against clients, “spoofing” in the US futures market – creating a false impression of demand/supply of a product. In France, HSBC had to pay out 300 million Euros to avoid trial on facilitating tax evasion.

Given such a long record of sleaze, it is extraordinary that HSBC should now be attempting to sell dangerous derivatives to the general public. It is curious too that neither the Securities and Futures Commission, nor the Monetary Authority, have stepped in to prevent this latest attempt to sell just the same kind of potentially toxic products for which they have been fined in the recent past.

Customers of HSBC cannot help but feel constantly the staff are for ever under pressure to sell products rather than simply provide banking services. Visit a branch to, for example, make a normal forex transfer and the customer ends up fending off a teller’s attempt to sell this and that product or service regardless of the customer’s needs or knowledge. In the case of this writer, his last visit to a branch ended with the teller trying to convince him to switch from Visa to Mastercard. The teller was polite enough but was unable to provide any reason for such a switch. But he clearly was expected by his bosses to favor one card over the other.

As for Goldman, the New York-based investment bank, according to the US television channel CNBC, issued an extraordinary biotech report asking whether curing patients is a sustainable business model.

In an April 10 report, titled “The Genome Revolution,” analyst Salveen Richter cited cited the genome research company Gilead Sciences and its treatment for Hepatitis C, which apparently is effective in 90 percent of cases.

"The potential to deliver 'one shot cures' is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically-engineered cell therapy and gene editing,” the report said, according to CNBC.” However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies. While this proposition carries tremendous value for patients and society, it could represent a challenge for genome medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow."

Gilead’s US sales for these hepatitis C treatments peaked at US$12.5 billion in 2015, but have been falling ever since. Goldman estimates the U.S. sales for these treatments will be less than US$4 billion this year, according to a table in the report. "GILD is a case in point, where the success of its hepatitis C franchise has gradually exhausted the available pool of treatable patients," the analyst wrote. "In the case of infectious diseases such as hepatitis C, curing existing patients also decreases the number of carriers able to transmit the virus to new patients, thus the incident pool also declines … Where an incident pool remains stable (eg, in cancer) the potential for a cure poses less risk to the sustainability of a franchise."

According to the World Health Organization, there are 71 million people in the world suffering from chronic Hepatitis C, meaning there should be a sufficient supply of new cases. There are 17,000 cases recorded in the US alone each year, the WHO says.

Gilead charges US$80,000 for its treatments. That might have something to do with the regimen’s limited appeal. In India, the Punjab government offers a similar 12-week treatment course with DAAs for $120.