Born in Asia but Based in Britain, HSBC Fights to Stay in One Piece
  • 4.05.2023
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The global bank’s biggest shareholder, the giant Chinese insurer Ping An, wants HSBC to spin off its profitable Asian operation.

For many investors, HSBC, Europe’s largest lender with a venerable place in Britain’s banking industry, offers little to critique: It is performing well and has focused on its most profitable and fastest-growing operations, those in Asia.

But for the firm’s largest investor, the sprawling Chinese insurance giant Ping An, that isn’t enough.

Over the past year, Ping An has waged a campaign to convince HSBC to spin off its Hong Kong-based operations in some way, cracking open the bank’s global empire to improve its financial performance. It’s a move that HSBC’s board has strongly resisted as costly and ineffective.

The clash will come to a head at HSBC’s annual shareholder meeting in the English city of Birmingham on Friday, where investors will vote on two proposals backed by Ping An, including one that would push the bank to regularly consider revamping its global structure.

Those initiatives face long odds, even with Ping An owning an 8 percent stake. Influential investor advisory firms oppose the measures, and HSBC’s latest financial results were strong, reporting earnings that greatly exceeded expectations. But Ping An, which first invested in HSBC in 2017, has shown little inclination to walk away.

From its founding in 1865 in Hong Kong, HSBC was meant to bridge east and west. Since then, it has moved its headquarters to Britain and expanded its financial reach worldwide, with nearly $3 trillion in assets putting it in the top 10 largest global banks.

Still, the company continues to draw nearly half of its revenue from customers in Asia, including Hong Kong and mainland China, with the remainder coming from Europe, the Middle East and North America. And it has moved to sell operations in less important markets, including retail banking in Canada and the United States.

That uniquely strong presence by a Western bank in the growing Asian markets puts HSBC on strong footing, particularly as China’s economy re-emerges from pandemic lockdowns.

But to Ping An and some other investors, the bank hasn’t done enough to bolster its China-facing businesses, instead siphoning off money from them to buttress slower-growing operations in the West. Especially galling to those shareholders was HSBC’s halting of its stock dividend payments in early 2020, after the Bank of England barred British banks from paying them to conserve capital during the pandemic.

The insurer is also worried about HSBC being hurt by geopolitical tensions between Beijing and the West. The bank was criticized in China for aiding the United States prosecution of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the telecommunications giant Huawei. But it has also drawn rebuke by American lawmakers for freezing the accounts of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, at the behest of local authorities, and for the then-head of HSBC’s Asia operation publicly supporting a Beijing-imposed national security law in the territory.

Ping An is a behemoth in its own right: It is the world’s largest insurance company, but also offers health care and banking. It has pressed HSBC executives to consider various ways of breaking off its Asian operations, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. Last month, it threw its support behind shareholder proposals to require HSBC to regularly review its structure and to restore its dividend to prepandemic levels.

“We have been extremely disappointed by HSBC management’s consistent closed-minded attitude to all solutions,” Michael Huang, the chief executive of Ping An’s asset management arm, said in a statement.

In a concession to HSBC management’s objections, Ping An has proposed listing the bank’s Hong Kong arm as a separate publicly traded company, while letting HSBC maintain a majority stake.

Even then, the bank said it remained unconvinced. That stance was backed by shareholder advisory firms that counsel investors on how to vote in corporate elections. One of them, Institutional Shareholder Services, cited a “lack of detailed rationale commensurate with the implications of the proposal” in recommending a rejection of the plan.

Days before Friday’s annual meeting, HSBC’s first-quarter earnings report probably earned further support from other investors. The lender said its profit surpassed investor expectations: After-tax earnings more than tripled from a year ago, to $11 billion, on the back of higher interest income and onetime accounting gains.

“It’s hard to pick holes” in the results, Perlie Mong, a research analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a very strong beat.”

Of more importance to restive shareholders was HSBC’s pledge to buy back up to $2 billion of its shares — a move to help drive up the share price — and resume paying a quarterly dividend for the first time since 2019. The bank’s chief executive, Noel Quinn, suggested the lender could return more money to investors and cited the results as proof of a winning strategy.

“I believe our first-quarter results reinforce our recommendations and demonstrate that our current strategy is the fastest and safest way to improve returns,” Mr. Quinn told analysts on Tuesday.

In a statement, Ping An said the positive results were the result of accounting measures and interest rate rises, and said it still supported the shareholder proposals.

 

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