Banking giant HSBC plans business overhaul after profits plunge

Bank says it will restructure operations, sell billions of dollars in assets and continue its search for a new CEO.

HSBC logos are seen on a branch bank in the financial district in New York, U.S., August 7, 2019
HSBC is Europe's biggest bank by assets but it makes the bulk of its revenue in Asia [File: Brendan McDermid/Reuters]

HSBC Holdings PLC on Tuesday unveiled plans to cut $100bn in assets, slash its investment bank and restructure in the United States and Europe, as it launched its biggest overhaul in years in a bid to improve returns.

The restructuring announcement comes against the backdrop of its 2019 profit before tax dropping 33 percent, hit by one-time write-offs linked to its investment and commercial banking businesses in Europe.

The wider strategy overhaul also comes amid slowing economic growth in HSBC’s biggest markets, an outbreak of a fast-spreading coronavirus, the United Kingdom’s protracted withdrawal from the European Union, and a drop in central bank interest rates.

While the London-headquartered bank has benefitted from billions of dollars of investment in Asia over the last few years – mainly in China – sluggish performance in Europe and the US has pulled down its returns.

“This should create a leaner, simpler and more competitive group that is better positioned to deliver higher returns for investors,” interim Chief Executive Noel Quinn said in a statement, referring to the restructuring initiatives.

HSBC said the process for appointing a permanent CEO was ongoing and it expected to make an appointment within six to 12 months as earlier outlined.

In announcing the restructuring efforts, HSBC veteran Quinn is also auditioning for the permanent role of CEO, people with knowledge of the matter said earlier.

Europe’s biggest bank by assets, which makes the bulk of its revenue in Asia, reported profit before tax of $13.35bn for 2019 versus $19.89bn a year earlier. That compared with the $20.03bn average of brokerage estimates.

The profit drop was a result of $7.3bn in write-offs linked to its global banking and markets and commercial banking business units in Europe, HSBC said in its earnings statement.

The bank said it plans to reduce its cost base to $31bn or below by 2022, helped by a $4.5bn planned cost-reduction programme. It also plans to make a return on equity of between 10 and 12 percent in the same period, it said. 

HSBC is in more than 50 countries across Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia – with the latter accounting for roughly half of its revenue and 90 percent of profit.

Strategy overhaul

In the US, where the bank has underperformed for years, HSBC said it needed “to reshape the US business in order to improve returns” and would close approximately a third of its 224 branches and target only international and wealthier clients.

As part of its efforts to simplify the group structure, HSBC said it would combine its retail banking and wealth management business unit with global private banking to create one of the world’s largest wealth management businesses.

The bank will also reduce its sales and research coverage in European cash equities with a focus on supporting equity capital market transactions, it said.

The Reuters news agency reported last month, citing people familiar with the matter, that HSBC was cutting about 100 roles in its cash equities business with the bulk of the layoffs falling on its continental European trading floors.

HSBC said the ongoing coronavirus epidemic had significantly impacted its staff and customers and that the outbreak could, in the long run, reduce its revenue and cause bad loans to rise as supply chains are disrupted.

“Longer term, it is also possible that we may see revenue reductions from lower lending and transaction volumes, and further credit losses stemming from disruption to customer supply chains,” Quinn said.

The number of new coronavirus infections in mainland China fell below 2,000 on Tuesday for the first time since January, although global experts said it is still too early to say the outbreak is being contained.

Source: Reuters