HSBC CEO Noel Quinn likes to describe the mission of the sprawling, 155-year-old financial institution he helms as providing a “bridge between China and the international trading community.”
In a recent call with journalists, Quinn argued that, while tensions between China and the U.S. “inevitably create challenging situations” for the bank, sticking with that mission was the best way to ensure “the greatest long-term benefit” for customers, no matter “the political context at the time.”
It’s a noble goal. But as relations between the two superpowers grow ever-more contentious, analysts, investors, and the financial press have come to see HSBC’s “mission” as a predicament. Increasingly, they describe the bank’s situation with an alternative metaphor: “walking a tightrope.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complicated HSBC’s hire-wire act Wednesday by attacking the British lender for allegedly shutting accounts for people linked to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement—even as it continues to operate bank accounts for individuals sanctioned by the U.S. government.
In a statement, Pompeo blasted HSBC for freezing credit card and personal bank accounts of Next Digital, a publishing company whose flagship tabloid, Apple Daily, has been critical Beijing’s oversight of Hong Kong. Lai, a frequent participant in pro-democracy demonstrations, was arrested on August 10 on charges of violating Beijing’s controversial new national security law.
Pompeo decried “the Chinese Communist Party’s coercive bullying tactics” against British companies. HSBC’s shares slumped in Hong Kong trading Thursday.
The facts of the Next Digital case are murky. Mark Simon, a senior executive of the company who has left Hong Kong, told Reuters that HSBC has frozen Lai’s personal and private business accounts, as well as Simon’s own personal and credit card accounts. Next Digital’s business accounts reportedly remain open.
HSBC isn’t commenting. A spokesman for the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office said only that it was in “close contact with a wide range of businesses in Hong Kong.” China’s foreign ministry was also mum.
But Pompeo’s broadside is the latest of many that have tested HSBC’s acrobatic skills in recent months. The bank drew harsh criticism from lawmakers and investors in the U.S. and the U.K. for publicly affirming its support for the new national security law. Pompeo called that move a “corporate kowtow.”
The bank also has been thrown off balance by allegations in China’s state-owned press that it colluded with U.S. authorities in “fabricating facts” and “maliciously framing” Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies. Meng, daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, remains under house arrest in Canada, where she faces extradition to the U.S. on charges of violating sanctions against Iran. HSBC took to Chinese social media to debunk what it called a “misinterpretation of the facts”—only to have its account on WeChat blocked.
Financial pressures on the bank don’t help. Although HSBC’s headquarters are in London, more than 80% of its profits come from Asia, mostly Hong Kong. The bank announced a “pivot to Asia” strategy in 2015, and doubled down this year with a restructuring plan that will cut 35,000 jobs and shift more resources to Asia.
Bloomberg reports that, in China, HSBC has ramped up investment in commercial banking, credit cards, investment banking, and wealth management, and now employs more than 8,000 in 170 outlets in the country.
HSBC’s long history in China is unique. But it’s dependence on China for future growth is not. We’ve argued often in this space that, for all its challenges, China remains the best growth story in the global economy—one that many Fortune Global 500 CEOs know they can’t afford to ignore. As the Wall Street Journal noted earlier this month, China’s rebounding consumer economy offset plummeting sales back home for many U.S. companies.
In this week’s Eastworld Spotlight conversation, Jefferies International chief global strategist Sean Darby argues that the importance of the China market looms especially large for companies in finance—not just HSBC, but competitors including Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Credit Suisse. Sean, who’s one of the savviest China analysts we know, also argues that over the last five years, China’s equity markets have deepened and matured, leaving China’s emerging tech ventures far less dependent on Western exchanges for raising capital.
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This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Grady McGregor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.