HSBC's tough week

Can a bank chief ever know what his 257,000 employees are up to?

February 27, 2015
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It had already been a long day for Stuart Gulliver, HSBC’s chief executive. Having spent the previous week explaining that the HSBC’s Swiss private bank was no longer a "go to" place for dodgy tax evaders, he had woken on Monday morning to headlines revealing that he had once held an account there himself as the beneficial owner of a Panama-registered company. Cue another round of lawyers’ statements explaining that Mr Gulliver’s motive for the shelter was privacy not tax avoidance and that he had paid his taxes in full. And all of this on the day when he had to present HSBC’s below par annual profits.

At the set piece presentation at which these results were explained to the City, analysts, ever mindful of where their bread is buttered, largely stuck to convention, peppering management with an hour or so of polite questions about financial ratios. But with less to lose by being disruptive, the media were more pressing, seeking to re-open the Swiss affair. Eventually they got their angle. “It seems to me that we are holding large corporations to higher standards than the military, the church or civil service,” said Gulliver. “Can I know what every one of 257,000 people is doing? Clearly I can’t. If you want to ask the question could it ever happen again—that is not reasonable.

It was Gulliver’s "doing God’s work moment", reminiscent of the time when Goldman Sachs’ chief executive Lloyd Blankfein had attempted to deflect criticism by claiming that the investment bank was pursuing a higher calling. But whereas Blankein’s comments were interpreted in some quarters as being tongue-in-cheek, Gulliver appeared deadly serious. Was this a weary comment from a man who had been chased from pillar to post for a week about issues he regarded as historic or was he making a valid point that accountability in the corporate world was out of line with that in other sectors?

He got the chance to clarify matters just two days later at Wednesday’s Treasury Select Committee hearing into HSBC’s Swiss misadventures. The session was a damp squib. The Treasury Select Committee has lost the sharpness and wit it had under previous chairman John McFall and bankers summoned there have learned that the secret of a successful appearance is to be boring, humble and apologetic. Gulliver and HSBC’s chairman Douglas Flint were all of these things.

In one of the few telling moments Gulliver drew back from his earlier remarks, acknowledging that his comparators with the church, military and civil service were misplaced. It may have been a tactical withdrawal or it may have been a change of heart. Only Gulliver knows. Whatever the truth, it was a well-judged retreat for Monday’s statement had left the impression that bankers are still living in a parallel universe.

Gulliver’s latest annual compensation is £7.4m, exactly a hundred times that of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Gulliver does a difficult job by all accounts very well but, like Lloyd Blankfein, he and other top bankers need to remember that their role carries different levels of reward and responsibility from those who really do God’s work.

Philip Augar is a non-executive director at TSB but writes on banking and other issues in a personal capacity.