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HSBC boss can do more to cut bank down to size

The logo of HSBC bank is seen at its office in the Canary Wharf business district of London April 1, 2013. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
The logo of HSBC bank is seen at its office in the Canary Wharf business district of London April 1, 2013. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

By Steve Slater

LONDON (Reuters) - HSBC's <0005.HK> sale of a stake in a Korean insurer last month was made with little fanfare, just one of 52 deals struck or businesses closed in the last two years by Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver, and analysts are expecting more.

With less than a year left of his 3-year restructuring plan, Gulliver will report on how he is doing in meeting his targets on Wednesday.

He is expected to say he can find at least $1 billion more in cost savings, axe more jobs and businesses and dangle the prospect of higher dividends for investors.

Gulliver, 54, has succeeded in simplifying HSBC and putting more focus on growth areas, building capital, improving risk management and cutting costs, analysts said.

HSBC did not have control of the Korean insurance business it sold, it was a small operation and insurance is no longer core for the bank. Bought just over five years ago for $58 million, it was like dozens of other purchases Europe's biggest bank has made in its 148-year history.

The sale of more insurance operations and minority holdings seems likely, and further restructuring is on the cards in Europe, the United States and Latin America, where costs remain too high for the bank that was formed in Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1865 to finance trade.

Gulliver's disposals have cut $80 billion in risk-weighted assets from HSBC's balance sheet and brought in more than $10 billion. That could give him scope to bump up the dividend at a time many rivals are still constrained.

"We believe the bank can increase its dividend at least 30 percent this year and in a yield hungry world, this will prove to be a strong catalyst and support for the stock price," said Bernstein analyst Chirantan Barua.

The bank's shares are up 13 percent since the start of 2011, compared to a 9 percent drop by the European bank index <.SX7P>. That has left the bank valued at $210 billion, just ahead of U.S. rival Wells Fargo , making it the third biggest in the world behind China's ICBC and China Construction Bank.

Sluggish growth outside of Asia and the sheer scale of the turnaround means Gulliver may not get costs below his target of 52 percent of revenues or deliver his goal of getting return on equity above 12 percent by this year and there is concern about revenue growth.

"The old problem remains: HSBC's retail bank makes poor returns outside key markets such as Hong Kong and the UK lacks scale. More aggressive action may be needed here, especially in the Americas," said Ronit Ghose, analyst at Citi.

"JUDGE ME ON RESULTS"

Gulliver, a straight talking former investment banker who joined HSBC 33 years ago after a law degree at Oxford, said when he set out his revival plan in May 2011 he would deliver a regular scorecard and should be held accountable at the end.

HSBC's first quarter results last Tuesday showed annual savings of $4 billion and 46,000 fewer staff across the bank.

Gulliver said the global economy is entering "calmer waters" but potential setbacks still lurked, notably in the euro zone.

That is likely to mean the restructuring will continue beyond the initial timeframe but with less urgency, several bankers and analysts said.

"It's been a coherent strategy. He's going through a rational process of getting rid of businesses and I think it will continue beyond this year. Regulators probably still have questions about its size and scope," a senior investment banker said.

HSBC was in December fined a record $1.9 billion after a U.S. investigation into its anti-money laundering controls in Mexico and the United States, which raised concern HSBC struggled to monitor all its operations.

"Our structure was not fit for purpose for a modern world," Gulliver admitted to UK lawmakers following that fine, but said he had centralized control and improved compliance. He added that risk management was at the heart of his restructuring.

Disposals have included multi-billion-dollar sales of HSBC's stake in Chinese insurer Ping An, its U.S. credit card operations and half its U.S. branches, a retreat from many South American countries and dozens of smaller sales, like its general insurance business in Macau.

(Additional reporting by Sinead Cruise; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

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