Money & Banking

HSBC CEO John Flint steps down in a surprise move

Bloomberg London | Updated on August 05, 2019 Published on August 05, 2019

File Photo of John Flint, chief executive officer of HSBC Holdings.   -  Bloomberg

The bank’s Hong Kong-listed shares fall about 15 per cent in the past year

John Flint’s tenure running HSBC Holdings Plc has come to an abrupt end, with the bank announcing early on Monday in Asia that the chief executive officer was stepping down. The surprise move was made to help the bank, which has seen its Hong Kong-listed shares fall about 15 per cent in the past year, meet the challenges it faces, Chairman Mark Tucker said in a statement.

Global banks are struggling with low to negative rates, trade tensions slowing growth and disruptions from automation. European firms in particular have found it hard to cope while Deutsche Bank AG is restructuring its operations and cutting 18,000 jobs while Societe Generale SA plans to cut about 1,600 positions.

Read more: Deutsche Bank may cut up to 20,000 jobs in major revamp plan

Flint will be replaced on an interim basis by Noel Quinn, head of global commercial banking. The lender, which also released its latest quarterly results several hours earlier than scheduled, didn’t give a reason for the decision. Flint, 51, joined HSBC in 1989 and took over as CEO in February 2018.

Timing-wise, this is strange. Its a sudden move given the short time he’s served as the CEO, said Alex Wong, Hong Kong-based director of asset management at Ample Capital Ltd. For the longer term, the prospects for HSBC look negative. The lender’s shares were down 1.7 per cent at 10:35 am in Hong Kong.

HSBC makes most of its money oiling the wheels of trade between East and West, and the bank has faced repeated questions about why a business heavily skewed toward some of the world’s fastest-growing economies can’t make better returns. As a result, Flint implemented Project Oak, a program aimed at getting more buy-in from managers to get costs under control at a bank sprawling over more than 60 markets.

At least 500 jobs were set to be culled within global banking and markets, people familiar with the matter said in May, with London likely to be in the front line. The CEO’s departure follows exits last month of US head Patrick Burke and Greg Pierce, who ran the US markets business.

HSBC has struggled to win over investors. One of Flint’s key promises was that revenue gains would outpace cost increases, a trend the bank refers to as positive jaws. He failed to achieve that in his first year at the helm, though the bank said Monday that first-half adjusted jaws was a positive 4.5 per cent.

The lender also said it would shortly begin a buyback of up to $1 billion and announced pre-tax profit for the quarter of $6.2 billion. The bank said in Monday’s statement that it did not expect to achieve its targeted 6 per cent return on tangible equity in the US by 2020. While HSBC will continue to target overall RoTE of more than 11 per cent in 2020, we will not take short-term decisions that could jeopardize the long-term health of the business, it said.

First-half adjusted pre-tax profit rose 6.8 per cent from a year earlier to $12.5 billion. Adjusted operating expenses rose to $8.1 billion from $7.8 billion.

HSBC faces a dilemma between the need to invest in its global businesses and the pressure to show it has costs under control. The bank had budgeted investments of $5 billion this year, but its been measured in laying that out, spending just $1 billion in the first three months.

Flints short tenure as CEO is in contrast to his predecessor Stuart Gulliver, who ran HSBC between 2011 and 2018, and grappled with the impact on the bank of the global financial crisis. During Gulliver’s years in charge, the London-based lender faced pressure on its earnings from new regulations and low interest rates, and had to navigate misconduct scandals, which revealed widespread compliance failures.

Investors may find it difficult to understand this decision that came through all of a sudden as HSBC appears to be on the right track, said Ronald Wan, chief executive of Partners Capital International Ltd. Its unclear why they made such a decision. It makes people wonder if there’s any dispute internally over the banks management or strategy.

Published on August 05, 2019
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