Tax-evasion allegations aren't HSBC's only problem

Stuart Gulliver HSBCAP Photo/Vincent YuStuart Gulliver, HSBC Group chief executive officer and HSBC Asia-Pacific chairman, gestures during a press conference after the Informal meeting of Hong Kong shareholders in Hong Kong, Thursday, May 19, 2011.

Stuart Gulliver, the boss of HSBC, grumbles that publicly owned businesses are now being held to a higher standard of behaviour than bishops. A more apt comparison might be medieval monks, given the self-flagellation that the London-based banking giant has felt obliged to perform in the wake of a tax-dodging scandal. It has run grovelling, full-page apologies in newspapers, admitting that the episode is a “source of shame”, and sent top brass to sit in the stocks in front of the British parliament’s tomato-wielding Treasury committee.

The cause of this penance is the leaking to the media of a list of over 100,000 people who held accounts at HSBC’s Swiss arm in 2005-07. The documents appeared to contain evidence that HSBC bankers connived in clients’ tax evasion. The bank has also had to explain why Mr Gulliver parked his pay in a Swiss account owned by a Panamanian shell company. It says the structure was designed to ensure other employees could not see what he earned, not to dodge tax.

This debacle will not have a big financial impact. In combination, however, HSBC’s legal and regulatory woes are painful. The 17% fall in pre-tax profits for 2014 was largely explained by fines, legal settlements and refunds. There is more to come: HSBC has yet to resolve allegations that it manipulated currency markets; its trading of precious metals is the subject of another probe.

Add to this the need for higher capital buffers at global banks, the soaring cost of compliance and risk-management (which now account for almost a tenth of HSBC’s global workforce of 257,000), and new restrictions on lenders shuffling funds between subsidiaries in different countries to boost their financial efficiency, and it is no wonder the bank has reduced its medium-term target for return on equity, from 12-15% to “at least 10%”. Last year it managed only 7.3%. (Another international bank with British roots and similar woes, Standard Chartered, appointed a new CEO this week.)

HSBC came through the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. But as it grew, more than doubling its headcount in the decade to the mid-2000s, governance and controls failed to keep up, jeopardising its reputation for steady, slightly boring growth. Mr Gulliver is trying to fix that by simplifying the group. Nearly 80 businesses have been sold or closed since he took over in 2011. Yet the bank still needs to take $US1 billion out of its annual expenses, just to offset growing regulatory and compliance costs.

Investment banking is another concern. HSBC has long had only a modest presence in the business compared to its peers. Since the crisis it has swum against the current by expanding it, albeit gently. The unit was the worst performer in the latter part of 2014. Mr Gulliver should not put away his whip just yet.

Click here to subscribe to The Economist

NOW WATCH: 14 things you didn’t know your iPhone headphones could do

NOW WATCH: Money & Markets videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.