What is going on with HSBC as it changes its chief?

HSBC is the latest Globally Systemically Important Bank that has fired its chief in dubious circumstances

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The firing of John Flint as HSBC’s chief is just the latest in a series of executive mishaps at the top of the world’s largest banks. What is going on? And how unhappy should investors and shareholders be?

The botched appointment of Andrea Orcel, announced in September 2018 and revoked in January 2019, as chief executive of Santander had the look of one of those one-off situations, unanticipated and unforeseeable, that just bizarrely crop up against all the odds.

Except it was a one-off for a matter of weeks until (albeit under-fire) Tim Sloan, CEO of Wells Fargo, upped sticks and the bank announced on March 28 that he would be walking at the end of June. Leaving the board with no succession plan and nowhere near enough time to seek let alone announce his replacement, other than to say it would be an external appointment. Shareholders are still waiting.

And now we have John Flint being fired as chief executive of HSBC after just 18 months in the job, with some reports suggesting a replacement could take up to a year; the board will consider internal and external candidates. That makes three Global Systemically Important Banks losing CEOs – albeit under very different sets of circumstances – this year.

Given the very public and critical nature of hiring CEOs of banking behemoths, you don’t expect things to go awry. And frankly given the degree of scrutiny from regulators, boards, shareholders and other stakeholders, investors have every right to ask what in the world is going on. CEO succession strategies are supposed to leave no stone unturned.

Media reports suggest the relationship between conservative HSBC lifer Flint and gung-ho chairman of less than two years Mark Tucker had its issues. But while it presumably won’t turn into anything like the vicious street fight that’s emerging between Orcel and Santander executive chair Ana Botín, Tucker in particular and the HSBC board in aggregate have a lot of questions to answer.

Having selected Flint, you imagine the appointment process would have been wide-ranging, multi-faceted and thorough. Bear in mind global banking is and has always been volatile and unpredictable. Navigating the ever-changing global political and economic environment is what global banks do. So you’d imagine that hiring someone to run HSBC, one of the world’s most international banks, would demand a line of enquiry covering, among many other things, the range of backdrops that could conceivably emerge onto the business front line and a potential CEO’s preparedness to deal with them.

Tucker’s excuse – that “the environment is becoming more complex and challenging. We and John feel a change is needed to make the most of the opportunities around us. This is about the future and how we see the future” – was scarcely believable. Flint was obviously forced into the collegiate “we and John” absurdity. If I were a shareholder, I’d be furious. Just when a bank needs a CEO to steer the ship, it’s going to be distracted by the search for a new boss.

So HSBC’s turnaround plan in the US is under-shooting, US-China trade tensions are rising, a no-deal Brexit is emerging as the backstop plan of the new UK government, and there are numerous geopolitical flashpoints. As a result, revenues are expected to come under pressure, pushing cost-cutting up the list of priority agenda items.

Is Tucker really saying that none of these scenarios ran through his and the board’s collective mind and were discussed at the time of Flint’s candidature? And that Flint’s skill set was ultimately seen as being so narrow, shallow, brittle and ultimately misplaced, and the need to put someone else into the job so urgent that it trumped the inevitable disruption his departure would cause?

If that’s the case, it’s a disgrace. A disgrace to the organisation and its shareholders; even more so coming as the firing did in the wake of a decent set of interim results. The firing arguably says a lot more about Tucker and the board than it does about Flint, whose slow and steady approach was the reason cited for his landing the job.

Let’s see how shareholders react. In the midst of a worldwide stock market rout on August 5 and the yield on the 10-year Treasury note showing a 1.70% handle, it was difficult to separate stock-specific news from broad market selling.

The media is already pushing out names of potential Flint replacement candidates; some more plausible than others. That’s distracting not just for HSBC but for the banks and organizations whose heads are being mentioned in dispatches. Investors should expect more. Regulators need to have a word.

Date

9 Aug 2019

Channel

Capital Markets

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