Investment Banking

HSBC Boss Sees No ‘Drastic’ Outcome for U.S. Units

CEO Stuart Gulliver says Europe's largest bank still relies heavily on its U.S. business, despite recent poor returns.
Matthew HellerMay 6, 2015

HSBC’s top executive has played down speculation that the British bank will sell its underperforming U.S. business, saying investors should “expect a restructuring story” instead.

In a call with analysts as Europe’s largest bank reported first-quarter results Tuesday, CEO Stuart Gulliver said businesses in the United States, Mexico, Brazil, and Turkey had made “unacceptable” returns. But it appears unlikely that HSBC will add the U.S. operation to the 77 businesses it has sold in the past four years.

“You should still expect a restructuring story,” Gulliver said, adding that investors should not expect a “drastic” outcome.

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HSBC has started a sales process for its retail banking in Brazil and Turkey, but the U.S. and Mexico businesses are likely to be kept, Reuters said, citing people familiar with the matter.

As The Wall Street Journal reports, a series of ill-judged acquisitions has forced HSBC “to swallow huge writedowns” in the U.S. The 2003 purchase of consumer lender Household exposed the bank to more than $50 billion losses when the housing market crashed in 2007. HSBC sold its U.S. credit card arm and half its U.S. branches in 2011.

Gulliver stressed Tuesday that the bank still relies on its U.S. business to provide dollar funding and access to big U.S. companies that do business around the world.

“The profitability of the U.S. business on its own somewhat underplays the significance of it, because there [are] substantial revenues from U.S. companies that get booked in places like China, Saudi Arabia, Mexico that wouldn’t come about if we were not in the United States,” he explained.

Reuters noted that Gulliver is under pressure to get return on equity above 10%, from 7.3% in 2014, and to cut costs, especially in Europe and North America. He told reporters that his job in the United States is to continue to run down a legacy loan book, cut costs, and grow revenues to improve profitability.

“Nothing is sacred at HSBC as I think Gulliver is determined to revive profitability, by sales, cost cutting, and rationalization,” Chris Wheeler, an analyst at Atlantic Equities in London, told Bloomberg.