Business

HSBC biffs government and regulators

BBC business editor Robert Peston on HSBC's booming profits

HSBC is back to making near record profits, of not far off £12bn ($19bn) - having come through the worst banking crisis in 75 years relatively unscathed.

The loss on debts going bad is back to where it was before the credit crunch. And this sprawling global group is profitable in every part of the world again, even the US where it was traumatised by subprime losses for three years, for the first time since 2006.

So if HSBC was one of the canaries in the coalmine in early 2007, when it was the first major bank to warn of the scale of the US subprime meltdown, some will see its 2010 profits rebound as a sign that better times for most banks will follow.

HSBC's relative strength is why, perhaps, its new chairman Doug Flint is being more aggressive than his peers at other UK banks in attacking proposals to make banks safer and pay for the sins of the past.

He claims that it is a "near impossibility" for banks to lend more to business if they are forced to lend more to governments - by buying allegedly risk-free gilts and other government bonds - as a result of new liquidity rules.

And he is sceptical that the banking system will be made more stable by proposals to force the biggest banks - what are known as Systemically Important Financial Institutions (or SIFIs) - hold more capital relative to assets as a shield against future losses.

"It is not clear that the reduced shareholder returns that would follow the imposition of incremental capital would be compensated for by improved stability", he says.

Mr Flint makes the argument which I attributed to a senior bank boss in one of my posts from Davos to the effect that singling out SIFIs for greater regulatory protection could make them even bigger - because lenders and investors would tend to discriminate in their favour even more than they currently do when deciding where to place their funds.

So if part of the problem is the concentration of the industry in the hands of a few mega banks like HSBC, Mr Flint would say that the problem would be worsened by plans to concentrate regulatory effort on making these mega banks strong enough to withstand any storm.

Although for him, I would guess, the risk of making that argument may be that it could strengthen the case of those arguing for the likes of HSBC to be broken up (Mr Flint would not be keen on a forced dismantling of HSBC).

There is also a warning shot fired across the bows of George Osborne and the government. Mr Flint complains that the new British levy on banks applies not only to the balance sheet of its UK operations but also to the liabilities of its overseas businesses: "this therefore constitutes an additional cost of basing a growing multinational banking group in the UK" he says.

HSBC's just-appointed chief executive, Stuart Gulliver, says that £250m of HSBC's estimated annual bill from the levy of £375m stems from operations outside the UK. He describes this as an "explicit incremental cost of being headquartered in the UK for any global bank".

Which will be seen as another way of saying that HSBC doesn't have to keep its HQ in the UK - although Mr Gulliver says it "hopes" to do so - if the costs of doing so become excessive. This is not the first time we have heard that kind of thing from HSBC, although that doesn't necessarily mean that possible emigration is an empty threat.

In campaigning for a reform of the levy, HSBC hopes to enlist the support of its shareholders. Mr Flint says that HSBC will increase future dividends to the extent that the government listens to its complaints and reconstructs or relieves the levy.

So that would be £250m more for investors, and £250m less for the exchequer, if HSBC were to have its way.

Update 11:00: HSBC's new chief executive, Stuart Gulliver, is receiving a bonus of £5.2m in respect of his previous role running the bank's investment banking operations, on top of salary, allowances and benefits in kind totalling £971,000.

He has chosen to take all of it in restricted shares which will only be released to him over time.

It is a lot of money. And it will upset those who see most banks as part of the economic problem, rather than part of the solution.

That said, HSBC is one of the world's very biggest businesses - with a market value of £126bn, greater than the combined value of Barclays, Lloyds and RBS.

And in a US context, Mr Gulliver's £6m or so is not huge bucks.

Also, HSBC was a very rare bank that did not need bailing out by taxpayers in the great crash of 2008.

If there is an issue about Mr Gulliver's bonus it is probably about levels of pay in the banking industry in general - and whether bankers' remuneration is excessive in the sense that banks' profits have for years been inflated by a series of unsustainable or socially valueless practices (which is an argument that the chairman of the Financial Services Authority advances from time to time).

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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