‘Corporate kowtow to China’ lands HSBC in a deep political hole

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Bank is firmly on geopolitical stage after supporting Hong Kong security crackdown law

Now it gets serious for HSBC. It’s one thing to be accused, rightly, by pundits and even the odd shareholder, of “kowtowing to China” by supporting publicly the security crackdown law for Hong Kong. The stakes become higher when the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, makes the same accusation and, for good measure, mocks HSBC’s failure to win respect in Beijing with its “show of fealty”.

Having tried to avoid making political statements for decades (apart from on the Scottish independence referendum, oddly), HSBC is now firmly on the geopolitical stage. Its board knows that, of course, and chairman Mark Tucker seems to have set the course: if push comes to shove, the bank will opt for China.

The whole “pivot to Asia” strategy under former chief executive, Stuart Gulliver, leads that way. So does the hard commercial fact the HSBC never really was the “world’s local bank”, as the old slogan had it – 55% of profits come from Hong Kong and about 90% from Asia. Tucker, say insiders, imagines HSBC’s long-term future as a sort of JP Morgan of Asia.

Thus nobody should be surprised that Peter Wong, HSBC’s top executive in Asia, signed a petition supporting China’s proposed new powers for Hong Kong. For HSBC to post a picture of him with pen in hand was provocative in the extreme, but one assumes Beijing liked, or expected, the flourish.

Yet, Tucker and the chief executive, Noel Quinn, can also be under no illusions about Washington’s ability to wreck a chunk of HSBC’s business should it wish. The ability to clear dollars is crucial for an international bank. The ultimate sanction – withdrawal of a US banking licence – may be many steps away but it exists and represents a very large stick.

Indeed, we’ve had one mini-rehearsal already. HSBC was hit with a $1.9bn fine in the US in 2012 for allowing terrorists and Mexican and Colombian drug cartels to launder millions of dollars. The episode could have been worse if the US justice department had pursued a criminal prosecution. A conviction would have led to an automatic review of the bank’s charter to operate in the US.

There was more than a whiff of politics about the decision not to prosecute. A US congressional report published letters from George Osborne, the UK chancellor at the time, and UK regulators warning of a “financial calamity” if HSBC were put in the dock. The calamity was avoided but HSBC never had much goodwill in Washington even before Trump. The UK’s ability to plead on HSBC’s behalf is surely also lesser these days.

The Huawei connection adds another layer of complexity. To Beijing’s fury, HSBC handed over documents that led to arrest in Canada in 2018 of the Chinese technology company’s chief financial officer. Meanwhile, the response of ordinary Hongkongers to HSBC’s backing of Beijing is anyone’s guess. The bank enjoys a status unlike anything in the west, with share certificates handed down through generations; a serious customer backlash could hurt.

For now, Tucker & co seem to be trying to muddle through. It’ll hope US-China tensions die down and presumably will keep further inflammatory stances to a minimum. One could call the strategy logical given the commercial bind but there is absolutely no guarantee it will work. HSBC is in a deep political hole with no reliable friends.

Ocado raises the stakes

Another day, another fundraising for Ocado, wonder-stock of the FTSE 100 index. It was only last December that the online grocery retailer, or supplier to other grocers of robot-filled warehouses, raised £500m via issuing convertible bonds. Now it’s back for another bite: £350m in convertibles, plus £657m of equity.

Both offers, one suspects, will be snapped up. Founder and chief executive, Tim Steiner, tells a compelling tale about how the pandemic is accelerating growth of online shopping by years. Overseas partners are banging on the door, wanting bigger warehouses sooner, creating the need for Ocado to invest harder.

The size of these upfront investments is colossal, and sceptics might ask why Ocado can’t shove more of the upfront spend on to the partners. The market, though, seems minded to worry about cash outflows another day. Ocado expects to get its bonds away with an interest rate of 0.5%-1.0%. If you raise money that cheaply, you would.

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