Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

HSBC CEO John Flint steps down as bank faces headwinds

The chief executive who joined the bank in 1989 was at the helm of Europe's largest bank for less than two years

HSBC CEO John Flint is stepping down after les than two years at the helm of Europe's largest bank by assets. Reuters
HSBC CEO John Flint is stepping down after les than two years at the helm of Europe's largest bank by assets. Reuters

John Flint’s tenure running HSBC has come to an abrupt end, with the bank announcing on Monday in Asia that the chief executive was stepping down.

The surprise move was made to help the bank, which has seen its Hong Kong-listed shares fall about 15 per cent in the past year, meet the challenges it faces, chairman Mark Tucker said.

Mr Flint will be replaced on an interim basis by Noel Quinn, head of global commercial banking. The lender, which also released its latest quarterly results several hours earlier than scheduled, did not give a reason for the decision. Mr Flint, 51, joined HSBC in 1989 and took over as chief executive in February 2018.

“Timing-wise, this is strange. It’s a sudden move given the short time he’s served as the CEO,” said Alex Wong, director of asset management at Ample Capital in Hong Kong. “For the longer term, the prospects for HSBC look negative.”

HSBC makes most of its money oiling the wheels of trade between East and West, and the bank has faced repeated questions about why a business heavily skewed towards some of the world’s fastest-growing economies cannot make better returns. As a result, Mr Flint implemented "Project Oak", a programme aimed at getting more buy-in from managers to get costs under control at a bank sprawling across more than 60 markets.

At least 500 jobs were set to be culled within global banking and markets, people familiar with the matter said in May, with London likely to be in the front line. The chief executive’s departure follows exits last month of US head Patrick Burke and Greg Pierce, who ran the US markets business.

HSBC has struggled to win over investors. One of Mr Flint’s key promises was that revenue gains would outpace cost increases, a trend the bank refers to as positive jaws. He failed to achieve that in his first year at the helm, though the bank said on Monday that first-half adjusted jaws was a positive 4.5 per cent.

The lender also said it would shortly begin a buyback of up to $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) and announced pre-tax profit for the quarter of $6.2bn. The bank also said on Monday that it did not expect to achieve its targeted 6 per cent return on tangible equity in the US by 2020. While HSBC will continue to target overall RoTE of more than 11 per cent in 2020, “we will not take short-term decisions that could jeopardize the long-term health of the business", it said.

First half adjusted pre-tax profit rose 6.8 per cent compared with the previous year, to $12.5bn. Adjusted operating expenses were $8.1bn, the bank said, compared with $7.8bn a year earlier.

HSBC faces a dilemma between the need to invest in its global businesses and the pressure to show it has costs under control. The bank had budgeted investments of $5bn this year, but it has been measured in laying that out, spending only $1bn in the first three months of the year.

Mr Flint’s short tenure as chief executive is in contrast to his predecessor Stuart Gulliver, who ran HSBC between 2011 and 2018, and grappled with the impact on the bank of the global financial crisis. During Mr Gulliver’s years in charge, the London lender faced pressure on its earnings from new regulations and low interest rates, and had to navigate misconduct scandals, which revealed widespread compliance failures.

“Investors may find it difficult to understand this decision that came through all of a sudden as HSBC appears to be on the right track,” said Ronald Wan, chief executive of Partners Capital International. “It’s unclear why they made such a decision. It makes people wonder if there’s any dispute internally over the bank’s management or strategy.”

Updated: August 5, 2019 12:40 PM

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