Who, not where: For HSBC investors, HQ debate eclipsed by identity issue

Mon Jan 18, 2016 9:25am EST
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By Sinead Cruise and Lawrence White

LONDON/HONG KONG (Reuters) - As HSBC (HSBA.L: Quote) prepares to decide which country it should call home, a growing number of its investors want the bank to address a bigger question: what does it really want to be?

HSBC's board is due to meet later this month and is expected to discuss whether it should quit its UK headquarters and shift overseas, with Hong Kong seen as the most likely alternative.

But for investors, analysts and some HSBC executives, the real debate underlying this decision is whether it wants to continue to be a global corporate lending giant with a large investment banking and trading business or become a simpler, Asia-focused trading and retail bank.

If the former is the case, London - as a major financial trading center with a favorable time zone - is the more obvious choice, some say. Otherwise it should abandon a country with one of the toughest regulatory regimes globally and return to Asia, where the bank was born more than 150 years ago.

Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver has already led a drive to slim down Europe's biggest bank, pulling it out of 78 countries or businesses since 2011. But concerns linger about high costs, lackluster returns and how to adapt to a regulatory framework hostile to global banks.

"It is a bigger issue than just where to have the HQ," said one of HSBC's top-15 investors, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

"Being a global bank has to have benefits for large corporate clients but that does not mean that HSBC has to offer all services to all clients in all areas."

An HSBC spokeswoman, commenting on the HQ issue and future strategy, referred to the bank's third-quarter results statement in November, when it said the domicile review would focus on long-term perspectives, as opposed to short-term factors.   Continued...

A traffic light shines red near the HSBC bank logo, pictured at the bank buidling in Paris, June 15, 2015. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann