Perspectives

The objective information looks as follows (New York Times):

HSBC Holdings, the world's second-largest bank, on Monday reported an increase of almost 41 percent in profit in 2003.  The far-flung bank, which lags only Citigroup in market capitalization within the financial services sector, earned $8.77 billion in 2003, a 40.5 percent increase from the year before. Pretax profit was up 33 percent, to $12.8 billion, and revenue increased 54 percent, to $41.1 billion.

The interpretation of that objective information depends on where the critic is sitting.  From the United Kingdom, HSBC has had to take a defensive posture in the left-leaning The Guardian:

HSBC denies 7.8bn profit is excessive

The bank defended itself against accusations of profiteering. "There is a pattern around the world, where large successful economies tend to have successful banks," said group chairman Sir John Bond.

About 25% of the profits were generated in Britain, and of that, one third comes from high-street personal banking. The bank has a worldwide presence, particularly in the Far East, Latin America and Europe.

Yesterday it also released directors' pay details in its annual report. Sir John received a 31% increase to 2.1m and had a 2.4m boost to his pension fund. William Aldinger, the head of Household, a US lender acquired last year, has a controversially lucrative deal which would give him at least $30m if he left the company. He is due $20m in shares to keep him at the firm and topped the chairman's pay with 2.2m salary and bonuses last year.

The numbers pale into significance against the top five earners in the business, who are believed to be in the investment banking division and are not directors of the group company.

One employee earned more than 12.6m and another earned more than 10.5m. Two earned about 5m and another earned just over 4m. Although the bank would not say who was paid these amounts, they are expected to include the two heads of the corporate and investment banking division, John Studzinski, who was hired last year from Morgan Stanley, and HSBC old-timer Stuart Gulliver.

Also in the United Kingdom, HSBC got a right-wing angel to defend its honor in the right-leaning Telegraph:

Asked about the five, Sir John said: "They are probably more valuable than I am to our profits. Am I sitting here feeling jealous? No, I am not. I do not have the smarts to do what they do.  We are quite good at HSBC at understanding that there are some people who get paid more than others.  There is very, very occasionally some frisson of excitement around this area but generally people tend to understand that traders and investment bankers tend to earn much bigger pay and bonuses than anyone else."

Finance director Douglas Flint quipped: "I suspect David Beckham got paid more than Sir Alex Ferguson when he was at Manchester United."

Asked about HSBC's "huge profits" Sir John said: "I cannot think of any country that has a successful economy and an unsuccessful banking system.  We have $75billion of capital. If we invested it in government securities, we would get a return of $4billion."

Mr Flint said: "I find it an intriguing paradox. There will be comment that companies make a lot of money and the next day there will be comment about pensions gaps because people find their annuities have gone down.  There is a disconnect between saying that companies are making too much money and saying that returns on investment are too low. You cannot have both."

And from Hong Kong, where HSBC got its name from, SCMP could find nothing but gloom because it was looking at just the Hong Kong portion of the balance sheet:

Hong Kong dents HSBC's earnings

Low interest rates and weak loan demand contributed to a flat year in HSBC Holdings' main Hong Kong banking operations.  The absence of a powerful regional driver for growth contrasted with what analysts described as better than expected integration of the global bank's newly acquired businesses in the United States and Latin America.

Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp reported tame growth in net profit for last year and a fall in net interest income, highlighting a difficult operating climate for local banks.

Hong Kong's biggest bank yesterday reported net profit of HK$25.7 billion for last year, up just 2.5 per cent from 2002. Net interest income dropped 2.3 per cent to $38.7 billion.  As late as 1998, Hong Kong accounted for 37 per cent of HSBC's pretax profits. Last year, however, Hong Kong's contribution fell to 26 per cent.  

"Hang Seng [Bank] and the Hong Kong part of HSBC just reinforced that the growth is just not coming in here even though both of these banks executed extremely well," ING's Hong Kong-based banking analyst Paul Sheehan said.  HSBC group chief executive Stephen Green said: "Hong Kong has grown relatively slowly because the economy has been in deflation."

Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp chairman David Eldon characterised the lender's performance in Hong Kong "a creditable achievement in a difficult year", with improvements in personal finance and its insurance business helping offset the impact of low interest rates on the deposit spread.

Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp's net interest income edged down 2.3 per cent to HK$38.7 billion after a 34-basis-point contraction in the net interest margin of its Hong Kong banking operations - excluding Hang Seng Bank - to 2.13 per cent.

Net interest income at its Hong Kong personal financial services arm took a bigger hit, falling 6.9 per cent to HK$1.2 billion, with low interest rates narrowing spreads on Hong Kong deposits and mortgage yields falling from 150 basis points below its best lending rate to 175 basis points.  "With rates as low as they are, there is really no catalyst for that to change until rates turn," Mr Sheehan said.

Bank management attributed the meek 4.8 per cent increase in Hong Kong loan advances to combined pressure from subdued demand and fierce market competition.  While noting optimistic signs of increased economic activity, reduced unemployment and rising property prices, Mr Eldon stressed that the market for banking services "remains highly competitive".

Some analysts, however, saw a silver lining or two in the banking giant's uninspiring Hong Kong results.  "Unlike Standard Chartered or Bank of East Asia, [HSBC] didn't suffer as much in the previous year," UBS banking analyst John Wadle said. "The other banks, like Bank of East Asia, are much more cyclical. Certain features of their financial performances are more volatile, while HSBC's business is very stable."

With an improving local economy, Mr Green predicted an upswing in the lender's business.  "We have a quite robust forecast for growth in Hong Kong. At the end of the day, the bank's business is contingent on growth in the economy," he said.