HSBC is relocating its group chief executive officer Michael Geoghegan to Hong Kong in line with its stated strategy to focus on emerging markets.
The announcement, made by HSBC on Friday following a board meeting in Hong Kong, was a unique public relations opportunity for the London-headquartered bank to reaffirm its commitment to the region. "The move further positions the group for the shift in the world's centre of economic gravity from west to east," said HSBC in a written statement, playing up the move.
HSBC was founded in Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1865, reminisced the bank, and remains the largest international bank in the region. Geoghegan will be based in HSBC's "strategically most important region, with a focus on ensuring its growth potential is fully realised", it said.
Geoghegan will move in February next year. However, he will still have one leg in England and will maintain an office and a "regular presence" in London.
Geoghegan will also assume responsibility for developing group strategy, working alongside HSBC chairman Stephen Green. HSBC emphasised that Green will continue to oversee the business from his base in London and that the UK Financial Services Authority remains the lead regulator of the group, which is listed in both London and Hong Kong.
HSBC Holdings, the group holding company, remains domiciled in the UK and has no plans to move, clarified the statement as HSBC sought to delicately balance a desire to reaffirm its commitment to Asia, while continuing to maintain its presence in London.
"There is absolutely no question of HSBC pulling away from London," said Green. "We will operate from two equally strategically important centres for the company."
In addition to Green, two executive directors, Douglas Flint and Stuart Gulliver, will continue to be based in London.
"The additional management presence in Hong Kong and focus on our faster-growing markets is absolutely right for HSBC and entirely consistent with the strategy we set out in 2006," said Green, in the statement.
In connection with the February move, Geoghegan will also become chairman of the Asia business, the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, succeeding Vincent Cheng. Cheng, who has been in this role since 2005, will continue to develop HSBC's business in China and will remain a member of the Board of HSBC Holdings. He will also stay on as chairman of HSBC Bank (China) and of HSBC Taiwan.
Geoghegan's move has also spawned a number of related changes.
Sandy Flockhart, who currently holds the position of CEO for Asia, will now be appointed chairman of personal and commercial banking with global responsibility for both businesses. He will also take charge of HSBC's Latin American and African businesses; technology, services and operations; and most group functions, including human resources, marketing and legal. Flockhart will continue to be based in Hong Kong and will report to Geoghegan.
Flockhart was transferred to Asia two years ago to fill a void created by the unexpected departure of Michael Smith, who left HSBC to join ANZ. He was earlier based in Mexico as president and group managing director for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Flockhart relocated to Hong Kong in June 2007 to take on the then senior-most operating position in Asia. Flockhart was subsequently promoted to executive director in 2008. Peter Wong will succeed Flockhart as CEO of HSBC Asia.
Wong has been promoted to group managing director and will also become a member of the group management board. In contrast to Geoghegan, Flockhart and many others who are in senior positions at HSBC, Wong is not a career HSBC banker. Wong has been a group general manager of HSBC Holdings since April 2005 when he joined the bank from Standard Chartered where he was CEO for Hong Kong and director of Greater China operations.
Gulliver will assume overall responsibility for all of HSBC's businesses across Europe and the Middle East and will also continue to manage global banking and markets and asset management. He will also take charge of global private banking and insurance.
Flint, who is currently responsible for credit, risk and finance, will add compliance to his remit.
Friday's announcement coincided with a Fitch Ratings affirmation of HSBC's long-term foreign currency issuer default rating at AA. Fitch said the rating reflects the bank's "robust underlying profitability, operational diversity, strong funding and liquidity profiles and satisfactory capitalisation". However Fitch commented that HSBC's loan quality deteriorated in the first half of 2009 and through 2008 with the impaired loan ratio doubling to 1.4% at the end of the first six months of 2009, from 0.7% at the end of 2007.
"Loan deterioration was led by the manufacturing and trading sectors which were most exposed to the fall in consumer demand from advanced economies," said Fitch, adding that "rising unemployment also led to higher delinquencies on unsecured consumer lending, particularly in Hong Kong and India".
Fitch expects that HSBC's "profitability will remain under pressure with interest rates likely to stay low for an extended period while credit costs remain elevated amid a weak regional economic backdrop".