For many investors, HSBC, Europe’s biggest lender with a venerable place in Britain’s banking industry, offers little to fault: It is doing well and has focused on its fastest-growing and most profitable operations, those in Asia.
But for the firm’s biggest investor, Chinese insurance giant Ping An, that’s not enough.
Over the past year, Ping An has waged a campaign to convince HSBC to somehow spin off its Hong Kong-based operations, opening up the bank’s global empire to improve its financial performance. It’s a move that HSBC’s board of directors has strongly resisted as costly and ineffective.
The clash will come to a head at HSBC’s annual shareholder meeting in the English city of Birmingham on Friday, where investors will vote on two Ping An-backed proposals, including one that would push the bank to regularly consider revamping its global structure.
Those initiatives face long odds, even with Ping An holding an 8 percent stake. Influential investor advisory firms oppose the moves, and HSBC’s latest financial results were strong, earnings reports It far exceeded expectations. But Ping An, which first invested in HSBC in 2017, has shown little inclination to pull out.
Since its founding in 1865 in Hong Kong, HSBC was destined to serve as a bridge between East and West. Since then, it has moved its headquarters to Britain and expanded its financial reach around the world, with nearly $3 trillion in assets that rank it among the top 10 global banks.
Still, the company continues to draw almost half of its revenue from clients in Asia, including Hong Kong and mainland China, with the rest coming from Europe, the Middle East and North America. And it has moved to sell operations in less important markets, including retail banking in Canada and the United States.
That exceptionally strong presence for a Western bank in growing Asian markets puts HSBC on solid footing, particularly as China’s economy emerges from pandemic lockdowns.
But for Ping An and some other investors, the bank hasn’t done enough to boost its business in China, instead diverting money from them to support slower-growing operations in the West. Especially upsetting to those shareholders was HSBC’s suspension of stock dividend payments in early 2020, after the Bank of England banned British banks from paying them to conserve capital during the pandemic.
The insurer is also concerned that HSBC will be affected by geopolitical tensions between Beijing and the West. The bank has come under fire in China for helping in the US prosecution of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecommunications giant Huawei. But it has also drawn a rebuke from US lawmakers for freezing the accounts of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, at the behest of local authorities, and for the then head of HSBC’s Asia operations publicly endorsing a national security law imposed by Beijing on the territory.
Ping An is a giant in its own right: it is the largest insurance in the world company, but also offers healthcare and banking. He has lobbied HSBC executives to consider various ways to disrupt its Asian operations, only to be repeatedly turned down. Last month, he supported shareholder proposals to require HSBC to regularly review its structure and restore its dividend to pre-pandemic levels.
“We have been very disappointed in the continued closed-minded attitude of HSBC management towards all solutions,” said Michael Huang, chief executive of Ping An’s asset management arm, in a statement. said in a statement.
In a concession to objections from HSBC management, Ping An has proposed listing the bank’s Hong Kong arm as a separate publicly traded company, while allowing HSBC to retain a majority stake.
Even then, the bank said it was not convinced. That stance was backed by shareholder advisory firms that advise investors on how to vote in corporate elections. One of them, Institutional Shareholder Services, cited a “lack of detailed justification consistent with the implications of the proposal” in recommending rejection of the plan.
Days before the annual meeting on Friday, HSBC’s first-quarter earnings report probably garnered more support from other investors. The lender said its earnings beat investors’ expectations: After-tax profit more than tripled from a year ago, to $11 billion, thanks to higher interest income and one-time accounting gains.
“It’s hard to find holes” in the results, Perlie Mong, a research analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a very strong rhythm.”
Of more significance to anxious shareholders was HSBC’s commitment to buy back up to $2 billion of its shares, a move to help boost the share price, and to resume paying a quarterly dividend for the first time since 2019. The director The bank’s executive, Noel Quinn, suggested that the lender could return more money to investors, citing the results as evidence of a winning strategy.
“I think our first-quarter results reinforce our recommendations and demonstrate that our current strategy is the fastest and surest way to improve returns,” Quinn told analysts on Tuesday.
In a statement, Ping An said the positive results were the result of accounting measures and interest rate increases, saying it still supported shareholder proposals.