Gulliver travels from Asia to new HSBC role with Studz out

Click to follow

The Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen once said: "The difficult is what takes time; the impossible is what takes a little longer."

Now time, it seems, has ebbed for John Studzinski to perform something many in the City believe impossible: the construction of an all-singing, all-dancing investment bank from scratch for HSBC.

"Studz", the former Morgan Stanley rainmaker given the task by the HSBC chairman Sir John Bond three years ago of building him an investment bank, is to be shifted upstairs.

His executive responsibilities are thought likely to go and instead he is tipped to take charge of keeping major corporate clients sweet, while taking on the role of special adviser to the group's chief executive Stephen Green, who is soon to replace Sir John.

Mr Studzinski is famed for his impressive contacts in boardrooms here, across Europe and in America. But past and present colleagues have questioned his interest in the more prosaic aspects of management.

His move, which will come as a blow to Mr Studzinski, will leave Stuart Gulliver, an HSBC veteran and its co-head of corporate and investment banking, in sole charge of the back-firing division.

A string of senior hires - in London, Hong Kong and Asia - has so far failed to deliver the meaningful results expected of Europe's most successful bank.

HSBC has had only limited success in winning mandates to advise on mergers and acquisitions and underwriting share offerings, although it is among those advising Mittal Steel on its controversial bid for Arcelor.

In August, a poor performance from its investment banking operation anchored HSBC's growth of interim pre-tax profits below 5 per cent. That sat uncomfortably with the group's premium rating against expected earnings for the year, and its position as a global bank that is supposed to deliver growth easily above the average.

Rivals have fared much better in recent years by pursuing more polarised strategies. The American financial conglomerate Citigroup went about building a full-service investment bank by swallowing both the blue-blooded British merchant bank Schroders and, indirectly, the Wall Street bond house Salomon Brothers.

Closer to home, Bob Diamond grew Barclays' highly successful investment banking business organically, but focussed more tightly on loans, bonds and related derivatives. Royal Bank of Scotland's strategy - to eschew equities and mergers and acquisitions - was similar.

With investment banks globally basking in the glow of a record year, some in the City openly question HSBC's strategy of building a full-service investment bank through organic expansion and a process of hiring. Simon Maughan, the head of banking research at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, said: "The problem at HSBC is that they are trying to cut a path that doesn't exist: between an acquisition-built investment bank that is all things to all men, and one more organically founded but more restrictively focused."

Experts reckon HSBC's loan and bond businesses are performing well but remain unconvinced by its equity and advisory operations.

"You either go for it in equity and advisory or you cut it," Mr Maughan said. "At some point, that decision has to be made. You can't just muddle through. If you go for it, you need a bigger presence on Wall Street. It's hard to see how you get that without acquisition."

The short-term solution most likely to bolster HSBC shares would be to fall back on the organically led, debt capital markets strategy and cut the nascent equity and M&A operations.

The appointment of Mr Studzinski, 49, was an unusual one for a bank more accustomed to promotion through the ranks. He is thought to have scooped about £13.5m in the last financial year, and his riverside house in Chelsea is run with quiet efficiency by a brigade of silent staff.

Mr Studzinski, a notable philanthropist, chooses to give between £500,000 and £750,000 a year to charities which mainly focus on homelessness, the arts and human rights.

HSBC must remain tight-lipped before results in early March but its latest attempt to build a serious investment bank is unlikely to be affected by Mr Studzinski's imminent move.

Students of City history will remember how HSBC swallowed the successful stockbroker James Capel in the scramble for assets before the Big Bang in 1986. Capel was the leading house for research but could never develop a decent corporate finance operation.

After knocking Capel into shape, HSBC snapped up Midland Bank, which brought an investment banking arm of its own, Samuel Montagu. That was merged with Capel in the hope that the whole would far exceed the sum of the parts. The merged entity flopped, and Sir John was sorely disappointed yet again.

A zero-bonus policy in 2001 led to an exodus of HSBC staffers. Meanwhile, the group also dismissed a rash of equity analysts as it abandoned a research-driven transaction investment bank.

Two years later, HSBC laid out a five-year plan to invest about $400m (£220m) a year in investment banking to win more wholesale revenues from its biggest corporate clients. Its target was to be ranked in the top five to seven investment banks across all products and services in Europe by the end of the five years. About 1,000 employees have left since 2003, while HSBC has hired another 700 to try to build an advisory business.

Mr Gulliver is the natural choice to head HSBC's latest tilt at building a heavyweight investment bank. He proved himself in Asia before coming to London to run the cash-generative and successful parts of the otherwise struggling division.

Whether the task he is taking on is indeed an impossible one, and whether HSBC truly has the long-term appetite for the pressures and risks of investment banking, remain to be seen. The conservative, risk-averse corporate culture there, past history and received wisdom all indicate that Mr Gulliver will have his work cut out for him.