It’s not entirely clear which bit of Stuart Gulliver’s explanation of his personal financial affairs are more damaging to the company he serves as chief executive, following claims reported today.
Is it the fact that he thought it okay to concoct a convoluted structure to receive his pay? That he and 350 other HSBC bosses are employed through an obscure division run out of tax-liberal Holland? Or that he’s a non-domiciled UK resident, despite running one of Britain’s most influential and powerful corporations? Mr Gulliver explained that HSBC’s IT systems in the Nineties allowed everyone on the trading floor to see each other’s account details and the bonuses going into them. If that was the problem, why didn’t he just open an account at Barclays? Or even at Standard Chartered in Hong Kong?
He said that when he opened the Swiss account, he had to use an anonymous company in Panama to hide his identity from HSBC’s bankers in Geneva. Yet it’s now clear that the Swiss staff were aware he was the beneficial owner of that company anyway. So why bother with all the subterfuge?
Thus far in the HSBC tax scandal, the bank has managed to hold the line that its ethically dubious activities were all from a bygone era: a legacy of the practices inherited when HSBC bought Switzerland’s Safra Bank in 1999. But these latest findings bring a smell right to the door of the present leadership of the bank. And the longer it lasts, the harder it is to see all the directors surviving.