James Ashton: HSBC has to prove that size still matters

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The Independent Online

Outlook It would be easy to characterise the size of HSBC's expected $1.8bn (£1.1bn) fine for money-laundering as a small price to pay to settle this sorry affair.

In fact, it was only a month ago that the bank doubled the amount it set aside for the fine to $1.5bn with an acknowledgement that it really didn't know how much it would be on the hook for.

Nervousness inside the company about how much it might have to pay was well founded. It didn't have much of a defence to allegations that it inadvertently shuffled money on behalf of Mexican drug lords and Russian gangsters.

What sounds like a big number is less than 10 per cent of last year's profit or smaller than the gain booked on the sale of HSBC's stake in Chinese insurer Ping An earlier this week. The balance sheet of the "world's local bank" can cope with it.

What is far most costly is the damage to HSBC's reputation and a bigger crisis brewing. Remember, HSBC was a long-standing, conservative lender, providing an alternative diplomatic corps that let the cream of British schoolboys learn the art of banking as "international officers" while travelling the world. High achievers built up an internal network. They stayed for years.

It all began to change two decades ago when HSBC set out on an incredible growth spurt. In the space of a few years, it gobbled up Midland Bank in Britain, and made significant moves in Brazil, Argentina, the US, France and Brazil. From a bank that had a market value of £10bn, it is worth more than 10 times that today.

The lapses of control and erosion of a gentlemanly culture suggest HSBC has simply become too large to run effectively. The old boys' network that served it well for years has splintered, or at best is stretched to breaking point.

To his credit, Stuart Gulliver, the chief executive, has already identified this and to conserve capital is retreating from markets where the bank plays a fringe role so it can invest where it is already strong. And it's only fair to say that some of those deals it did have paid off handsomely, such as the original Ping An investment.

A global player makes sense as long as its leader tells us it does and can keep all the plates spinning.

Investors pressing for short-term returns often have their heads turned by siren calls for a value-enhancing break-up.

In HSBC's case, settling its American fine only allows it to focus on its next problem: to demonstrate that size still matters.