James Moore: Even if HSBC is fined, it will be the shareholders who pay – as usual


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Another set of MPs, another deeply dispiriting display from the people who were running and overseeing HSBC, a once respectable bank, who were called to testify before them. 

The motley crew of witnesses before the House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee were led by Stuart Gulliver, the chief executive and ever present at these affairs.

He was flanked by Rona Fairhead, “the calm one”, who banged on about the systems, policies and procedures when she was on the risk and audit committees. She now chairs the BBC Trust and still sits on HSBC’s board. And by Chris Meares, “the choleric one”, the former head of global private banking, trying the combative approach, in contrast to the crocodile tears and fake contrition of his former colleagues.

Like just about everyone else involved in this tawdry affair, Mr Meares, who looks as though he could start a fight in an empty room, said he accepted “global responsibility” for the bank’s failures in Switzerland with regard to tax avoidance, not to mention out-and-out evasion. But he declined to go beyond that into taking direct responsibility for what Herve Falciani’s stolen files have revealed was going on in HSBC’s Swiss private bank –  despite the fact that its chief executives reported directly to him and met him monthly.

HSBC profits eroded by deluge of regulatory conduct fines

Ms Fairhead floated the opinion that the people who played fast and loose with the tax authorities bore the primary responsibility for the scandal. Which misses the point. Those people wouldn’t have been able to duck tax without the aid HSBC Switzerland provided them with. And some of them have paid penalty charges. HSBC has, to date, paid not a penny. And even if the institution gets hit by its regulators or by the legal authorities, it will be the shareholders who pay.

The bad apple members of staff have all gone and as for Ms Fairhead and Mr Gulliver? Well the former says that the executives never raised these issues with her. The latter says he wasn’t in charge at the time and didn’t know what the Swiss private bank was up to.

People like this seem genuinely perplexed when others get cross at what happens on their watch and start calling for resignations.

A racing certainty? It’s backing the wrong horse

The financial centre will be unusually quiet from today until Friday. If there are deals to be done they will be negotiated in corporate boxes in the Cotswolds rather than in the City’s glass towers, as Cheltenham’s great Festival gets under way.

Even those left behind may discreetly make use of their mobile phones to watch races rather than derivative prices.

The bookies have talked of a £200m war, and are publicly fretting about the impact on their balance sheets if Ruby Walsh wins a hatful for Irish master trainer Willie Mullins on day one.

What gambler could resist joining the party? The City is still full of gamblers, whatever its advocates would have you believe. And whatever the regulators would have you believe.

In reality, however, it’s Premiership football that really excites both bookie and punter. For the bookie, the margins are fatter and there’s no irksome levy on profits that horse racing demands. For the punter, it’s a simpler medium to follow, and doesn’t require a subscription to an extensive and expensive database to research properly.

Cheltenham is an increasingly rare chance for the so-called “sport of kings” to enjoy a week in the sun.

The Boxing Day disaster that marred the results of the big bookies was inflicted not by Mr Mullins but by a run of winning football favourites. And after the dust has settled football will take centre stage again, with only the Grand National and Royal Ascot providing some brief respite.

Racing might be able to tempt a few more punters if only it used the shop window of television a bit better.

At a time when football is preparing to soak its fans like never before, thanks to that gargantuan TV deal with Sky, horse racing’s main satellite channel, Racing UK, wants its own pound of flesh.

R-UK costs £275 a year for an offering centred on meetings and races that Channel 4 doesn’t cover. It would be within the industry’s interests to change, particularly at a time when football is bent on pricing out much of its fan base. 

Sadly, it seems that the tracks that own R-UK are falling prey to one of the City’s worst vices: the sacrifice of long-term benefit in pursuit of short-term lucre.

Get ready for RBS’s  post-election sell-off

You may have noticed that the Government’s stake in Lloyds has fallen below 23 per cent, thanks to the latest £500m share sale.

You may also have picked up a change in the mood music around Royal Bank of Scotland, as an increasing number of commentators talk up its sale prospects. This sort of discussion is not held in a vacuum. The Treasury would like to light the blue touchpaper almost as much as RBS chief Ross McEwan would like to see it lit.

It’s in the interests of both for the public to be softened up for a loss-making disposal. And it may very well happen after the general election, when the political cost of taking responsibility for a 33 per cent loss on what the Government paid to buy in won’t be quite so high.