James Moore: The self-styled 'world's local bank' takes a nasty hit

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The Independent Online

HSBC is an institution that jealously guards its corporate reputation. That reputation took a nasty hit yesterday. The self-styled "World's Local Bank" likes to portray itself as the trusted partner whose global reach can get the best for its clients. A rather different picture is painted by Irving Picard, the trustee handling the liquidation of Bernie Madoff's fraudulent empire.

HSBC deliberately "looked the other way," he says, when presented with clear warning signs of something rotten in the state of Madoff, most damningly by KPMG, the accountancy firm. He also claims this helped the fraudster's crooked investment scheme survive much longer than it should have. Of course, it is standard practice for a liquidator to go for all and sundry in the hope of securing as much as it can. One way of doing this is to throw as much mud as you can at an institution in the hope of forcing it to the table before it gets worse.

And while a $9bn lawsuit looks a big deal, it is highly unlikely that the bank will have to pay anything like that. The shares reflected that in London trading yesterday: they finished up 0.9p at 666.7p.

But Mr Picard has nonetheless made damaging allegations about a bank which is seeking to build up its business with the sort of wealthy individuals who might be interested in investment funds run by superstar financiers. The sort of client who will pay high fees to institutions that can help them to get access to this type of fund. And these cases rarely reflect well on those involved.

All this comes after a bout of corporate bloodletting at HSBC sparked by the early departure of chairman Stephen Green. HSBC likes to ensure that succession processes are seamless. This time a series of leaks cast an unflattering light on what was going on.

Then there are the veiled threats to quit London if George Osborne and/or his Independent Banking Commission fail to play ball. Would that be any great loss, if there is any truth in the accusations levelled by Mr Picard?