HSBC hit by report predicting huge Thai loan loss

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SHARES IN HSBC, the international banking giant suffered sharp falls in London and Hong Kong yesterday, after the prestigious Wall Street Journal claimed that the bank was about to disclose huge losses on its "$3bn Thai loan portfolio", when it publishes its 1998 results next month.

John Bond, who recently took over as the bank's chairman from the legendary Sir William Purves, was said to be angry and upset that the report, which was based on interviews that he and other senior bank executives gave in November, had appeared when the bank was in close season and unable to respond officially.

He was on his way to a board meeting at HSBC's American arm yesterday.

The report, some details of which were unofficially contradicted by bank spokesmen, sparked a three per cent fall in HSBC's shares in Hong Kong, threatening at one point to drive Hong Kong's Hang Seng index below the 10,000 level.

In London HSBC opened five per cent down, before recovering later to close at pounds 17.18, a fall of 48p.

Eyebrows were raised at the bank by the fact that The Wall Street Journal referred to $3bn in loans to Thailand, when the latest published data show that the total level of loans to that country was $2.3bn at the half year, down from $2.8bn at the end of 1997.

One source at HSBC said privately last night: "We have not felt the need to make a statement. No-one here has been on alert to expect a serious issue. There are no fire engines running."

Analysts are already expecting bad loan provisions to have risen by up to 150 per cent because of continued problems in Hong Kong and Asia generally, areas which have historically been the biggest generator of profits for the bank. The group, which last year was the world's most profitable bank, is expected to report profits down by up to 18 per cent at $6.7bn.