HSBC directors attacked in shareholder rebellion

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The Independent Online

HSBC was hit by a rebellion over pay at yesterday's annual general meeting as its new chairman admitted the bank's performance was inadequate and apologised for last year's boardroom bust-up.

Almost one in five votes were cast against HSBC's remuneration report at the marathon meeting in London.

Shareholders bombarded Douglas Flint, chairing his first AGM, with questions about boardroom pay, the bank's financial performance and the bank's links to Libya.

Mr Flint told a shareholder: "There is nobody sitting here or standing here that would disagree with the proposition that total shareholder return over the last five years has been not only disappointing but inadequate."

Mr Flint replaced Stephen Green as chairman late last year and Stuart Gulliver took over as chief executive after a leak-ridden leadership race that saw Michael Geoghegan, the previous chief executive, forced out.

The remuneration report included a £5.2m bonus for Mr Gulliver and a £2.8m bonus for Mr Flint, who was finance director until December. HSBC barely generated any total shareholder returns in the last five years while the FTSE 100 index yielded more than 25 per cent.

Mr Flint said he accepted shareholders' points about the level of boardroom pay and condemned "egregious" and "horrendous" examples in the US. But he added: "It would be irresponsible to allow our comparative advantages to wither by ignoring the market forces that exist around compensation, even though we understand how sensitive the subject is."

Jonathan Cobb of Standard Life Investments told Mr Flint he was"dismayed by the manner and timing of the board changes".

Mr Flint said: "We were more than dismayed by the leaks that happened right towards the end of a process that had been going on for eight or nine months."

The near-19 per cent vote against the pay report followed some similar revolts at Barclays and Lloyds Banking Group.

Almost 14 per cent of the votes that were cast at a three-hour meeting went against HSBC's new share plan for its top 50 people.

The plan divided shareholders because 40 per cent of its measures are non-financial and include brand strength and employee engagement. Some investors want the bank to stick to shareholder returns as a measure and others think it is still too generous. The plan reduces the multiple of salary that can be paid out, allows HSBC to "claw back" awards within five years and holds the shares back until retirement.

A document leaked to the campaign group Global Witness this week showed HSBC held £177m of funds from Libya's state investment fund. Mr Flint declined to comment on whether Colonel Gadaffi was a customer but he said HSBC did not take dictators' money.

He added: "Up until very very recently and post-2006 Libya was embraced back into the international fold... and it began to use the international financial system again. Libya was rehabilitated in 2006 and was cast aside again in 2011."

Robert Muriel, a small shareholder, said that the bank's underperformance was "all because of the purchase of Household", the US subprime lender whose multi-billion dollar losses hammered HSBC throughout the financial crisis.

Mr Muriel pointed out that Mr Flint and Sir Brian Williamson voted for the Household deal in 2002.

Mr Flint replied: "Household is a very black mark in our history. I wish we could change history but we can't."