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HSBC slashes jobs as shifts focus further to Asian roots

Published:Wednesday | June 10, 2015 | 12:00 AMAP

HSBC Holdings, Europe's largest bank by market value, will cut up to 25,000 jobs globally to reduce costs and shift its centre of gravity further toward the fast-growing Asian economies where it started operations 150 years ago.

The London-based bank, which is worth pound120 billion (US$184 billion), about the same as US giant Bank of America, said Tuesday it is "redeploying resources to capture expected future growth opportunities."

Though it has not yet decided whether to move its headquarters, the bank is clear on where it thinks its commercial future lies – China and the Asia-Pacific region.

The bank, which has suffered a series of scandals and fines in Europe and the United States, wants to capitalise on Asia's rapidly expanding class of newly wealthy by growing its asset management and insurance businesses.

Though many Western banks have sought to bolster operations in Asia, HSBC has the advantage of already having a major presence there. Around 75 per cent of its 2014 profits were generated in the region, even though it only has about a third of its staff there and its assets are dwarfed by those it controls in Europe.

HSBC has historic ties to the region. It was founded in Hong Kong in 1865 when the city was a British colony in order to finance growing trade between China and Europe, much of it involving opium. Its original name says it all: The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.

The company only became London-based in 1992 to meet the regulatory requirements of its acquisition of Midland Bank, one of the biggest banks then existing in Britain.

"The world is increasingly connected, with Asia expected to show high growth and become the centre of global trade over the next decade," said Stuart Gulliver, HSBC's chief executive. "We recognise that the world has changed and we need to change with it."

HSBC, which has operations in over 70 countries and around 51 million customers, said it intends to sell its operations in Turkey and Brazil, a move that will see its workforce reduce by around another 25,000. Although planning to dispose of its operation in Brazil, HSBC said it plans to maintain a presence in that country to serve large corporate clients in their international dealings.

Overall, HSBC aims to cut costs by US$4.5 billion to US$5 billion by the end of 2017 and reduce the number of full-time employees by around 10 per cent, or between 22,000 and 25,000.

About 8,000 of HSBC's 48,000 workforce in Britain will lose their job, with a number of branches earmarked for closure. The bank, which is also to rename its remaining United Kingdom branch network, hopes many of the job losses globally will come from attrition.

A top union official in Britain said the cuts were the latest example of a workforce being punished for the misconduct of senior management. HSBC has paid billions in fines globally to settle investigations of market rigging and allegations it helped clients evade taxes and launder money.

"Front-line staff have suffered time and time again as they are forced to pay for the mistakes of others with their jobs, their terms and conditions and their reputation," said Dominic Hook of Unite union.

A further concern for British staff is the possibility that the bank will move its headquarters out of London. The bank said it will make a decision this year.

The bank has already warned about the economic risks facing Britain if the country opts to leave the European Union in a referendum that is due by the end of 2017. It's also complained about the cost of a levy that the British government puts on banks — HSBC is set to pay around US$1.5 billion this year alone on that.

HSBC's announcement comes a day ahead of a major speech from British economy minister, George Osborne, who many think is considering pulling back the bank levy.

"We think the financial logic for HSBC to escape the clutches of the UK – and Europe – is overwhelming," said Ian Gordon, an analyst at Investec. "What possible reason is there to stay?"

In its expansion in Asia, HSBC is planning to develop business in southern China's Pearl River Delta manufacturing heartland in Guangdong province, which is next door to Hong Kong and one of the wealthiest regions in the world's No. 2 economy. It's also planning a similar expansion in Southeast Asia, where booming economic growth in countries like Indonesia is swelling the ranks of the middle classes.

HSBC added that it wants to return to profitability the global banking and markets division, which have been hit by tougher regulations since the financial crisis. In 2014, HSBC saw its post-tax profit fall to US$14.7 billion from US$17.8 billion the year before, largely because of fines, settlements and customer compensations in Britain.