In 1870, a middling bright British university lad with little interest in family life might have opted for the Indian Civil Service. A century later, with that opportunity gone, he might have looked to become an international manager at HSBC.
In either case, you had to be able to impose yourself on the restless natives, or when that failed, run for the hills. The difference was that the ICS at least had some semblance of uniform policies — and institutional staying power.
In the U.S., HSBC has for over three years been heading for the exit. But they don't blame that unfortunate situation on their British international managers — some of which have nonetheless been cashiered. (Call this "collateral damage.") London blames the disaster on what HSBC's former chief executive delicately referred to as "American management." I believe he was referring to a specific bunch of people, rather than to a distinctive U.S. management style.
How this "American management" incurred catastrophic mortgage losses is by now a belated query. A more timely question for the Brits is why HSBC can't build on a leading regional retail banking position, anchored in New York, plus a top-ranking U.S. credit card business?
Their answer is: In America, "we haven't got any right to win" (Michael Geoghegan, Aug. 2010). Their stock sells for no more than it did in 2000.
Let's compare HSBC with Capital One, the only other bank with major positions in sub prime auto and credit card lending in the U.S., plus regional branch systems.
When its sub prime auto business got into trouble, HSBC simply shut it down, incurring large losses. Capital One rode out the crisis, and its subprime auto business again looks profitable.
Likewise, HSBC has for three years expressed lack of enthusiasm for its U.S. card business, and balances have stagnated. Meanwhile, Capital One, with the only subprime position larger than HSBC's, has grown and has nearly doubled its credit card ad spending in 2011.
Another example: HSBC shut down its consumer finance business. Citi, despite its manifold problems, kept most of Citi Financial running, and recently had several bidders for the business. The former American General has 1100 branches and wants to expand.
When you board a plane at almost any international airport, you will see advertising for HSBC, "The World's Local Bank." Yes, they're in flight.
The obituary for HSBC in America may well be Chaucer's words: "All was lost for lack of steadfastnesse." International managers lack staying power, they move on. All the more so when the new chairman, Doug Flint, previously CFO (a headquarters accountant, not an international manager), has for years been the lightning rod for "advice" from securities analysts and investors.
This advice has propelled the attempt to make HSBC more than an agglomeration of separately run national and regional franchises. The problem is that strategies such as "One HSBC" which sound good in an analytical report, consulting presentation or boardroom don't work equally well in 88+ countries.
Another example: until a new CEO was chosen a few months ago, a key HSBC strategy was to focus on high-end, "Premier" customers. Many branch locations or exclusive spaces were created for these customers globally. (I was one of these customers for a few months, in an Asian country.)
That may be a great idea for some developing markets - I don't know. But for the U.S., it's a stupid idea. For decades, American banks here have been announcing grandiose plans to focus on the "mass affluent" market - which generally have come to nothing or less. The affluent hold primarily securities rather than bank assets, and they see little reason to keep them under the same roof. Thus, bank trust departments' individual agency business languished, while small, local Registered Investment Advisor firms predominantly run by ex-stockbrokers were the big winners in garnering assets over the past 20 years.
Hence the Premier strategy, after generating high fixed costs, has been declared an expensive failure. HSBC would have done better to listen to Chuck Schwab, probably the most successful financial marketer of our era: "I want all sizes of customer." That idea may not be obvious, but it has proven correct, in part because large customers start by giving you only a small portion of their business, so they are initially small customers who want to be treated right.
"Buy low and sell high" is for private equity. Yet here is HSBC, over a period of three years, indicating it will sell U.S. businesses when the price is right. As if they were running a portfolio of businesses rather than a bank. When a bank does that, it loses its best people, its momentum and yes, the "right to win."
Andrew Kahr is a principal in Credit Builders LLC, a financial product development company, and was the founding chief executive of Providian Financial Corp. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.