HSBC Holdings executives said little about the future of their U.S. bank and other underperforming businesses at a sometimes contentious annual shareholder meeting Friday.
Europe's largest bank is undergoing a strategic review to improve its returns and make it easier to manage, and the U.S. business is among the units that could be in for radical changes, company executives said in February.
On Friday, executives offered no new details of their plans for the U.S. business and said that they would have more information on strategic progress at an investor day on June 9. The McLean, Va.-based HSBC Bank USA has assets of $185 billion and reported a return on equity of 3% last year, compared with 7.3% for the whole company.
Other major moves are under consideration, too. Chairman Douglas Flint said HSBC may move its headquarters away from London because of new regulations in the United Kingdom. He did not say where the bank may move.
"As part of the broader strategic review taking place, the board has therefore now asked management to commence work to look at where the best place is for HSBC to be headquartered in this new environment," Flint said. "The question is a complex one and it is too soon to say how long this will take or what the conclusion will be, but the work is under way."
Despite occasionally harsh criticism of the company's recent scandals and lagging returns, shareholders voted to confirm all the bank's board nominees Friday. However, nearly 24% of investors opposed the directors' remuneration report, suggesting some unhappiness with the company's compensation policies.
The executives defended their board's performance, while apologizing, as they have many times before, for the company's past ethical and legal failures. Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver acknowledged "unacceptable historic practices and behavior" and said the bank has "fundamentally transformed" its controls and culture since he and Flint were put in charge in 2011.
They also cited progress. Sir Simon Robertson, chairman of the board's pay committee, said the company's relationship with U.S regulators, "which was not good," has operated "under a much better framework" since early last year.
HSBC's U.S. business is under a five-year deferred-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice for money laundering and sanctions violations, and a federal monitor said earlier this month that the company still has internal compliance problems.
Some shareholders used the meeting to confront HSBC's executives for this and other regulatory and legal violations the bank has been penalized for in the last several years, which have cost the company's investors billions.
"Should you be our chairman or should you be sitting in a prison cell?" Michael Mason-Mahon, a private shareholder, asked Flint, drawing scattered applause.
Later, Mason-Mahon offered Gulliver the gift of a Panama hat, in reference to revelations earlier this year that the CEO has received his annual bonus through an anonymously registered Panamanian company tied to a Swiss bank account.
Another shareholder wanted to know "what plans are in place toward cleaning up the HSBC board, and securing the belated replacement of the chairman and chief executive?"
Flint and other HSBC executives repeatedly discussed their efforts to reform what they called "historical" practices.
"I can't change the past none of us can but we can do a great deal and are doing a great deal to future-proof" HSBC, said Flint. The company has more than doubled its compliance staff, to 7,000, since 2011, Gulliver said.