A tough 2014 has left HSBC in a bind: its success depends on its sprawling, international scale, but too many sluggish business lines are dragging down overall returns.
HSBC Holdings Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver on Monday promised to make radical changes to any business line that fails to catch up. Among the laggards is the London bank's U.S. unit, which finally pulled itself back into the black but is far more inefficient than its rivals.
Gulliver repeatedly stressed during a conference call with analysts that no option is off the table if the U.S. unit's efficiency doesn't improve. While declining to directly discuss the possibility of divestitures, Gulliver said he needs to see progress from HSBC's operations in the U.S. and three other country divisions that he said have the most efficiency issues.
"We absolutely need to turn them around, or we would need to think of more extreme solutions to the problem," he said.
Gulliver said the lagging units have 12 to 24 months for their turnarounds, and the parent company's management holds conference calls every two weeks with the heads of each unit to discuss their progress.
"There are parts of the group that aren't offering a return that's anywhere near their cost of equity, and we're working on restructuring those," Gulliver said. "And there are no options in terms of that restructuring that we would not consider."
It is understandable that HSBC's 2014 results, released Monday, have left management searching for radical solutions. The parent company's pretax profit for the year fell 17%, to $18.7 billion, as costs grew faster than revenue.
HSBC's fines, penalties and other conduct-related costs mostly from before the current management team was put in place in 2011-- totaled $3.7 billion last year. Meanwhile, Gulliver's four-year-old de-risking initiative has chipped away at income. HSBC's efficiency ratio rose to 67.3% last year from 59.6% the year before.
Yet not all of HSBC's businesses are equally to blame for the inefficiency, management said Monday. Gulliver singled out operations in the U.S., Mexico, Brazil and Turkey, along with the Asian commercial mortgage banking unit and parts of the global banking and markets businesses, for "dragging our [return on equity] down."
Yet despite the struggling business lines, Gulliver also defended the bank's global business model. He said a breakup would "destroy shareholder value" because an estimated 40% to 50% of revenue comes from the ability to finance capital flows across the bank's international network, he said.
"The breakup argument doesn't work as well for us as it does for some other institutions," he said.
Gulliver may oppose a breakup, but since taking over in 2011 he has certainly chipped away.
Since it began its overhaul more than four years ago, the bank has reviewed its business lines using a method that balances strategic importance, profitability and financial-crime risk. Through this review, HSBC has sold 77 business since Gulliver's management team has been put in place.
That review process is continuing, and could lead to more sales, said Iain Mackay, HSBC Holdings' group finance director.
"If that leads us, ultimately, to the point that you can't run the business more efficiently, it's entirely reasonable to assume that this management team will exit some of those businesses," he said.
The need to raise cash, combined with increased regulation and shrinking margins, has led several major foreign banks to exit the U.S. since the financial crisis. Royal Bank of Canada, for instance, sold its U.S. bank in 2012, before deciding to re-enter the country with a far different business model through the recently announced purchase of City National in Los Angeles.
Royal Bank of Scotland is in the process of spinning off its U.S. unit, Citizens Financial in Providence, R.I., to comply with the U.K. government's insistence that it raise cash. The Spanish giant Bankia sold its U.S. business in 2013.
Of course, a complete U.S. exit is nearly unthinkable for HSBC, given the vital importance of New York City for corporate banking and capital markets.
HSBC could, however, continue to pare down its retail presence here. One of Gulliver's first major moves as CEO was agreeing to sell 195 branches to First Niagara Financial Group in August 2011. On Monday he downplayed the strategic importance of retail banking for HSBC relative to other international banks.
"We make our money in commercial banking, global banking and markets and, yes, we make a chunk in retail banking. But if you look at the first two, that's 60% to 70% of the group's profit," he said.
Gulliver's comments came the same day the U.S. bank announced a return to a profit after two years in the red. The $186 billion-asset HSBC USA earned $354 million in 2014, after losing $338 million in 2013, driven by strong growth in commercial lending.
It remained inefficient by big-bank standards, however. Its efficiency ratio was 87.6%, a significant improvement from the year before, but still worse than the 60.8% average of large U.S. banks, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data.
The current low margins in U.S. retail banking could make it harder for HSBC to find a buyer if it does decide to sell off part of its network, said Jeff Davis, managing director of Mercer Capital. Yet its network would still be attractive if more branches were put on the market.
"It's really concentrated between New York, Philadelphia, Miami and Los Angeles, which are all great markets," he said.
Along with raising fresh questions about underperforming units, HSBC's 2014 results could rekindle the debate about whether some banks are too big to manage or at least, to manage efficiently. In addition, Gulliver himself is now under fire, after The Guardian reported early Monday that he himself kept millions of pounds in a Swiss bank account held through a Panamanian company.
Gulliver repeatedly drilled home the point that no steps even ones that may seem far-fetched now can be ruled out other than a major breakup of the parent company.
"You can rest assured that there are no sacred cows," Gulliver said.