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HSBC braces for massive overhaul


FROM its headquarters near the Thames to its Asian hub by the South China Sea, HSBC Holdings Plc is abuzz.

With days to go before the bank unveils a restructuring, trading desks and back offices are bracing for scenarios that could see the announcement of another reshuffle of senior management, a surprise new chief executive, withdrawals from businesses and job reductions across the globe. It will be the London-based lender's third major overhaul in a decade, and it will be announced on Tuesday.

"The current strategy is in no man's land," said Lutz Roehmeyer, chief investment officer at Capitulum Asset Management in Berlin, which holds HSBC shares and has been cutting its exposure. "HSBC should stop being so prudent, take risk and expand - or otherwise shrink, and shrink fast."

HSBC's biggest market - Hong Kong - is also suffering through serial crises: anti-government protests in the former British colony, followed by coronavirus on the Chinese mainland. Then there's the record low interest rates in many countries, which are hampering lenders around the globe.

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Measures announced on Tuesday are likely to include billion-dollar writedowns, cuts at trading desks, and a reduction in exposure to countries ranging from Turkey and Greece to Oman, people familiar with the matter say. Efforts to sell HSBC's French retail business are progressing, and an overhaul of the underperforming US business is underway, the people said.

Since he was tapped to succeed the ousted John Flint last year, interim head Noel Quinn is battling fires on many fronts, including uncertainty about his own future. Some analysts had expected he would have been confirmed as the full-time chief by now.

"There may be controversial elements within the strategy that Quinn will outline on Tuesday, and the board may want to gauge the market reaction before anointing him successor," said John Cronin, a banks analyst at Goodbody in Dublin.

"Of course, it could also be the case that other CEO candidates could be in the mix. The bottom line is that the odds on Quinn getting the top job have reduced."

Most non-Quinn speculation so far has focused on Stephen Bird, Citigroup Inc's former top executive in Asia. HSBC is seriously considering external candidates, one of the people said. HSBC declined to comment on any of the reporting of this story.

Hands-on chairman Mark Tucker, who has said the hunt for a CEO could take as long as a year, wants to appoint someone with a broad mix of experience, including a background in asset management and investment banking, Bloomberg has reported.

As part of a broader reshuffle, HSBC also picked executive Andrew Fullam to carry out a new strategy in its underperforming US business, according to a memo this month.

Mr Fullam, who joined HSBC 15 years ago, took on the newly created role of US head of strategic execution. Europe's biggest bank by market value is also setting up a "central office" in the US to implement its new goals, said the memo dated Feb 10.

The North American unit has been a source of problems for several years. Its profit has declined for the past three quarters, and Mr Quinn said in October that in several markets, including the US, performance of some businesses was "not acceptable".

HSBC is forecast to report an adjusted pre-tax profit of US$21.8 billion for the full year, according to the company-compiled estimate of 18 analysts. Its shares are little changed over the past six months, compared with a broad advance by most other European lenders. BLOOMBERG

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