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OPINION

Stephen Williams: HSBC’s gentleman for all seasons retires

When Stephen Williams joined HSBC more than 20 years ago, the bank was a backmarker in Asian debt markets. When he retires next month, he leaves it top of the heap.

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“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Those words from novelist LP Hartley came to mind on discovering that Stephen Williams will retire in July.

The quietly spoken UK banker’s career spanned two financial crises – one Asian in origin; the other Western in nature and global in reach – and winds down as we emerge from a pandemic that has rewritten the rules of finance and recast the role of the state.

Williams moved to Hong Kong in 1994 after studying geography at Cambridge. He joined JPMorgan as head of credit research before jumping ship to UBS, where he was made Asia head of debt capital markets, dividing his time between Singapore and Hong Kong.

Asia was a different place then. To most international lenders, it was a backwater studded with a few success stories.

Southeast Asia was still recovering from having the ground so brutally cut out from under its feet in the Asian financial crisis of 1997/98.

Talking of feet, back then China was still finding its own. When Williams joined HSBC in 2000 as Asia head of DCM – a position that steadily evolved into leading the bank’s entire Asia financing platform – its economy was a quarter the size of Japan’s, and an eighth the size of the US's.