HSBC: Locating Green’s successor

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The choice of HSBC’s next chairman will tell you everything you need to know about the bank’s future.

The announcement that Bob Diamond will take over as chief executive of Barclays – probably the least surprising piece of news of the past three years to many in the banking industry – dominated the headlines in the UK in September, even in the mainstream media.

But there was a much more intriguing announcement on the same day: the news that Stephen Green was to step down as executive chairman of HSBC from the start of next year.

Green’s impending departure is no big surprise. His future role as a minister in the UK’s coalition government makes sense as well. Green has always been careful to communicate his strongly held conviction that capitalism must have a caring side. This would no doubt appeal to bank-bashing business secretary Vince Cable.

The breaking of the story seemed to catch HSBC on the hop. There was no information in its press release about how Green would be replaced, except to say that the decision-making process was under way and would be completed before the end of the year. It was, perhaps, a painful lesson that Whitehall is much more leak-ridden than Wall Street or Canary Wharf.

But here’s the issue that most people are missing: how Green is replaced, and by whom, will inform the direction of HSBC in a way that few successions have in recent times.

Why? For the answer you only have to look back to the comments of investment bank chief Stuart Gulliver just a few days before Green’s news came out. He made it clear that HSBC was not tied to its UK regulatory base. The bank did not want to quit its home in London but it might be forced to if Cable & Co were to introduce measures that harmed it.

Mike Geoghegan, HSBC’s chief executive, has already relocated to Hong Kong. The traditional HSBC route from here would be for Geoghegan to step up to chairman, and for Gulliver to move on to the chief executive role.

That might not happen, at least in the short term. Those who know Geoghegan say that he is far from done as group chief executive. He has many ambitions left. The role of chairman is important but Geoghegan will prefer to continue to operate within the markets that he loves and understands. Furthermore, he only recently acquired control of group strategy, which shifted the operational balance of power towards the chief executive. Why would he want to become chairman now?

But it gets more complicated. It is little known that when Geoghegan moved to Hong Kong, the Financial Services Authority made it clear to HSBC that, if the bank wanted to continue to be regulated in the UK, it would need to commit itself to keeping an executive chairman in London.

Could Green’s departure, in the light of Gulliver’s recent comments, herald the end of that arrangement? HSBC has also felt pressure from shareholders to end its policy of having an executive chairman. Bank insiders have long said that the obvious candidate on the board, should a nonexecutive chair role become available, is former Goldman Sachs president and Sinophile John Thornton. He would certainly fit the bill for HSBC’s eastward-looking ambitions. But would he relocate to London and would he want a full-time role?

Finding an executive chairman to work in London, in parallel with Geoghegan but 6,000 miles distant from him, might prove difficult. HSBC would not want to appoint from outside. Gulliver will wait his turn to become chief executive.

There’s one obvious internal candidate – CFO Douglas Flint. The Scot was in the running to become chief executive four years ago but in the end the board plumped for Geoghegan. Putting Flint in a position that, in the strict scheme of things, ranks above Geoghegan, might cause ructions. But they have worked together for many years. Flint earned immense respect for his management of HSBC’s finances through the crisis. Shareholders know, like and respect him. So do regulators, and a key part of the chairman’s role is relations with them.

Flint, Thornton, or someone else – the decision, promised by the end of the year but certain to come before that – will tell us a lot more about the future of HSBC than any press release.