Noel Quinn’s exit seems respectable but big uncertainties about HSBC remain | Nils Pratley

Chief executives at HSBC, like those at Barclays, have had a habit in recent years of leaving in dramatic circumstances. The last one, John Flint, was ousted by a chairperson, the current incumbent Mark Tucker, who had appointed him only 18 months earlier. Going back to 2010, Michael Geoghegan was summoned to the Goring hotel to be told he wouldn’t be following the traditional cosy path to the chairperson’s office and therefore should decide if he wanted to stay as chief executive; he quit.

By contrast, Noel Quinn’s announcement of his exit came with fewer fireworks. Or, at least, his explanation was easy to follow. Quinn says the past few years have been “intense” and he would rather do something else, such as find “a better balance between my personal and business commitments”. Since he’s 62, has been at HSBC for 37 years and has earned more money (£10.6m last year) than he probably ever thought possible when he joined the old Midland bank, getting out seems perfectly sensible.

Whether it is the whole story is another matter, of course. Quinn was obliged to do seven months as an interim boss before the no-nonsense Tucker made him permanent chief executive in 2020, which was an awkward start to his innings. Meanwhile, the ambitious former finance boss, Ewen Stevenson, seems to have been under the impression Quinn would hang around; Stevenson left in late 2022, reportedly because he believed the top job wouldn’t be in play any time soon.

Still, Quinn’s timing is respectable. Last year’s excitement was the big bust-up with HSBC’s largest shareholder, the Chinese insurer Ping An, which wanted to break the bank in two. HSBC won that scrap hands down; no other major shareholder joined the rebellion. Meanwhile, the share price has finally picked up. A one-third rise on Quinn’s watch is so-so, but a valuation at book value is better than many rivals, notably Standard Chartered, manage. The latest quarterly numbers, showing profits down only marginally at $12.7bn, demonstrated no short-term crises. A $3bn share buy-back helped the mood.

In the long term, all the big uncertainties about HSBC remain. The next flare-up with Beijing is probably only a matter of time – the bank’s existence as a London-regulated lender that makes most of its money in Hong Kong and mainland China may eventually prove untenable. Quinn doused the flames (by offering some banker-ish pusillanimous comments) when HBSC was last in the cross-hairs of a US-China spat in 2021, but the next decade on the geopolitical front is anybody’s guess.

Meanwhile, the strategy of throwing more capital at Chinese expansion is one of those bets that may turn out to be imperfectly timed. Economic growth in China has slowed and the local property market is a mess. To date, HSBC has suffered little more than a bruise in the form of a $3bn write-down on its stake in China’s Bank of Communications but, again, it’s early days. There is another reason to quit if an opportunity arises.

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The succession battle looks wide open. Outsiders view the finance chief, Georges Elhedery, as the early frontrunner, while insiders say Nuno Matos, the head of the well-performing wealth management operation, is the one to watch. That’s if Tucker doesn’t opt for an external candidate.

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