HSBC Swiss tax scrutiny set to overshadow $21 billion profit


LONDON (Reuters) – When HSBC’s marketing team began drawing up plans for next month’s 150th anniversary celebrations, they weren’t expecting top managers to spend the run-up to the event apologizing to investors and lawmakers.

Yet allegations that HSBC’s Swiss private bank helped clients dodge taxes will cast a shadow over its anniversary plans in the first week of March and over its annual results this Monday. Its bosses will also be grilled on the issue by members of the UK parliament on Wednesday.

Stuart Gulliver, the chief executive of Europe’s biggest bank, has admitted failings in its Swiss arm in the period up to 2007 and apologized to investors and customers, but said the business has been transformed and standards are now up to scratch.

Geneva’s public prosecutor and Britain’s financial watchdog are investigating the bank after details about how its Swiss private bank allegedly helped wealthy clients dodge taxes were leaked to the media and published last week.

The biggest concern for HSBC could be that U.S. authorities may look at re-opening a 2012 deferred prosecution agreement.

That followed a $1.9 billion fine after it was found to have allowed hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit drug money to move through the U.S. financial system.

HSBC’s shares have fallen 2 percent since the Swiss tax allegations were widely reported, lagging a 4 percent rise by the European bank index in that period.

The tax allegations and HSBC’s $618 million penalty last year when it was among six banks fined for alleged manipulation of foreign exchange markets will increase scrutiny on bonuses paid to executives and staff when these details are also released on Monday.

Gulliver will be paid about 7.4 million pounds ($11 million) for 2014, Sky News reported on Friday. It said that will include a 1.3 million pound bonus, down from 1.83 million for 2013. HSBC declined to comment.

The bank is expected to report a pre-tax profit of $21 billion for 2014, down 7 percent from 2013, according to the average forecast from 16 analysts polled by the bank.

Revenues in its commercial bank are growing strongly but a slowdown in Asian growth, the impact of tougher regulations, subdued trading activity and geopolitical tensions will take a toll, analysts said.

Gulliver is trying to cut costs and simplify operations across the bank, which was founded in March 1865 in Hong Kong and Shanghai to finance the growing trade between Europe, India and China.

But operating costs last year are predicted to rise 4 percent to $40.3 billion, showing the challenge Gulliver faces in axing costs while trying to improve standards and add more compliance staff.

Losses from bad loans are predicted to fall by $2.3 billion to $3.5 billion, but that will be offset by a 23 percent drop in revenues in its global banking and markets division to $7.2 billion, analysts reckon.

That would echo a slump in fixed income revenues shown by most investment banks.

($1 = 0.6501 pounds)


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