HSBC’s two-decade adventure in France appears to be nearing its conclusion.
Cerberus, the US private equity giant, is – according to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) – in pole position to buy HSBC’s loss-making French arm and merge it with its own business in the country, My Money Group, which it bought from General Electric in 2017.
The WSJ quoted a memo from Jean Beunardeau, chief executive of HSBC France, as saying a sale would include HSBC’s French retail banking and wealth management operations – but not its insurance and asset management operations.
HSBC’s French arm has 800,000 customers in the country, employs nearly 10,000 people and has some 230 bank branches.
It also has a number of big sponsorship and partnership deals in the country. It has been an enthusiastic supporter of golf in France for more than a decade and, for the last five years, has also sponsored an annual rugby sevens tournament in Paris.
The bank also has a long-standing relationship with La Cite de le Reussite (the city of success), a debating forum that takes place at the Sorbonne, one of Paris’s most famous educational establishments.
The fate of Mr Beunardeau, a former official at the French finance ministry who is said to have impeccable connections in government, is unclear. Previously head of HSBC’s global banking and markets operations in France, he became chief executive of the business in January 2012.
A sale would bring to an end a process that has been under way for more than a year.
Mr Beunardeau told the bank’s six unions in September 2019 that a strategic review of the business was underway. The previous year, HSBC’s retail banking and wealth management business in France lost $56m, up from a loss of $12m in 2017.
A formal sale process was launched in December that year with the banking arm of La Poste, the publicly-listed but government-controlled French postal operator, named as an early possible buyer. Societe Generale, the third largest bank in France by market capitalisation after BNP Paribas and Credit Agricole, was also said to be in the running at one point.
However, finding a buyer has proved difficult, with most French lenders looking to cut the size of their branch banking operations – in response to changing customer behaviour – rather than taking on more branches.
The profitability of the banking sector in France, as with other countries in the eurozone, has been crushed by negative interest rates. Lenders right across the continent, such as Germany’s biggest lender Deutsche Bank, have also been grappling with legacy issues of their own.
In the case of HSBC, the bank also has very specific reasons for seeking an exit from France. The lender is looking to pivot away from Europe and the United States, where its loss-making branch banking business is already up for sale, in order to sharpen its focus on its traditional market of Asia.
Noel Quinn, the chief executive, said at last month’s results presentation that the bank would move “the heart of the business to Asia, including leadership”.
The bank also admitted that it expected to make a loss on the sale.
It all seemed so different when, in April 2000, HSBC entered France with the £6.6bn takeover of Credit Commercial de France.
CCF, founded in 1894, was at the time only the eighth-largest bank in France with some 650 branches – but, with more than one million wealthy clients, it was certainly the country’s most profitable.
At the time, it was the biggest ever takeover of a French business by a British one, with Sir John Bond, HSBC’s chairman at the time, enthusing about the prospects.
He said: “This acquisition represents a unique opportunity to build a platform in the eurozone, where we have been under-represented. It will also significantly increase our wealth management business…and expand our ability to meet the needs of our global corporate and institutional clients.”
At the time, eyebrows were raised about the price HSBC was paying, which was more than three times book value.
HSBC said this could be justified by the quality of CCF’s business. But Sir John – the architect of a busy period of flag-planting in which HSBC sought to establish itself as ‘the world’s local bank’ – underestimated the hostility of wealthy French banking customers to foreign owners.
CCF was the first French lender to be taken over by a foreign bank and, right from the off, it was having to defend itself for selling out.
Charles de Croisset, the bank’s president at the time, told French radio that he did not see “where the taboo is”. He added: “It is truly a very beautiful offer.”
Mr de Croisset was right about that – so far as his shareholders were concerned – because, within a few years it became clear that HSBC had overpaid. CCF was renamed HSBC France in 2005 and, while profits were grown, this was largely achieved by raising charges and by cost cutting.
The quality of service, in the eyes of the bank’s notoriously demanding customers, was said to have deteriorated. The formerly well-heeled customers of CCF voted with their feet.
One of them, the heiress Leone-Noelle Meyer, former chairwoman of Galeries Lafayette – the most famous department store in Paris – even sued HSBC France over the loss of €7.5m that had been invested in a fund that had funnelled money to the jailed fraudster Bernie Madoff.
The rot, as locals saw it, was typified by a sale-and-leaseback deal with Qatari investors in 2009 involving the bank’s prestigious headquarters on the Champs Elysees. HSBC France vacated the building altogether just under 18 months ago.
There were also other asset sales around the business. HSBC banked a €1.5bn profit when, in March 2008, it offloaded its seven regional French banks. So the business Cerberus is in talks to buy is very much a shrivelled version of the grand old establishment HSBC acquired 21 years ago.
HSBC’s experience in France is emblematic of the bank’s story of the last few decades – one of hubristic expansion into a new market, over-paying along the way, only to find that prospects for the business were not as great as it first imagined.
There are numerous other examples dating all the way back to the bank’s first acquisition of a stake in Marine Midland, the US lender, 40 years ago. It is tempting to speculate how much better HSBC would have done had it chosen to concentrate on growing in its home markets in Asia.
(c) Sky News 2021: Why HSBC is saying ‘au revoir’ to the bulk of its business in France