HSBC Bet the Bank on China, Now It’s Paying the Price

The UK’s biggest bank is exposed to Evergrande and the Chinese real estate market. It’s also trapped in the middle of an escalating economic war between the world’s two superpowers. 

“I’d be naive to think that the turmoil in the market doesn’t have the potential to have second-order and third-order impact. Clearly with the changes that are taking place in the Evergrande situation, it’s concerning,” HSBC CEO Noel Quinn said on Wednesday at a Bank of America conference. In a webcast on HSBC’s website Quinn said he saw no reason to worry about HSBC’s loan exposure to Chinese commercial real estate, referring to a review of the bank’s provisions for distressed loans in the sector. 

«You wouldn’t have seen anything in that, that indicated we were concerned about our CRE exposure in China».

HSBC’s asset management arm is among the largest foreign holders of Evergrande debt, with a little over $200 million of its dollar bonds, according to a fund analysis report by Morningstar. And dollar bondholders seem to be pretty low down in the pecking order of creditors. Today (Friday), Evergrande missed an interest deadline on a dollar-denominated bond worth $83.5 million without even issuing a public statement. The firm, now in uncharted waters, enters a 30-day grace period. If it doesn’t make the payment in that time, it will have defaulted.   

Doubling Down

Interestingly, some banks, including HSBC, have been doubling down on Evergrande’s debt even as concerns about the company’s financial health grew, perhaps in the (seemingly mistaken) belief that when push came to shove Beijing would bail them out. Morningstar Direct data found that three Asian high-yield funds, belonging to UBS, HSBC and Blackrock, have been accumulating more units of Evergrande bonds over the past year. As the FT reported Thursday, the growing crisis at Evergrande is also sparking a sharp sell off of other high-risk Asian bonds, to which HSBC is also probably exposed. Real estate makes up 42% Asia’s high-yield bond market, with most of the borrowing coming from China.

Big developers such as Fantasia, R&F, Suna, China Aoyuan are already in big trouble. This is causing difficulties for some of the Chinese banks that have helped finance the sector’s last two decades of high-octane growth and unfettered speculation. Those banks, with some 50 trillion yuan ($7.7 trillion) of outstanding loans to developers and home buyers, have already been hit by a surge in defaults as authorities have escalated their curbs on the real estate sector, reports Bloomberg.

In late August ICBC said that its non-performing loans to real estate companies almost doubled in the first half of the year, while troubled loans to the sector at China Construction Bank jumped by 28 percent. China Merchants Bank recorded an almost four-fold jump in bad loans to real estate.

It’s hard to imagine that HSBC is totally immune to these developments. It clearly has exposure to China’s real estate market, including to buyers of uncompleted Evergrande residential projects. It is also probably no coincidence that HSBC’s shares have fallen 8% over the past four months, as Evergrande’s crisis has intensified.

But HSBC’s problems in China extend far beyond its exposure to Evergrande and the Chinese real estate market. HSBC’s biggest problem is arguably political, or to be more precise geopolitical.

Betting the Bank on China

Over the course of the last five or so years HSBC has bet the bank (pun intended) on China’s fast-growth economy while staging a strategic retreat from other markets. But China’s economy is beginning to look a bit fragile, as the Chinese government tries to stabilise the onshore property market, which is likely to be a long, slow, painful process. Also looking increasingly fragile is HSBC’s position in Hong Kong and mainland China

Despite being headquartered in the UK, HSBC is first and foremost an Asian bank — and always has been. Like its UK-based arch-rival Standard Chartered, it cut its teeth in Greater China in the 19th century (largely laundering the proceeds from the British East Indian company’s opium trade). And it remains a primarily Asian bank today. In 2020, its Mainland and Hong Kong operations accounted for 39% of its annual $50 billion in revenue, while the United Kingdom, its second largest market, brought in 28%.

The bank announced earlier this year plans to sell off its retail banking units in France and the United States and scale back its presence in some emerging markets in order to accelerate its eastward pivot. But there’s one big problem with this plan, as I reported for WOLF STREET in July: its success rests squarely on the bank’s ability to maintain good relations with the Chinese government, while also keeping the governments of the US and the UK on its side. In the middle of ratcheting tensions between China and the US (and by extension the UK), that is proving to be a tough proposition.

As geopolitical tensions have escalated between the US and China, HSBC has had to walk a tightrope in its relations with China on the one hand and Washington and London on the other. The lenders’ travails reveal a core challenge for multinational firms operating in China: the market is vital to their growth prospects, but Western firms doing business there increasingly risk being mired in the ratcheting tensions between Beijing and the West.

Like Standard Chartered, HSBC has thrown its support behind China’s imposition of security legislation on Hong Kong. It has frozen the assets of pro-democracy politicians and protesters, at the behest of Beijing. The bank has complied with just about everything Beijing has asked of it. But it’s still in Beijing’s bad books, partly no doubt due to the fact that it is, officially speaking, a UK-based bank, and the UK just signed a security pact with the US and Australia aimed at countering Chinese influence in the Asia Pacific.

Also, China still hasn’t fully forgiven HSBC for ratting out Chinese telecom giant Huawei to the U.S. Department of Justice for breaching U.S. sanctions on Iran. The information provided by HSBC led to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and daughter of the company’s founder, in Vancouver in 2018. Coincidentally, she was released just today and will be able to return to China after almost three years under house arrest. HSBC representatives claimed that they had little choice but to cooperate with the U.S. investigation — a legacy of the bank’s highly controversial deferred prosecution agreement with the DOJ in 2012, after being found guilty of breaching sanctions and laundering money for Mexican drug cartels. 

In recent months Beijing has expressed its displeasure with the bank by allegedly ceasing one-on-one meetings with senior HSBC bankers as well as sidelining HSBC’s investment banking operations in China. In total, Reuters identified nine state-owned enterprises that have ended or cut back on their business with HSBC as a result of the bank’s falling out of favor with Beijing. 

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