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Last Updated: Monday, 6 March 2006, 14:19 GMT
Flush HSBC rewards investors first
by Gavin Stamp
BBC News business reporter

HSBC branch
HSBC staff will be wondering how much they will benefit financially
Spending money can cause headaches whether you are a window shopper on a shoe-string budget or the country's wealthiest bank.

In the case of HSBC, which has reported record profits for a UK High Street bank of 11.5bn, finding an appropriate home for such a pile of cash is necessarily complicated.

After such a lucrative year, should the bank increase rewards for its shareholders or share more of the proceeds with its 250,000 staff?

On the other hand, should it use the money to fund further global expansion, boost its offering in specific areas or, even, put something under the bed for the proverbial rainy day?

The answer, generally speaking, would seem to be a little of everything.

In line with our strategy, we concentrated on organic growth

But it is the bank's shareholders - which range from multinational financial institutions to small investors in the UK and further afield - who will be the main winners.

HSBC is planning to return about 4.2bn to investors this year through dividends, approximately half of the 8.2bn available to the firm after tax and other deductions.

Dividend clamour

Banks such as HSBC have come under growing pressure in recent times to give more of their substantial profits back to shareholders.

Investors argue that large amounts of "excess capital" - money left over beyond a bank's operating needs and funds required by regulators to safeguard against sudden financial difficulties - are inefficient.

Chinese flag fluttering in front of offices of US bank Citigroup
Banks continue to invest in China but big deals were limited

They should either be spent - which banks have historically done on acquisitions, most recently overseas deals - or paid back, investors say.

Banks have heard this growing clamour and reacted.

While HSBC is increasing its dividend by 11%, Royal Bank of Scotland - which owns National Westminster Bank - recently said it would return 1bn to investors through dividends and share buybacks.

Meanwhile, Barclays is paying 1.6bn in dividends this year despite spending 2.6bn on buying South African bank Absa last summer.

Limited deals

One of the reasons that British banks feel comfortable lavishing money on shareholders is that big takeover targets are thin on the ground.

"With relatively few investment opportunities available, prices for potential acquisitions were high in 2005," HSBC noted in its review of business.

By HSBC's recent standards, 2005 was a quiet year for deals.

It did spend $1.6bn on buying US credit card provider Metris and boosting its stake in Chinese insurer Ping An to the tune of $1bn, but huge deals were scarce.

Golfer Tiger Woods promotes the HSBC Champions Tournament in Shanghai
HSBC spends millions on advertising and sponsorship

With well established positions in mature markets across Europe and the US, British banks have been turning further afield in recent years.

Many have bought strategic stakes in Chinese firms ahead of the full deregulation of its banking market next year and scouted out opportunities in Africa and Latin America.

However, overall investments have been relatively small.

This trend could continue in the current year with the long-anticipated consolidation in European banking facing strong political opposition in many countries.

HSBC concentrated on "organic growth" last year, which meant more investment in technology, specialist services such as private banking and building the firm's brand in the 76 countries in which it operates.

As the world's self-styled 'local bank', HSBC spends a large amount of money keeping in touch with customers and trying to attract new ones.

This means huge expenditure on television advertising and sponsorship of sport and the arts.

Pay gap?

HSBC workers may be licking their lips at the prospect of salary rises and bigger bonuses after such a good year.

However, the degree to which staff will benefit financially from the bank's success is bound to be contentious.

Outgoing HSBC chairman Sir John Bond
Sir John Bond and other directors were paid 28m in 2005

Last year, UK trade unions threatened strike action, claiming many HSBC staff would either get no pay increase or a below inflation one.

HSBC says employee salaries are reviewed on the basis of individual and group performance, taking into account how competitors have fared.

On that basis, staff at all levels of the company should stand to gain.

Having overseen the bank's growing profitability, HSBC senior executives will also benefit.

HSBC's directors and senior management earned a total of 71m in salaries and bonuses in 2005, according to the firm's annual report.

While directors earned 28.2m - a slight fall on the year before - the five highest-paid senior executives not on the company's board took home almost 36m between them.

These rewards were based on performance, HSBC stressed, and in line with executive pay at other leading European banks and UK firms with major operations in the US and Asia.

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