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#HSBC’s two-face strikes again

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We had quite a few discussions around FinTech Week London and the line that seemed to catch people’s attention is: we must remove legacy thinking.

There was debate about examples of legacy thinking. We need branches for advice; customers will always need cash (and checks!); only regulated markets by governments work; banks can only do banking … and more. I’m not sure I agreed with all of these comments, but I did point to Stuart Kirk, the former head of Responsible Investing at HSBC. Remember him? I blogged about it the other day.

Stuart made two comments that strike to the heart of legacy thinking. The first is:

“Who cares if Miami is six metres underwater in 100 years? Amsterdam has been six metres underwater for ages, and that’s a really nice place.”

The second is:

“The average loan length in a big bank like ours, HSBC, is six years. What happens to the planet in year seven is irrelevant.”

Why do these stand out?

The first stands out as preventable disasters should be prevented. The comment about Miami is a bit like saying “America always gets hurricanes. Who cares if thousands die in New Orleans?” when Hurricane Katrina hit.

The second one is more endemic to the finance industry as a whole, however. If you only care about the next six years returns and there’s no planet in seven years, well hey-ho, all the merrio-o. No wonder he is the former head of responsible investing.

Trouble is that he’s not alone. Most investment bankers are in positions based upon bonuses, power and prestige, who are purely profit focused, think this way.

It all tails back to what you measure is what you get, and what you measure and reward first is what you get the most of. Banks tend to measure and reward their investment people by profit and return on investment. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the expense of the world.

This is the reason why most big banks are like Harvey Dent, or Two-Face, the Batman foe who tries to be nice but has an evil streak inside. Kind of a Jekyll and Hyde – nice on the outside, but rotten on the inside.

In fact, staying with HSBC, I’ve been intrigued by their great advertising credentials when landing at Heathrow airport. All along the walkways to the aircraft are adverts like these:

Ten years ago, I blogged about their Heathrow advertising:

In the future, we will be planting cities.

Not many things grow as fast as 21st century cities. Bamboo does: one of the strongest and lightest building materials, it's now springing up in developments in emerging and developed countries. HSBC supports innovative ideas that will build the cities of the future. There's a new world emerging. Scoring climate change risk

And yet, it’s all Greenwashing:

HSBC

  • Europe’s second largest bank funder of fossil fuels
  • £81 billion into fossil fuels since 2015

Meanwhile, “the HSBC Centre of Sustainable Finance [provides] thought leadership about transforming the real economy and strengthening the financial system response to climate change”.

And HSBC is not the exception. They are the rule. The world’s biggest banks make a lot of money by fracking the planet. European banks make 14 percent of their profits by funding fracking and fossil fuel projects. The top 60 biggest world banks have given fossil fuel projects $4.6 trillion of loans since the Paris Accord was signed (2016-2021). Banks are at the heart of what will make or break our futures.

Now, that’s why legacy thinking is dangerous.

Of course, there’s other legacy thoughts: it’s too risky to change our technology stack; we cannot change regulations; staff are our greatest asset; my partner is not having an affair … but the banks proclamations of being great environmentalists, sustainable firms and finance with a conscience is the worst.

No wonder Extinction Rebellion have been breaking the bank’s windows as they just talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.

For more on HSBC’s Greenwashing thoughts about the water crisis, click here. It shows that these banks clearly understand the issues, but talk the talk and don't walk the walk. It is purely PR and not action.

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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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