© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A logo of HSBC is seen on its headquarters at the financial Central district in Hong Kong, China August 4, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
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By Lawrence White and Iain Withers
BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) -HSBC soundly defeated a bid to break-up the bank and spin-out its lucrative Asian business at its annual investor meeting in Birmingham in England on Friday, but still faced a rebellion against its board and pay for top bosses.
Europe’s biggest bank had faced proposals submitted by Hong Kong-based individual investor Ken Lui and backed by its biggest Asian shareholder Ping An to consider a radical restructuring and to boost its dividends.
But both resolutions were defeated by about 80% of votes cast at the meeting and HSBC said no other top 50 institutional investors had backed the protest votes.
Ping An also ratcheted up its campaign against HSBC by voting against several other resolutions, including the re-election of HSBC’s chairman Mark Tucker, as well as the pay report for top executives.
These resolutions passed, but with around 20% of votes cast against, which the bank said reflected Ping An’s voting.
HSBC has been contending with a months-long campaign from Ping An to hive off the Asia business that generates most of its profit, against a backdrop of rising geopolitical tensions between China and the West.
A spokesperson for Ping An said the company respected shareholders’ choices, but advised HSBC’s senior managers to listen to investor suggestions “with an open mind” and to take steps to increase company value.
“This is a strong rebuttal from the majority of shareholders with Ping An standing as the lone voice pressing for a break-up,” said John Cronin, banking analyst at Goodbody.
“I think this closes the door on the proposal for some time – though, under different market conditions, we could see similar such pressures re-emerge.”
Shareholder Lui told reporters via a translator after the event that despite the defeat he plans to keep pressuring HSBC’s management, including trying to mobilise the bank’s vast Hong Kong retail shareholder base in support of his position.
Lui earlier questioned HSBC’s board directly at the fractious meeting on Friday, prompting the HSBC’s Tucker to say criticism of the bank’s performance showed “a fundamental misunderstanding of HSBC’s business.”
Tucker also said any break-up of the bank would undermine its global strategy and dent its revenue, repeating the bank’s argument that it would be risky and costly.
Lui, Ping An and its supporters always faced an uphill battle to secure the 75% of votes cast needed to succeed.
With around a 50% turnout, Ping An’s shareholding represents around an 18-19% share of the vote going against the bank, HSBC said in a statement.
HSBC tripled its profit in the first quarter as rising interest rates boosted its income, paying its first quarterly dividend since 2019.
HSBC’s Tucker also told investors that the bank still planned to sell its French retail business and that negotiations for a sale were ongoing, after warning last month the deal could be in jeopardy.
Like Barclays (LON:BARC)’ investor meeting earlier this week, HSBC’s event was repeatedly interrupted by climate campaigners singing songs, while one protester stood up at the front of the hall with a banner reading ‘No more dirty coal’.
Another protester underwent a symbolic “greenwashing” in a bathtub placed outside the conference venue.
Major banks have long been targeted by green campaigners who say lenders have not done enough to curb financing of polluting companies and industries.
Barclays’ annual meeting on Wednesday was disrupted by campaigners singing a song inspired by the Spice Girls’ ‘Stop’, calling on the bank to end funding for oil and gas.