Stuart Gulliver, HSBC’s chief executive, has hit back against the media in the storm that has blown up over allegations that the group’s Swiss private bank helped rich clients to dodge taxes.
Mr Gulliver picked holes in the blanket media coverage of the affair, and defended his record in tightening up compliance controls since taking over as chief executive in 2011. In an internal memo seen by the Financial Times, he said the reports were “painful” to read and watch for HSBC staff, but added: “The media coverage will continue for a bit.
“I share your frustration that the media focus on historical events makes it harder for people to see the efforts we have made to put things right. But we must acknowledge we sometimes failed to live up to the standards the societies we serve rightly expected from us.”
Mr Gulliver said he and Douglas Flint, his chairman, had been called to appear at “UK parliamentary committee hearings”. Mr Flint has been called by the Treasury select committee, with a preliminary date of February 25. The public accounts committee is in talks with Mr Gulliver about appearing at a separate hearing.
He said: “We welcome the opportunity to explain everything we are doing to build the HSBC we all want to work for.”
The bank chief said “major media outlets” had focused on the most high-profile 140 names in a vast cache of account data leaked to news organisations that were taken from the Swiss private bank by a former employee in Geneva between 2005 and 2007.
But 106 of these 140 clients were no longer with the bank, he pointed out, and several of them were not clients “long before” the data were taken in 2007. One “was exited in 1991”.
“A number of other individuals have been named by the media who were never the bank’s clients,” said the HSBC chief, adding that the media had talked of 100,000 clients, but its Swiss unit had only 30,000 clients at its peak.
The reports detailed how some HSBC clients were offered a variety of services to help them dodge tax officials. These included giving them large, untraceable bricks of cash in foreign currencies and setting up offshore companies to hide their undeclared wealth from authorities.
But he said HSBC’s Swiss private bank has been “completely overhauled” since 2008, shrinking its client numbers by 70 per cent, and with “much tighter central control”. The bank has doubled the size of its compliance team in four years to 7,000 people
Mr Gulliver added: “We have absolutely no appetite to do business with clients who are evading their taxes or who fail to meet our financial crime compliance or other standards.”
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