HSBC profits hammered by pandemic and soaring US-China tensions

HSBC makes 90 percent of its profit in Asia, with China and Hong Kong being the major drivers of growth. (AFP)
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Updated 03 August 2020

HSBC profits hammered by pandemic and soaring US-China tensions

  • Bank reports post-tax profit of $3.1 billion while pre-tax profit was $4.3 billion
  • Asia-focused lender embarked on a huge cost-cutting initiative at the start of the year

HONG KONG: HSBC said Monday profits for the first half of 2020 plunged by 69 percent on year as the banking giant was hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and spiraling China-US tensions.
The lender reported post-tax profit of $3.1 billion while pre-tax profit was $4.3 billion, a 64 percent drop on the same period last year. Reported revenue was down nine percent at $26.7 billion.
The figures missed analyst forecasts and the bank also raised its estimate for 2020 loan losses from $8 billion to $13 billion.
Chief executive Noel Quinn described the first six months of the year as “some of the most challenging in living memory.”
“Our first-half performance was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, falling interest rates, increased geopolitical risk and heightened levels of market volatility,” he said in a statement to the Hong Kong stock exchange.
Even by the standards of the current economic maelstrom engulfing global banks, HSBC has had a torrid time.
Before the coronavirus crisis it was beset by disappointing profit growth, ground down by US-China trade war uncertainties and Britain’s departure from the European Union.
The Asia-focused lender embarked on a huge cost-cutting initiative at the start of the year, including plans to slash about 35,000 jobs as well as trimming fat from less profitable divisions, primarily in the United States and Europe.
The coronavirus upended some of that cost-cutting drive with banks hammered by market volatility and the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic.
But HSBC has a further headache — geopolitical tensions via its status as a major business conduit between China and the West.
HSBC makes 90 percent of its profit in Asia, with China and Hong Kong being the major drivers of growth.
As a result, it has found itself more vulnerable than most to the crossfire caused by the increasingly bellicose relationship between Beijing and Washington.
The bank has tried to stay in Beijing’s good graces.
It vocally backed a draconian national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June to end a year of unrest and pro-democracy protests.
The move sparked criticism in Washington and London but analysts saw it as an attempt to protect its access to China, which has a track record of punishing businesses that do not toe Beijing’s line.
But that has not shielded it from Beijing’s wrath.
Last month the bank was a subject of multiple reports in China’s state-run media claiming that it had helped to provide the evidence that led to the arrest in Canada of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a US arrest warrant.
HSBC released a statement on its Chinese Weibo accounts saying it had not “framed” telecom giant Huawei or “fabricated evidence” that led to the arrest of Meng.
China’s Internet censors blocked access to HSBC’s statement within hours of publication, without offering an explanation.
Quinn referenced the bank’s growing political vulnerability in Monday’s statement.
“Current tensions between China and the US inevitably create challenging situations for an organization with HSBC’s footprint,” he said.
“However, the need for a bank capable of bridging the economies of East and West is acute, and we are well placed to fulfil this role,” he added.
The bank’s Asia operations continued to show “good resilience,” Quinn said, with profit before tax of $7.4 billion.
Earlier this year Quinn put some of the job cuts on hold as the pandemic struck.
But in Monday’s statement he vowed to press ahead with the cost-cutting.
“As we seek to accelerate our transformation in the second half of the year, I am mindful of the impact it will have for some of our people, particularly those leaving us,” he said.


INTERVIEW: ‘We were built for times like this’, Johnson & Johnson exec Marzena Kulis says of company’s role in fighting pandemics

Updated 20 September 2020

INTERVIEW: ‘We were built for times like this’, Johnson & Johnson exec Marzena Kulis says of company’s role in fighting pandemics

  • 134-year firm searches for a vaccine while tackling other regional medical issues

Being a senior executive at a medical company during the most serious health care crisis for a century puts you at the sharp end of events, as Marzena Kulis, managing director of the medical products business of Johnson & Johnson in the Middle East, is well aware.

“We were built for the times like this. We are a company with a 134-year legacy.

“We lived through the previous pandemics of smallpox and Spanish flu, and through the financial crises, through world wars, and our business has expanded and grown,” she told Arab News.

“But it would be wrong to say that what happened in the past few months had no impact on the local, regional and global businesses,” she added.

J&J, a multibillion-dollar giant of the global health care industry, has been in the region for more than 40 years, operating via the three pillars of its business — medical devices, pharmaceuticals and consumer products.

But there is no doubt that the company’s profile has been lifted during the pandemic through its work on a potential vaccine. J&J is one of several international companies working flat out to develop a treatment since virtually the first outbreak earlier this year. 

Kulis, an economist by training who has spent almost her entire career in the health care sector, has seen that at first hand in recent months.

“I think our teams globally have been working tirelessly, without a break really, on finding the solutions and, as of now, we are saying that large quantities of the vaccine will be available in the first quarter of 2021,” she said.

“In September, we are planning to begin phase three trials on humans, which will be on a large number of the populations chosen for the trials, but we still believe that it will be early 2021 when we will be able to deliver the vaccine,” she added. Some health experts have criticized the tendency toward “vaccine nationalism” by some countries, eager to be first with a treatment in an international race, or to keep supplies of the medicine for their own people, rather than spreading it equably around the world.

“We are open to discussion with everyone,” Kulis said, pointing to agreements J&J has signed with the US and European authorities on vaccine collaboration, as well as with international organizations such as the GAVI immunization agency supported by many countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.

J&J also signed up for the “We Stand with Science” campaign to uphold the integrity of the medical scientific process in vaccine development and global regulatory standards.

Kulis is aware of the pressure to produce a vaccine “cure,” but believes safety is paramount. “Although we all would like it to be available tomorrow, the process has to take its time to ensure there are high ethical standards and scientific principles,” she said.

Meanwhile, while the world waits for a vaccine, Kulis has a business to run in the Middle East. The medical devices business in the region includes surgical equipment, and orthopedics and cardiovascular procedures — all affected by the heightened focus on COVID-19 treatments during the pandemic.

In particular, some elective surgeries have been pushed to the back of the queue by patients understandably anxious to protect their health during the pandemic. Lockdowns and economic pressure have also had an effect.


BIO

Born: Krakow, Poland

Education

  • Master’s, Krakow Economic Academy
  • MBA, Stockholm University

Career

  • HD operations officer, World Bank 
  • General manager for Pfizer, Poland and Baltic states
  • Managing director, Johnson & Johnson, Middle East

“The UAE has restored or reopened some surgeries, but Saudi Arabia is still taking a bit more time reopening for elective surgeries, with the exception of some parts of the country. So, obviously, that has an impact,” Kulis said.

The financials of the business were better than expected in the second quarter, although still some way off what they would have been without the virus. One real positive is that the J&J global supply chain has remained intact, she said.

Kulis’ job gives her a unique insight into the medical problems of the region, and one issue stands out, she says — obesity and its associated complications. J&J sees the extent of the problem in its bariatrics specialism, which deals with the causes, prevention and treatment of obesity.

“This region is leading the obesity prevalence in the world and we provide medical solution for that as well,” she said, pointing out that three of the top five most obese countries in the world in terms of obesity incidence as a proportion of the population are from the Middle East.

Oncological and gynecological surgery is also a growing part of her division in Saudi Arabia. 

In orthopedics, Kulis said with a hint of humor, “the world has been walking on our knees and our hips for decades.” But there is also an important link to obesity, too, she said, because overweight people are likely to face greater mobility challenges.

“Sooner or later, as a consequence of obesity, people require joint replacement or some other orthopedic intervention,” she said.

The third segment of the medical devices unit is also affected by obesity problems. The cardiovascular and stroke speciality focuses on remedies for heart arrythmia and stroke management.

“We’re still raising the awareness of availability of the surgical treatment for those two. It’s especially important to show that stroke is not a death or disability sentence but can be treated. People can be brought to mobility and quality of life,” Kulis said.

J&J sees as another increasing problem for Saudi Arabia — the treatment of traumatic injuries from traffic accidents.

“It’s really prevalent and a strong focus in Saudi Arabia. The treatment of road accident trauma is part of our orthopedic business. Road accidents are an important part of our work in the Kingdom,” she said.

Overall, the health benefits of Saudi Arabia’s young demographic is, to some extent, outweighed by obesity and other lifestyle issues, she said.

The Kingdom is a focus for expansion for J&J. It opened a headquarters office in Riyadh in 2017, and also has bases in Jeddah and Dammam, serving as a base not only for the medical devices business but also the consumer and pharmaceuticals units. There are about 180 employees in the Kingdom, of whom roughly 40 percent are citizens.

“We have made a conscious effort to ensure we can build up local capacity and help the local population to work with us,” she said. J&J has a local Saudi partner, takes part in official programs to promote health and lifestyle issues within the Kingdom, and has a joint flagship program with the Prince Sultan Humanitarian City Hospital. 

The health sector has been earmarked for greater private sector participation in the Vision 2030 plans to diversify the Kingdom away from the government-dominated energy sector, and J&J is keen to take advantage of any opportunities in that respect.

“We are always exploring the option for enhancement of the business and definitely Saudi is our priority market. 

We haven’t been in any discussions regarding takeover or merger activity so far, but if there are opportunities, we will put it forward to our senior management. We are looking at any opportunity to strengthen our footprint in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

Including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Kulis’s responsibilities at J&J cover the medial needs of 500 million people in 16 countries stretching from Pakistan to Egypt. But she is keen not to lose sight of the importance of individual cases within the many thousands of patients that benefit from J&J products and procedures every year.

“What keeps me up at night is this question — how can we grow the scale of the business so that we can help more patients get treatment at the right time?

“We all know the stories of people and the families who don’t get care on time, or who wait too long for treatment. I want to shape my organization so that we can share the same dream of preventing that,” she said.