When Peter Wong announced his retirement this week after a decade as HSBC’s chief executive for Asia, he told staff that turning crisis into opportunity was “embedded” in the bank’s DNA.
HSBC has endured a series of crises in Europe, the US and South America over the past 10 years – while Wong quietly paved the way for Europe’s largest lender to the wealthiest circles of Hong Kong and the corridors of power of Beijing.
Around the time he became CEO of Asia, $8 of every $10 of the bank’s profits was generated in the region, but half of its loan portfolio and more than two-thirds of its capital were deployed in Europe and the US.
Now, growth in China and Hong Kong has become the core of their global strategy and more than $100 billion in capital has been reallocated to the region. HSBC’s US operations and part of its European operations have been wound down or sold.
Wong’s ties to Hong Kong’s business elite and the Chinese Communist Party have been crucial. Allies say the veteran Hong Kong banker has become “indispensable” for HSBC – he will remain in a new role as the bank’s chairman in Hong Kong, a position traditionally held by the global CEO.
Yet the 69-year-old ran into a crisis of his own last year when he jeopardized more than a century of careful political neutrality at HSBC by signing a petition in favor of Beijing’s strict national security law in Hong Kong. That garnered praise in Beijing, but catapulted Wong’s name onto the radar of angry politicians in Westminster and Washington.
“It caused serious problems for Noel Quinn and Mark Tucker,” said a former HSBC board member, referring to the bank’s chief executive and chairman, respectively. “Since he signed the NSL petition, the focus has been all on Peter’s political connections, but that does his 40-year career as an exceptionally good banker a disservice.”
HSBC’s fortune has become intertwined with China. Wong’s relationship with the Communist Party – he sits on the main political advisory body – has been a huge benefit to the bank. He eased tensions with Beijing after HSBC issued documents to US prosecutors investigating Chinese tech group Huawei over alleged sanctions violations.
“The Chinese government considers him a friend and a trusted person,” said Sir David Li, executive chairman of Bank of East Asia and the top banker in Hong Kong. Jeffrey Lam, a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, said: “HSBC is located between two hot plates: the mainland and the US. Peter did a great job – handling that conflict takes skill.
Wong, who is also a trusted friend and banker to Hong Kong tycoons such as Sir Li Ka-shing, Henry Cheng and Thomas Kwok, was poached by Standard Chartered in 2005 when HSBC realized it had almost no senior executives from Hong Kong or China. . He was already established in local and Chinese business and political circles as chairman of the influential Association of Banks in the area.
Powerful friends who are deeply rooted in Hong Kong politics say he is “diplomatic” and “no-nonsense”.
“He talks very little, but when he does, he means what he says,” BEA’s Li says. Peter Ma, chairman of Ping An, the Chinese insurer that is HSBC’s largest shareholder, described Wong as the “elder statesman” of international banking in Asia.
As the chairman of the original bank of Hong Kong, Wong will maintain his status under the Hong Kong’s taipans – the city’s most respected businessmen. Though he will be replaced as head of Asia by two more junior colleagues, he will continue to live in Taipan House, HSBC’s $73 million residence for its senior local executive on the city’s exclusive Peak.
More importantly, he will play a vital role in shaping the area’s future as an international financial center. Hong Kong has been forced to defend its reputation as a global financial hub since the 2019 eruption of violent pro-democracy protests and last year’s introduction of the national security law.
Wong spends hours discussing issues “critical to our future as an international financial center,” said Joseph Yam, Hong Kong’s first central banker now on the legislative committee.
“blaming people” [Hong Kong] to become more and more like China,” he added. “That’s foolish – Peter can see that. He doesn’t have the kind of problematic culture we see on Wall Street, where financial institutions have become selfish rather than serving the economy.”
There is no retirement age at HSBC, so the timing of Wong’s departure has raised questions. An insider linked it to the decision to move four global business leaders from London to Hong Kong later this year.
“Peter has historically had a lot of independence, now there will be a lot of people on the 34th floor of 1 Queen’s Road Central [HSBC’s historic local headquarters] bump into him, trying to bond with Hong Kong’s very strong P&L,” the person said.
“Status and face count for tons in Hong Kong,” said a former HSBC chief executive. “So it’s super sweet to get the title of chairman of the original Hong Kong bank.”
Quinn, who announced Wong’s retirement, said his time at Wong “shaped my belief that HSBC has a bright future as a global bank that can bridge east and west”.
As a mediator between HSBC, mainland China, Hong Kong and the rest of the world – including sometimes volatile emerging markets – Wong is used to navigating conflict. As mainland China’s importance to HSBC grows, more geopolitical fires are likely to be extinguished.
“We’ve been guests in other people’s countries all our lives,” said a former HSBC boss. “It’s not surprising that crises are common.”