Book review - The Lion Wakes: A Modern History of HSBC
The Lion Wakes: A Modern History of HSBC
by Richard Roberts and David Kynaston
The Lion's Rude Awakening might seem a more fitting title for this new book about HSBC, whose misdemeanours in Switzerland have recently dominated headlines.
Those are not covered in this history of the bank's journey from relative obscurity in Hong Kong to global omnipresence. Writing in the run-up to HSBC's 150th anniversary this year, historians Richard Roberts and David Kynaston could not have anticipated the latest scandal, but fresh revelations that the bank helped wealthy clients to evade taxes in 2007 rob the narrative of some authenticity.
Harsher critics may judge the book to be an unfortunately timed public relations exercise. Written at the invitation of erstwhile HSBC chairman John Bond, it rarely casts aspersions on the individuals who have led HSBC, even if it does point out the bank's mistakes. The shareholder revolt that forced then-chief executive Mike Geoghegan out in 2010 is ignored. The bank's conservatism, seen by analysts as a shortcoming in the 1990s, is lauded here for helping to keep it afloat during the 2008 financial crisis.
Those flaws aside, this is an exhaustive and somewhat exhausting account of HSBC's emergence on the international stage after the 1970s, when it began looking beyond its colonial roots in Asia. Concern about the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong rule from Britain to China prompted HSBC to acquire Britain's Midland Bank in the early 1990s and relocate to London. Yet rapid expansion has brought huge challenges for an organisation that still reeks of the old boys' club, employing a cadre of predominantly male and Anglo-Saxon "international managers" as globetrotting troubleshooters.
Sadly, the authors' reluctance to appraise individuals rather than strategic moves has a dehumanising effect on much of the writing, and lengthy sections may hold little interest for non-specialists. Details of the personality clashes that delayed HSBC's entry into Britain are a treat. If only there were more like that.