Brexit and other economic and political risks, passporting, customers, employees, banking

HSBC Holdings plc – Annual report – 31 December 2020

Industry: banking

Risk (extract)

Top and emerging risks (extract 1)

We use a top and emerging risks process to provide a forward-looking view of issues with the potential to threaten the execution of our strategy or operations over the medium to long term.

We proactively assess the internal and external risk environment, as well as review the themes identified across our regions and global businesses, for any risks that may require global escalation, updating our top and emerging risks as necessary.

We define a ‘top risk’ as a thematic issue that may form and crystallise within one year, and which has the potential to materially affect the Group’s financial results, reputation or business model. It may arise across any combination of risk types, regions or global businesses. The impact may be well understood by senior management and some mitigating actions may already be in place.

An ‘emerging risk’ is a thematic issue with large unknown components that may form and crystallise beyond a one-year time horizon. If it were to materialise, it could have a material effect on our long-term strategy, profitability and/or reputation. Existing mitigation plans are likely to be minimal, reflecting the uncertain nature of these risks at this stage. Some high-level analysis and/or stress testing may have been carried out to assess the potential impact.

Our current top and emerging risks are as follows.

Externally driven

Geopolitical and macroeconomic risks

Our operations and portfolios are exposed to risks associated with political instability, civil unrest and military conflict, which could lead to disruption of our operations, physical risk to our staff and/or physical damage to our assets.

Global tensions over trade, technology and ideology can manifest themselves in divergent regulatory standards and compliance regimes, presenting long-term strategic challenges for multinational businesses.

The Covid-19 outbreak dominated the political and economic landscape through much of 2020. The twin shocks of a public health emergency and the resultant economic fallout were felt around the world, hitting both advanced and emerging markets. The closure of borders threatened medical and food supplies for many markets, leading to countries and territories focusing efforts on building resilient supply chains closer to home. The Covid-19 outbreak and corresponding vaccine roll-out will likely dominate the political and economic agenda for most of 2021.

Tensions could increase as countries compete for access to the array of vaccines either under development, approved or pending approval, while the potential differences of protection offered by vaccines, and the speed and scale with which they can be manufactured and distributed may further add to tensions.

The Covid-19 outbreak also heightened existing US-China tensions. Tensions span a wide range of issues, including trade, finance, military, technology and human rights. The Covid-19 outbreak has accelerated US and Chinese efforts to reduce mutual dependence in strategic industries such as sensitive technology, pharmaceuticals and precursor chemicals.

A range of tensions in US-China relations could have potential ramifications for the Group and its customers. These tensions could include divisions over Hong Kong, US funding of and trading with strategic Chinese industries and claims of human rights violations. Some of these tensions have manifested themselves through actions taken by the governments of the US and China in 2020 and early 2021. These tensions may affect the Group through the impact of sanctions, including the impact of sanctions on customers, and could result in regulatory, reputational and market risks for the Group.

The US has imposed a range of sanctions and trade restrictions on Chinese persons and companies, focusing on entities the US believes are involved in human rights violations, information technology and communications equipment and services, and military activities, among others. In response, China has announced a number of sanctions and trade restrictions that target or provide authority to target foreign officials and companies, including those in the US. Certain measures are of particular relevance.

The US Hong Kong Autonomy Act provides ‘secondary sanctions’ authority that allows for the imposition of US sanctions against non-US financial institutions found to be engaged in significant transactions with certain Chinese individuals and entities subject to US sanctions as a result of a US determination that these individuals or entities engaged in activities undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. The US has also imposed restrictions on US persons’ ability to engage in transactions in or relating to publicly traded securities of a number of prominent Chinese companies. China has subsequently adopted regulations providing a framework for specific prohibitions against compliance with, and private rights of action for damages resulting from, measures that the government determines have an unjustified extraterritorial application that impairs Chinese sovereignty.

No penalties have yet been imposed against financial institutions under any of these measures, and their scope and application remain uncertain. These and any future measures that may be taken by the US and China may affect the Group, its customers, and the markets in which we operate.

It remains unclear the extent to which the new US administration will affect the current geopolitical tensions, following the inauguration of President Biden on 20 January 2021. However, long-term differences between the two nations will likely remain, which could affect sentiment and restrict global economic activity. We continue to monitor the situation.

While UK-China relations have historically been shaped by strong trade and investment, there are also emerging challenges. Following China’s implementation of the Hong Kong national security law, the UK offered residency rights and a path to citizenship to eligible British National (Overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong. In addition, both the UK and Hong Kong governments have suspended their extradition treaties with each other.

As geopolitical tensions rise, the compliance by multinational corporations with their legal or regulatory obligations in one jurisdiction may be seen as supporting the law or policy objectives of that jurisdiction over another, creating additional reputational and political risks for the Group. We maintain an open dialogue with our regulators on the impact of legal and regulatory obligations on HSBC’s business and customers.

China’s expanding data privacy and cybersecurity laws could pose potential challenges to intra-group data sharing, especially within the Greater Bay Area. China’s draft Personal Information Protection Law and Data Security Law, if passed in their current forms, could increase financial institutions’ compliance burdens in respect of cross-border transfers of personal information. In Hong Kong, there is also an increasing focus by regulators on the use of data and artificial intelligence. Use of personal data through digital platforms for initiatives in the Greater Bay Area may need to take into account these evolving data privacy and cybersecurity obligations.

Emerging and frontier markets have suffered particularly heavily from the Covid-19 outbreak, in light of healthcare shortcomings, widespread labour informality, exposure to commodities production and often weak policy frameworks and buffers. Multilateral institutions have mobilised support for the weaker frontier markets, with the World Bank and G-20 marshalling efforts to implement a standstill on debt to public sector institutions. The International Monetary Fund has also, to date, made approximately $106bn in emergency funds available to over 80 countries. However, negotiations on debt to the private sector will likely prove more difficult, and may result in sovereign debt restructuring and defaults for several countries. Most developed markets are expected to recover from the crisis, as macroeconomic policies remain highly accommodative. However, permanent business closures and job losses in some sectors will likely prevent several developed markets from achieving pre-crisis growth rates or activity levels in the near term. These countries and territories should be able to shoulder the higher public deficits and debts necessary to offset private sector weaknesses, given the continuing low cost of servicing public debt. However, some continental European countries entered the Covid-19 crisis on a weak economic and fiscal footing and suffered high healthcare and economic costs. Although substantial joint EU monetary and fiscal measures should help support recoveries and keep debt servicing costs down at least through 2021, there are concerns that permanently higher debt burdens will eventually lead to investors questioning their sustainability. Renewed government restrictions in response to new waves of infections will put further pressure on these economies.

Central banks have reduced interest rates in most financial markets due to the adverse impact on the path for economic recovery from the Covid-19 outbreak, which has in turn increased the likelihood of negative interest rates. This raises a number of risks and concerns, such as the readiness of our systems and processes to accommodate zero or negative rates, the resulting impacts on customers, and the financial implications given the significant impact that prolonged low interest rates have had, and may continue to have, on our net interest income. For some products, we have floored deposit rates at zero or made decisions not to charge negative rates. This, alongside loans repriced at lower rates, will result in our commercial margins being compressed, which is expected to be reflected in our profitability. The pricing of this risk will need to be carefully considered. These factors may challenge the long-term profitability of the banking sector, including HSBC, and will be considered as part of the Group’s transformation programme.

A Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and the UK was agreed on 24 December 2020 and ratified by the UK on 30 December 2020. This avoids the imposition of tariffs and quotas on UK-EU goods trade, and thus a more material setback to the expected gradual recovery of the UK and EU economies from recessions caused by the Covid-19 outbreak. However, the new trading relationship features non-tariff barriers, and leaves several aspects of the broader relationship, including financial services trade, for further negotiation. While it is too early to assess the full economic impact, the UK’s exit from the EU may lead to an increase in market volatility and economic risk, particularly in the UK, which could adversely impact our profitability and prospects for growth in this market. For further details on our approach to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, see ‘Areas of special interest’ on page 116.

The contraction in the global economy during 2020 has had varying effects on our customers, with many of them experiencing financial difficulties. This has resulted in an increase in expected credit losses (‘ECL’) and risk-weighted assets (‘RWAs’). For further details on customer relief programmes, see page 142. For further details on RWAs, see page 174.

Mitigating actions

  • We closely monitor economic developments in key markets and sectors and undertake scenario analysis. This helps enable us to take portfolio actions where necessary, including enhanced monitoring, amending our risk appetite and/or reducing limits and exposures.
  • We stress test portfolios of particular concern to identify sensitivity to loss under a range of scenarios, with management actions being taken to rebalance exposures and manage risk appetite where necessary.
  • We undertake regular reviews of key portfolios to help ensure that individual customer or portfolio risks are understood and our ability to manage the level of facilities offered through any downturn is appropriate.
  • We continually monitor the geopolitical outlook, in particular in countries where we have material exposures and/or a significant physical presence. We have also established dedicated forums to monitor geopolitical developments.
  • We continue to carry out contingency planning following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and we are assessing the potential impact on our portfolios, operations and staff. This includes the possibility of disputes arising from differing interpretations of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and other aspects of the bilateral relationship.
  • We have taken steps to enhance physical security in those geographical areas deemed to be at high risk from terrorism and military conflicts.

Top and emerging risks (extract 2)

Regulatory compliance risk environment including conduct

Financial service providers continue to face numerous regulatory and supervisory requirements, particularly in the areas of capital and liquidity management, conduct of business, financial crime, internal control frameworks, the use of models and the integrity of financial services delivery. The competitive landscape in which the Group operates may be significantly altered by future regulatory changes and government intervention. Regulatory changes, including those driven by geopolitical issues, such as US-China tensions and those resulting from the UK’s exit from the EU, may affect the activities of the Group as a whole, or of some or all of its principal subsidiaries. For further details, see page 110.

Mitigating actions

  • We engage, wherever possible, with governments and regulators in the countries and territories in which we operate, to help ensure that new requirements are considered properly and can be implemented effectively. In particular, we were proactive with the global policy changes issued in response to the Covid-19 outbreak to help our customers and contribute to an economic recovery.
  • We have had regular meetings with all relevant authorities to discuss strategic contingency plans, including those arising from geopolitical issues.

Risk (extract page 116 – 117)

Areas of special interest (extract)

UK withdrawal from the European Union

The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 and entered a transition period until 31 December 2020. A Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and the UK was agreed on 24 December 2020 and ratified by the UK on 30 December 2020. It includes a joint declaration of cooperation, and in the coming months both parties are expected to enter discussions with the aim of agreeing a Memorandum of Understanding establishing the framework for this cooperation. As expected, the financial passporting arrangement expired at the end of the transition period, and therefore financial institutions in the UK including HSBC Bank plc and HSBC UK lost their EU regulatory permissions to continue servicing clients in the European Economic Area (‘EEA’) from 1 January 2021. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement mainly focused on goods and services but also covered a wide range of other areas, including competition, state aid, tax, fisheries, transport, data and security. However, it included limited elements on financial services, and, as a result, did not change HSBC’s planning in relation to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Our programme to manage the impact of the UK withdrawal from the EU has now been largely completed. It was based on the assumption of a scenario whereby the UK exits the transition period without the financial passporting or regulatory equivalence framework that supports cross-border business.

Equivalence decisions are an established feature of EU law, which allow the authorities in the UK and EU to rely on the other’s regime for specific regulatory purposes only. While the UK and the EU have made a number of equivalence decisions, these decisions do not give UK firms full access to EU clients and counterparties.

Our programme focused on four main components: legal entity restructuring; product offering; customer migrations; and employees. However, there remain risks, many of them linked to the absence of some equivalence decisions between the EU and the UK.

We have carried out detailed reviews of our credit portfolios to determine those sectors and customers most vulnerable to the UK’s exit from the EU and will continue to monitor any implications for our clients in adhering to the new requirements under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Legal entity restructuring

Our branches in seven EEA countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Czech Republic) relied on financial passporting out of the UK. We had worked on the assumption that this passporting would no longer be possible following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and therefore transferred our branch business to newly established branches of HSBC Continental Europe, our primary banking entity authorised in the EU. This was completed in the first quarter of 2019.

Product offering

To accommodate customer migrations and new business after the UK’s departure from the EU, we expanded our product offering in a wide range of areas such as in our Markets and Securities Services franchise as well as in our Global Trade Business. We also enhanced our cash management solutions in France, the Netherlands and Ireland. We also opened a new branch in Stockholm to service our customers in the Nordic region.

Customer migrations

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU has had an impact on our clients’ operating models, including their working capital requirements, investment decisions and financial markets infrastructure access. Our priority is to provide continuity of service, and while our intention was to minimise the level of change for our customers, we were required to migrate some EEA-incorporated clients from the UK to HSBC Continental Europe or another EEA entity. We have now migrated almost all clients who we expect can no longer be serviced out of the UK. The majority of remaining customers are covered by national regimes that allow continuity of financial services on a temporary or permanent basis between the UK and their respective jurisdictions. We are working in close collaboration with our customers with the aim of managing their transition in 2021, where required.


The migration of EEA-incorporated clients required us to strengthen our local teams in the EU, and France in particular. We have now completed the transfer of roles from London to Paris to support our post-UK withdrawal from the EU operating model. Looking beyond the transfer of roles to the EU, we are also providing support to our employees who are UK citizens resident in EEA countries, and employees who are citizens of an EU member state resident in the UK, for example on settlement applications.