Okay, so the title is a poor attempt to bring at least a little levity ino a mournful world and for those who do not quite get it, "Unemployment Lines" of jobless people are being juggled into "Unemployment Lions" - a la HSBC's Lions, because it sounds almost the same. Oh well, I tried!!
I think we've all had that feeling at times of unexplained uneasiness. When you think something's wrong, missing or just troubling you but you don't know what it is; you can't put your finger on it?
Having spent the last week in Singapore, I was perhaps a little behind the Hong Kong news, but the headline I did see certainly caught my eye - "3000 job losses at HSBC", and then the pictures of the protests underneath the Bank building. "Unless", I thought, "HSBC is a much more different bank than the one I left, which I doubt, this is too stark - too blunt. Out of character".
When I worked in the Mongkok branch and then the Mongkok District Office of the Bank many years ago, I was nicknamed "The Judge" because I rarely took things at face value, preferring instead to hear both sides of an issue before I came to a decision. And those who know me well today will testify to the fact that I remain of independent thought and nature - irrespective of past history or "loyalties". If, therefore, the Bank was behaving badly in this case, I would like to find out more about it, but I needed more background.
Despite my recent re-association with the Bank with relation to the Middle East, I still have no greater access to the "inner sanctum" or inside track than many others, and nor should I, but there are still people I can talk to - and I set off on a hunt to see if the media and the protestors had a real grievance - and if it really was a case of "Bank Behaving Badly".
Like the vast majority of us, I do understand that job losses affect lives however large or small the numbers, and such issues become emotional, but in the turmoil that has existed in world markets during the last few years, reductions in employment elsewhere have been commonplace, as demonstrated by unemployment numbers around the world. And it is not just the banks; the manufacturers have been hit as seriously as the service providers.
But our "local bank" is a global bank too, and is therefore affected globally. What is happening in the western economies is not isolated. Greek banks, French banks, and news from Bank of America - it's not good. And Hong Kong is not immune; look at the stock market! So if HSBC does not address some of the fundamental issues sooner rather than later, the news may really be not so good.
One of the things that has been happening in Hong Kong, as picked up by the analysts in particular, is that costs in HSBC Asia Pacific have been rising faster than revenues. Something that is unsustainable.
Perhaps, therefore, you recall that when the HSBC CEO's office was going to return to Hong Kong there then followed the building up of an almost "duplicate" head office here. People came into Hong Kong from other parts of the Group to fill many of those roles. But it was never the case that having two head offices made an awful lot of sense, organisationally or financially. I suspect therefore that those jobs will be among the first to go. People will return to their own countries. The second thing I discovered, as I think was available for anyone to find out, was that these 3,000 job "losses" would take place over a three year period. It is not an immediate action, which seemed to be the sentiment conveyed, and I understand that this will be much more a policy of non-replacement.
In other words, and as happened when I was in the Bank, there is an annual attrition rate from the Bank as people either retire or leave to do other things. I don't know what the turnover number is today, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were about 3,000 people a year! Simple arithmetic suggests that if the Bank is going to shed 1,000 jobs a year for three years (the 3,000 job losses announced) and it is in any case going to lose 3,000 jobs a year through natural causes, then instead of employing 3,000 new people a year as replacements, they will only employ 2,000 new people each year. In addition, as the Bank refocuses, I also suspect there will be new hires of people with appropriate skills to enter the new businesses.
I really don't want to appear as an "apologist" for the Bank. They are big enough to deal with their own issues; neither do I want to be their spokesperson. They have plenty of those too, but all sorts of people do ask me for my thoughts - even on the flight up from Singapore today, and this is the easiest way for me to express them, on a subject that at least I know something about - even if my knowledge is becoming more historical.
But I have to say it does sadden me when the media (who actually in many cases are rather kind to HSBC in some of their commentaries), stir up something with protestors who are overly quick to over react, without doing some basic homework.
So based on what I have read and discovered, 3,000 fewer jobs in HSBC's Hong Kong environment - even if many of those jobs relate to people who are not from Hong Kong - is never a pleasant prospect. But I wouldn't mind betting that in the next 3 years, say by 2014, HSBC will actually have more employees in Hong Kong, from Hong Kong, than they do today as a result of a growing and successful business. One that has been carefully thought through and nurtured.
That's my take, for what it's worth. Now go and ask the Bank!