HSBC chooses to steer clear of mergers game in the Greek market

Global banking giant HSBC seems to be following developments in the Greek banking sector from a distance. Its head of asset management in Greece, Bernard Payne, nevertheless, describes them as «exciting»; this refers less to recent flotations of sizable bank stock tranches as to growth prospects in retail banking and penetration to larger segments of the population. Besides, he explains, the likelihood of HSBC participating in the next round of mergers and acquisitions is remote, as its expansion strategy is not based on the logic of a larger network. With a presence in 73 countries, HSBC does not seem to be moved by the ample supply of banks for sale in Greece currently and places weight on the potential for the further growth of retail banking operations. According to Payne, despite important changes in the last 10 years, the Greek banking sector «will need several more years to become a mature market.» Maturity does not necessarily mean a higher degree of concentration. Besides, the fact that Greece’s five largest banks account for 70 percent of the market may work as a brake on this process of evolution. What is it, then, that appears as exciting to a global banking player? It is the inescapable nature of developments and «the speed in which these changes are taking place,» he says. This is perhaps what explains the «methodical» presence of this truly global bank in the Greek market. Its strategy of acquisitions follows the rule of 100 percent share buyouts and on condition they create capital gains, rather than a blind pursuit of growth of the network; Greece, anyway, is a rather limited market of 10.7 million people and creating a numerically large client base is not in line with HSBC’s growth strategy. To illustrate this, Payne mentions the example of discouraging a client from transferring the balance of his mortgage to HSBC when he realized it was not in his interest. The example may be at odds with Greek practice, where the battle for market shares is often fought with unethical means, but is normal practice for a global bank where, as he says, «the goal is to develop relationships of trust and provide responsible information to clients, not to encourage borrowing regardless. «Banks must be responsible lenders,» he notes characteristically, and credit expansion must always follow the rules of limiting the potential for bad loans. He notes the inadequacy of the Greek banking system in developing a reliable mechanism for monitoring bad clients, in terms of feeding data into the Teiresias system launched by the Hellenic Bank Association earlier this year. The importance of developing such systems is confirmed by the policy of international banking operators which tie their presence in local markets to this condition. MBNA International Bank, for instance, sets up shop only in countries that have a credit bureau. However, this condition, a factor deterring more aggressive penetration of national markets, does not exhaust the growth potential in retail banking of an organization such as HSBC, which believes that a key role in coming years will be played by agreements and partnerships with commercial networks, as well as the tapping of alternative networks. HSBC’s selective and methodical growth in Greece is confirmed by moves such as the introduction of the Premier service, which guarantees to clients with a portfolio of at least 50,000 euros an individual relationship, special tariffs and high-quality services. An HSBC Premier client enjoys 24-hour service, competitive interest rates and free access to HSBC’s global network for meeting personal requirements anywhere in the world.