HSBC profit slump adds to bank sector coronavirus woes

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Updated 04 August 2020

HSBC profit slump adds to bank sector coronavirus woes

  • London-based bank reports massive slump in net profit, plans to slash 35,000 jobs

LONDON: HSBC on Monday reported a 69-percent slump in net profit, joining a number of major banks whose earnings have been slammed by the coronavirus fallout.

HSBC announced earnings of $3.1 billion compared with almost $10 billion in the first 6 months of 2019, as spiraling China-US tensions also hurt the British-based but Asia-focused lender.

Alongside HSBC results, top French bank Societe Generale on Monday announced a second quarter loss of more than €1 billion as the pandemic forced it to set aside more provisions against bad loans. UK banks Barclays, Lloyds and NatWest all last week reported huge financial hits linked to the pandemic’s fallout.

But there have been some bright spots, with French bank BNP Paribas weathering the coronavirus storm in the second quarter with only a small dip in net profits thanks to a surge in investment banking.

Credit Suisse meanwhile saw net profit jump almost a quarter in the April-June period, also on investment banking gains.

HIGHLIGHT

$1 BILLION - Alongside HSBC results, top French bank Societe Generale on Monday announced a second-quarter loss of more than €1 billion as the pandemic forced it to set aside more provisions against bad loans.

“HSBC has done little to lift investors’ spirits as it brings the curtain down on what has been a costly half-year reporting season for banks in general,” noted Richard Hunter, head of markets at Interactive Investor.

Even though banks “are much better prepared for this economic onslaught than during the financial crisis of over a decade ago ... the immediate outlook is bleak,” he added.

HSBC said that its pre-tax profit slid 64 percent to $4.3 billion in the first half while revenue was down 9 percent at $26.7 billion.

The figures missed analyst forecasts and the bank also raised its estimate for 2020 loan losses to $13 billion from $8 billion.

CEO Noel Quinn described the first 6 months of the year as “some of the most challenging in living memory.” He added: “Our first-half performance was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, falling interest rates, increased geopolitical risk and heightened levels of market volatility.”

Even by the standards of the current economic maelstrom engulfing global banks, HSBC has had a torrid time.

Before the coronavirus crisis it was beset by disappointing profit growth, ground down by US-China trade war uncertainties and Britain’s departure from the European Union.

The London-headquartered bank embarked on a huge cost-cutting initiative at the start of the year, including plans to slash about 35,000 jobs as well as trimming fat from less profitable divisions, primarily in the United States and Europe.

The coronavirus upended some of that cost-cutting drive with banks hammered by market volatility and the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic.

But HSBC has a further headache — geopolitical tensions via its status as a major business conduit between China and the West.

HSBC makes 90 percent of its profit in Asia, with China and Hong Kong being the major drivers of growth.

As a result it has found itself more vulnerable than most to the crossfire caused by the increasingly bellicose relationship between Beijing and Washington.

The bank has tried to stay in Beijing’s good graces. It vocally backed a draconian national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June to end a year of unrest and pro-democracy protests. The move sparked criticism in Washington and London but analysts saw it as an attempt to protect its access to China, which has a track record of punishing businesses that do not toe Beijing’s line.

But that has not shielded it from Beijing’s wrath. Quinn referenced the bank’s growing political vulnerability in Monday’s results statement.

“Current tensions between China and the US inevitably create challenging situations for an organization with HSBC’s footprint,” he said.

“However, the need for a bank capable of bridging the economies of East and West is acute, and we are well placed to fulfil this role,” he added.


INTERVIEW: Hummingbird Technologies and Saudi Arabia team up on food security

Updated 25 October 2020

INTERVIEW: Hummingbird Technologies and Saudi Arabia team up on food security

  • UK agri-tech entrepreneur explains how SALIC has invested in sustainable farming

Will Wells, CEO of Hummingbird Technologies, is scrutinizing our food, right down to the lettuce on a supermarket shelf.

“Every time somebody buys lettuce in Europe, the chances are that Hummingbird has analyzed that lettuce,” he told Arab News. Since last year, the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company (SALIC) has probably had a good look at it too.

Last year SALIC — owned by the Public Investment Fund with a mandate to optimize investment in food and farming in the Kingdom and around the world — became a big investor in Hummingbird with a £7 million ($9.1 million) financial injection into Wells’ company.

It was an investment with big implications for agri-tech — the fast-growing sector that applies advanced digital technology to farming and food production — but also for global food security and Saudi Arabia’s plans to become more self-sufficient in sustainable foodstuffs.

Hummingbird, which Wells described as “my baby” after he set it up four years ago, develops the software used by drones and satellites to produce high-resolution maps that farmers can use to forecast crop stress, identify diseases, pests and weeds, and optimize food yields.

“If you’re an agricultural company and you say to me ‘I want you to show me every single soya bean in Brazil, or every single sugarcane plant in India,’ we could do it in a millisecond,” he said.

“Think of us like an MRI scan for plants. We use satellite data, robots, and drones to help farmers see problems in their crops. The result is immunotherapy, not chemotherapy. By analyzing millions and billions of pixels of crops from space, we can help people use fewer chemicals, improve supply, and monitor the entire digital food supply chain,” Wells said.

With a team of 65 people — mainly scientists — in his London office, Wells uses artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to analyze billions of pixels to prevent such problems. The technology he has developed can also assist in making food production more sustainable by measuring and evaluating agricultural techniques that minimize carbon-intensive practices.

“We can make the difference between sustainable and unsustainable agriculture. Technology like this can connect the dots,” Wells said.

“I want to emphasize the sheer quantity of software and hardware solutions in agri-food — weather stations, soil sensors, driverless tractors, robotic harvesting, spot-spraying weed devices. Hummingbird’s role — rather like the MRI scan — is to talk to all of that technology. We link up and integrate with everything else on the ground,” he added.

Hummingbird grew out of work done by scientists at London’s Imperial College and other technology organizations, and was backed by some prestigious investors in early-stage funding, including the European Space Agency and James Dyson, the British inventor and entrepreneur.

It has operations and clients across the world, from Latin and North America, throughout Europe and Russia, and down to Australia.

The Saudi connection came when SALIC opted to use Hummingbird technology for agricultural projects at farming land it owns and manages outside the Kingdom, including big investments in the Ukraine and Australia.


BIO

BORN: 1983, London.

EDUCATION: MA, Edinburgh University.

CAREER

  • Investment analyst, Highclere International Investment.
  • Founder and CEO, Hummingbird Technologies.

“SALIC was a customer first, but they liked the technology so much they decided to back it,” Wells said. SALIC’s £7 million participation in the last round of financing makes it a major investor in a start-up that is valued at more than £20 million.

But Wells has much bigger ambitions. “Can an AI business for agriculture hit the same unicorn status, like those in health technology and fintech, that we’ve seen in recent years? The potential size of the market we’re going after is absolutely enormous.

“We’re trying to disrupt a multibillion-dollar chemical market, and we’re trying to unlock a multitrillion-dollar carbon market. There are so many ways AI and data science can improve food and farming,” he said.

“We are doubling and tripling every year, and expanding fast. We analyze millions of hectares of farming land every month, and we see billions of dollars of efficiency in each market we look at. You don’t have to be a silver bullet to hit ‘unicorn’ status in those conditions. People who have expertise in AI and crops make up quite a small list,” Wells added.

SALIC has been investing for some time in agricultural assets outside the Kingdom. Two years ago, it made the biggest in a series of investments in the Ukraine’s abundant farming lands with the purchase of Mriya, one of the country’s largest farming landowners in the rich grain and vegetable producing areas in the west of the country, combining it with an agricultural asset purchased earlier.

Last month, SALIC imported and sold its first batch of grain from Ukraine, unloading 60,000 tons of wheat in Jeddah, as part of the Kingdom’s strategy to support foreign investments in agriculture and help to ensure food security in Saudi Arabia.

In 2019, SALIC bought more than 200,000 hectares of land in Western Australia, including its first foreign investment in sheep-raising land, in one of Australia’s largest-ever farming land deals. 

Hummingbird technology can be used at the new acquisitions to enhance productivity and eliminate disease. SALIC also has ambitions in Canada and India.

But Wells also sees “immense” opportunities within the Kingdom itself. Food security has always been a national objective, and is one of the pillars of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify away from oil dependence.

Earlier this year, the National Grain Company was set up, a partnership between SALIC and the National Shipping Company to oversee trade, handling and storage of grains in the Kingdom.

“We are looking to expand and have a local agricultural presence. Saudi Arabia wants to grow more fruit and vegetables in the country, and to do so locally and sustainably. We have expertise in producing foodstuffs efficiently, and that expertise can be put to good use there,” he said.

Wells said that the Vision 2030 strategy “speaks to the needs of consumers everywhere.” He added: “Ordinary people and consumers everywhere, not just in Saudi Arabia, are increasingly asking where their food is coming from, and this is a major factor for a company like ours. We are an enabler of self-sufficiency.”

The Hummingbird business also fits in perfectly with the emphasis on high-technology and the knowledge economy that is central to the Vision strategy, nowhere more so than in the NEOM megacity planned in the Kingdom’s north west.

There are more immediate applications too. Wells is working on an algorithm for date-palm production across the Middle East region that he believes has great potential. “But ultimately we can analyze any plant from space, whether it’s in the middle of the desert or in a field in Brazil, and therefore we’re actively seeking local partners, especially university professors who specialize in plant pathology,” he said.

Hummingbird can also be critical to the Kingdom’s plans to reduce its carbon footprint as part of the Circular Carbon Economy strategy to tackle climate change.

“What we’re able to do from space is measure activities within food and farming that sequester carbon. To put it plainly, if a farmer or a farming business uses the Hummingbird map, and as a result of that uses less nitrogen as fertilizer, or sprays fewer chemicals, they have a lower carbon footprint, or potentially even a positive carbon outcome,” Wells said.

“By measuring things like biodiversity and soil health from space, we are able to distinguish between a farm that is sustainable, and a farm that’s not. At the heart of it is a ‘green’ outcome,” he added.

At some stage, Hummingbird will come back to the investor table for more funds. “We’re a high-growth start-up and in due course we will be seeking new investment. It is part of our journey and we have many more market opportunities too,” he said.

“Some people might call it a ‘land grab’, but we’re expanding into geographies where there are millions of hectares of farmland that have not yet been analyzed like this. It’s still very much a frontier market,” he said.

The link-up with SALIC could just be the connection that takes Hummingbird along the way to being an Arabian unicorn, but there is a broader ambition beyond the financial — to change the way the global food and agriculture business is seen.

“Food and farming has been demonized as a cause of climate change by many people. But there is a way to produce food efficiently and sustainably. It’s our job to sit right in the middle of that. 

“The aim is to take a sector that has been blamed for climate change, and make it carbon positive. That is the goal here,” Wells said.