HSBC is different from other banks. For a start, it sees nothing wrong in handing a £2m bonus to the boss in a year in which the bank took a record-breaking fine of £1.2bn in the US for money-laundering and sanctions breaches.
Chief executive Stuart Gulliver, it should be said, was well away from the bank's main board when the offences were taking place (mainly 2004-10). All the same, you might have expected the "balanced scorecard" approach to directors' bonuses at HSBC to be suspended for a year to underline corporate penitence. After all, on any sober calculation of relative sins, HSBC's dealings with Mexican drug bandits were surely several leagues more serious than other banks' Libor-rigging scandals.
The absence of uproar may be related to the other way in which HSBC is different: it is well-capitalised, pays a proper dividend to shareholders and is close to earning returns in excess of the cost of shareholders' equity.
On capital, HSBC will soon be at 10.3% on the Basel committee's more stringent definition of tier 1 capital, which is within touching distance of the demand for 10.5% by 2019.
Last year's dividend was raised 11% and a 10% increase for the first nine months of this year was pre-announced on Monday. It means dividends are now about 65% of the pre-crisis level of 2007 and the yield on the shares is now almost 4.5%. Very few banks can make similar boasts. Incidentally, for Gulliver, with a personal shareholding worth £33m after years of service in the investment banking division, the 2012 dividend is worth £1.5m.
Return on equity fell to 8.4% from 10.9%. The mad accounting rules of valuing the bank's own debt were partly to blame (improvements in credit valuations force banks to take a hit to profits) and the various fines and mis-selling charges also played a significant role. But, assuming those whacks aren't repeated, a proper economic profit lies around the next corner. All it should require is a continuation of last year's growth in underlying revenues (7%) and a tighter grip on costs, an area where Gulliver scored zero on his performance scorecard.
The big picture, then, at HSBC is straightforward: the bank is enjoying beautiful trading conditions in the Far East while the west, especially the US and Europe, is a drag. Given that the former is so much bigger than the latter, the ship moves on. Add an extra kicker for clearing out small and sub-par units, and the bank is now a model of stability again.
Just imagine how good things could have been for shareholders without the appalling 2003 acquisition of US sub-prime lender Household and the disgraceful money-laundering episode. HSBC could have been an exciting growth story, rather than an illustration of strength through diversity.
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image: © Howard Lake