Angry shareholders of HSBC on Friday bombarded the group's board with barrage of accusations ranging from financing Mexican drug cartels to supporting tax havens, slashing jobs and mis-selling products.
At the banking firm's first annual general meeting since paying a record $1.9bn (£1.2bn) in penalties to settle US money laundering claims, they also rounded on the directors with charges of hunting down whistleblowers and grabbing bloated bonuses.
Environmentalist and broadcaster Bill Oddie joined the tirade of attacks in London's Barbican Centre, accusing the bank of financing the desecration of forests in Sarawak and Borneo. Outside the AGM, campaigners from World Development Network confronted bankers with champagne flutes filled with 'carbon bubbles' to protest against the bankrolling of climate change, while street theatre performers heckled arriving executives.
Inside the auditorium, one shareholder unfolded an orange jumpsuit and suggested that HSBC board members swap their suits and ties for prisoner garb. A former staff member, now retired, appealed to the board to claw back bonuses paid to directors following scandals such as the mis-selling of PPI and interest rate swaps, and warned that interest-only mortgages would be the next scandal to envelop the bank.
HSBC chairman Douglas Flint told the hundreds of shareholders present that the bank had "unreservedly apologised" and was "humbled and horrified to find failings of such magnitude" after a year which had been "the most difficult that I or any of my colleagues have faced." HSBC has since established a "financial system vulnerabilities committee" to better detect crime and misdemeanours in future. Chief executive Stuart Gulliver said he had joined the bank 33 years ago when it was "a kitemark for quality and that's what we want to get back to".
But the apologies failed to quash an embarrassing 11% shareholder rebellion against HSBC's executive pay report. The bank's pay schemehad handed Gulliver a near £2m annual bonus despite the bank's involvement in a string of high profile scandals.
David Haslam of Methodist Tax Justice Network won cheers from scores of small shareholders after he asked Flint if he recognised the "very strong feeling that bankers are paid too much money".
But the bank said Gulliver's bonus was awarded in recognition of his "strong leadership" and "personal behaviour" in tackling the money laundering revelations.
Gulliver's total pay and benefits for 2012 came in at £7.4m - more than 500 times that earned by the bank's lowest paid workers. A total of 204 HSBC staff were handed more than £1m in pay and benefits last year.
Britain's biggest union, Unite, described the scale of the pay as an "outrage" given that some of its members at HSBC take home £14,000 a year and are facing changes to their pension schemes and holidays.
In an AGM that divided between conventional shareholders worried about scrip dividends and earnings per share, pitted against protestors who had gained a platform by purchasing a few shares, Gulliver said the bank's top priority was returns to shareholders, followed by global standards and streamlining the business. Flint added that despite "tumultous times" the bank's share price had risen from 514p a share to 742p since the preceding AGM, and that its market value had jumped from $144.6bn to $208.1bn.
Bill Oddie said that while HSBC had offered numerous apologies for the financial damage it had caused, "there has been no mention of the environmental damage it is causing to wildlife habitats. That is a major crime, and HSBC has been financing that crime. In Sarawak, 95% of the natural forest has been damaged. It is a huge desecration, and at root it has been funded by HSBC." Earlier this year Oddie was evicted from HSBC's London headquarters when filming a spoof documentary examining "the natural habitat of the HSBC banker, a predatory species driving rainforest destruction".
Gulliver said that HSBC is the first major bank to put in place a policy framework for logging and timber and promised it was not mere "lip service". He also warned Oddie: "If HSBC exits from the business, regional banks will enter and you will have no leverage over them."
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image: © Howard Lake