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HSBC cuts headcount by 35,000 in deep overhaul

FILE - In this May 4, 2018, file photo, a man walks past a branch of HSBC bank in Hong Kong. Europe's biggest bank has reported that its net profit fell 53% in 2019 to $6 billion. London-based HSBC, whose profit is mainly from Asia, said it plans to revamp its U.S. and European business and shed $100 billion in assets to improve its profitability.  (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)
FILE - In this May 4, 2018, file photo, a man walks past a branch of HSBC bank in Hong Kong. Europe's biggest bank has reported that its net profit fell 53% in 2019 to $6 billion. London-based HSBC, whose profit is mainly from Asia, said it plans to revamp its U.S. and European business and shed $100 billion in assets to improve its profitability. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File) (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Europe's biggest bank, HSBC, will shed some 35,000 jobs as part of an overhaul to focus on faster-growing markets in Asia and as it tries to cope with a slew of global uncertainties, from Brexit to the trade wars to the new coronavirus.

The interim chief executive, Noel Quinn, said Tuesday the number of people employed by the bank would fall from 235,000 to 200,000 in the next three years. Some of the reductions would come from attrition as opposed to outright cuts.

HSBC, which is based in London but does most of its business in Asia, is caught among myriad uncertainties. From Brexit to the Hong Kong protests and trade disputes between the United States and China. Now the new coronavirus is adding further concern as it disrupts business in HSBC's main market.

The bank's net profit fell 53% to $6 billion in 2019 and, for this year, it warned of “significant disruption'' to its operations due to the outbreak of the virus in China.

HSBC's business in Europe is also under pressure. It must now also grapple with Britain's departure from the European Union and the uncertainty that will accompany negotiations future trade relations.

“No trade negotiation is ever straightforward,'' HSBC said in a statement. “It is essential that the eventual agreement protects and fosters the many benefits that financial services provide to both the U.K. and the EU.”

The whopping headcount drop comes amid a downsizing in Europe. The restructure involves "consolidating" of some parts of the business and "reorganising the global functions and head office,’’ Quinn said.

The bank has been carrying out a corporate overhaul designed to boost profitability by focusing on high-growth markets in Asia while shedding businesses and workers in other countries. It plans to revamp its U.S. and European business and shed $100 billion in assets to improve profitability.

“Our immediate aims are to increase returns, create the capacity to invest in the future, and build a platform for sustainable growth," Quinn said in the statement.

The sharp drop in 2019 profit reflected slower economic activity but also a $7.3 billion write-down for HSBC's Global Banking and Markets and Commercial Banking divisions in Europe. Revenue rose 5.9% in 2019 to $55.4 billion.

The bank said it would shrink its sales and trading and equity research in Europe and shift resources to Asia. In the U.S., HSBC plans to grow its international-client corporate banking business.

The restructuring is expected to cost $6 billion, with another $1.2 billion for asset sales, mainly in 2020 and 2021, the bank said.

HSBC's troubles reflect those of the wider banking industry, which is under pressure from low interest rates around the world. Banks tend to make less money when rates are low as its squeezes their lending business.

In Europe, many banks are still dealing with problems left over from the financial crisis. Deutsche Bank posted a loss for 2019 and is also restructuring and cutting thousands of jobs. Banks in Italy are still chipping away at a mountain of bad loans. Banco Santander, based in Spain, relied on profits from Latin American to make up for losses in Europe.

Richard Hunter, head of markets at financial services firm interactive investor, said in a note to clients that there are “few if any signs on the horizon of an uplift'' to the profit-squeezing period of low interest rates.

“There remain more questions than answers as HSBC looks to overhaul its business in radical fashion.''

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Kurtenbach reported from Bangkok.