HSBC’s parting with John Thornton was conveniently timed

Mark Kleinman
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THE language was pitched to suggest an amicable parting of the ways. John Thornton, the former Goldman Sachs partner, simply did not have enough time to fulfil his obligations as chairman of the remuneration committee of a global megabank.

Nonetheless, there was something distinctly dubious about the explanation proffered by HSBC last week for Thornton’s sudden decision to quit its board. For one thing, the announcement came just four days before HSBC’s annual meeting and after the paperwork including Thornton’s plan to seek re-election had been sent to shareholders.

The reality was rather different to the statement which merely cited Thornton’s expanded commitments elsewhere.

His appointment as co-chairman of Barrick Gold, for which he will receive a total pay package worth more than £11.2m, had, I understand, caused consternation in the HSBC boardroom.

“You can take the man out of Goldman Sachs…,” was how one colleague of Thornton put it to me.

The annoyance was understandable. HSBC, which has gone further than virtually every other major international bank in aligning executive pay with investors’ interests, would have been holed below the waterline if Thornton had been left to fight the bank’s case. Filling his post as the remco chair was not straightforward, either. A number of other non-executives turned down the job, including Sam Laidlaw, the Centrica boss, who is said to have argued that serving chief executives who chair other companies’ pay committees play a risky game.

Sir Simon Robertson, another Goldman alumnus, agreed to step in – one suspects somewhat wearily.

In the end, HSBC received overwhelming backing for its pay report at last week’s annual meeting. It would have been interesting to see the result if Thornton had not found himself ‘too busy’ to stand.

So red-hot have debt and equity markets been in recent months, fuelled by a flood of central bank liquidity, that bankers have been left perplexed by the City’s continuing dearth of big-ticket takeovers.

Bar the prospect of a bid for Severn Trent, the water company, the year-to-date UK M&A statistics would look even more miserable than the current 15 per cent decline since 2012.

One brightening prospect on the horizon is a £10bn takeover of EE, the mobile phone group behind the Orange and T-Mobile brands.

City sources say that Deutsche Telekom (DT) recently moved to draft in JP Morgan to advise it on options for its 50pc stake in the company.

A flotation of EE, jointly-owned by France Telecom (FT), remains the likeliest outcome, according to bankers, possibly as soon as the beginning of next year. With buyout firms including Apax, Blackstone and KKR on hold awaiting a response to their interest, the exit route eventually chosen by DT and FT will be telling.

Ministerial desperation to avoid perceptions of a frosty trade relationship with China has prompted some carefully-timed leaks suggesting a flurry of Anglo-Sino talks about investing in Britain’s biggest infrastructure projects. Despite their best efforts – which appear to revolve largely around sewers and nuclear power stations – the idea of a commercial freeze, fuelled by David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama last year, contains some truth. Word reaches me that a delegation spearheaded by UK Trade & Investment and involving senior executives from companies including Arup, the engineering consultancy, was snubbed by local officials during a visit to Chongqing earlier this year.

Whether it was directly related to the Prime Minister’s meeting was not made explicit, but to those on the trip the inference was clear. Repairing such a crucial relationship will be a delicate task.

Mark Kleinman is the City editor of Sky News @MarkKleinmanSky