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HSBC Head of Responsible Investing slams climate "nut jobs" in controversial presentation

Stuart Kirk, who is responsible for integrating ESG risks across asset classes at HSBC asset management, told conference participants the financial industry should ”get back to making money out of the transition.” He has since been suspended.

Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

HSBC Holdings Plc distanced itself from its asset management unit’s head of responsible investment after the executive criticized the finance industry for worrying too much about the environment.

“Climate change is not a financial risk that we need to worry about,” HSBC’s Stuart Kirk said Thursday in a 15-minute presentation at a Financial Times conference. “There’s always some nut job telling me about the end of the world.”

Kirk, whose role means he is responsible for integrating ESG risks and opportunities across asset classes at HSBC Asset Management, also took aim at former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney and other policy makers for talking up the risk from climate change.

“I completely get that at the end of your central bank career there are still many, many years to fill in,” he said. “You’ve got to say something, you’ve got to fly around the world to conferences, you’ve got to out-hyperbole the next guy. But I feel like it is getting a little bit out of hand.”

Kirk, who didn’t respond to a LinkedIn message seeking comment, said banks were neglecting more pressing problems in order to consider climate risks.

Who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years, Amsterdam’s been six meters underwater for ages, and that’s a really nice place

Stuart Kirk

“I work at a bank that is being attacked by crypto, we’ve got regulators in the US trying to stop us, we’ve got the China problem, we’ve got a housing crisis looming, we’ve got interest rates going up, we’ve got inflation coming down the pipes, and I’m being told to spend time and time again looking at something that is going to happen in 20 or 30 years hence,” he said. “The proportionality is completely out of whack.”

Humanity should be focused on adapting to a changing environment, said Kirk, pointing to the example of Miami: “Who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years, Amsterdam’s been six meters underwater for ages, and that’s a really nice place. We will cope with it.”

Suspended

Nicolas Moreau, chief executive officer of HSBC’s asset management unit, issued a statement disavowing Kirk’s speech. The remarks “do not reflect the views of HSBC Asset Management nor HSBC Group in any way,” he said.

“HSBC regards climate change as one of the most serious emergencies facing the planet, and is committed to supporting its customers in their transition to net zero and a sustainable future and, like HSBC Asset Management, is committed to achieving net zero by 2050.”

Kirk has since been suspended, despite the speech’s theme and content having been agreed internally, the Financial Times reports.

The bank’s Group Chief Sustainability Officer Celine Herweijer said Kirk’s comments are “absolutely not the company’s view,” speaking on the sidelines of an ESG summit in London hosted by Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative Institute.

“It’s an individual’s comments completely unaligned with the company,” she told Bloomberg. “Climate change is a top headline issue for HSBC and the transition to net zero is a top priority. We are very clear on that commitment, it is a core pillar of HSBC’s strategy. We are in a climate emergency. Action needs to be rapid and urgent.”

”Grossly flawed”

The speech has already led some wealth managers to consider shunning HSBC’s asset management products. “We don’t have any HSBC sustainable products in our portfolios at the moment and this didn’t help at all,” said Damien Lardoux, head of impact investing at EQ Investors.

“These comments are regressive and grossly flawed,” said Beau O’Sullivan, senior campaigner for the Bank on our Future campaign. “Pension fund clients should note that HSBC Global Asset Management might not be as serious about protecting their capital from the effects of climate change as it claims to be, and they should be looking for a more responsible asset manager. And HSBC Group should be asking themselves if Kirk is right for this role.”

”Let’s get back to making money”

Kirk has worked at HSBC since early 2020 and took on his current role in July 2021, according to an HSBC statement at the time. Previously, he worked for Deutsche Bank AG’s asset management unit.

His presentation made the case that while regulators, politicians and senior financiers were playing up the risks, the markets appeared to be taking the danger in their stride. “The number of times climate catastrophe is mentioned, the higher and higher risk assets go,” he said. His first slide was titled: “Unsubstantiated, shrill, partisan, self-serving, apocalyptic warnings are ALWAYS wrong.”

Pointing to the current economic backdrop, Kirk said markets were “crashing around our ears today and yesterday for nothing to do with climate change whatsoever.”

HSBC Group should be asking themselves if Kirk is right for this role

Beau O’Sullivan, senior campaigner for the Bank on our Future campaign

“I implore our leaders, and our regulator most of all, because I spend way too much time at work dealing with this, just show some perspective and let’s get back to making money out of the transition because there are thousands of opportunities out there.”

A day after Kirk’s comments, HSBC CEO Noel Quinn gave a more on-message speech at the FIII conference, saying the bank wanted to be a market leader in financing the transition of industry to a low-carbon world.

“Over the next 30 years the move to a more sustainable carbon footprint will require huge investment,” Quinn said. “That has to happen in space and time, like we haven’t seen before.”

Climate change is a particularly sensitive issue at HSBC after it faced a warning from the UK’s advertising watchdog over greenwashing. The Advertising Standards Authority found the bank misled customers in two ads published in October, the Financial Times reported earlier this month. The bank is responding to the ASA’s draft recommendations, according to the FT.

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