HSBC to close half its India outlets in digital banking push

A HSBC bank building in Kolkata, India. The 24 branches the bank is closing in India account for less than 10 per cent of its retail customer base in the South Asian country.
A HSBC bank building in Kolkata, India. The 24 branches the bank is closing in India account for less than 10 per cent of its retail customer base in the South Asian country. PHOTO: REUTERS

MUMBAI • HSBC Holdings plans to shut almost half its branches in India and rely more on digital banking to expand its consumer business in the South Asian nation.

The London-based bank will cut 24 of its 50 branches as it seeks "the right mix of digital versus physical branch distribution", according to an e-mailed statement on Thursday.

The outlets to be closed account for less than 10 per cent of HSBC's retail customer base in India, the lender said in the statement.

"This move suits HSBC as its target retail customers are mostly in urban centres and are affluent with access to digital banking channels," said Mr Rethish Varma, head of research at Bengaluru-based Aditya Trading Solutions.

He added that "most of the banks in India will need to continue to scale up their branch network" because many customers have limited access to electronic banking.

HSBC chief executive Stuart Gulliver is paring back the bank's sprawling global network and shutting money-losing businesses to improve earnings hurt by compliance costs.

Since 2011, the bank has slashed more than 87,000 positions, exited at least 80 businesses and reduced its footprint from 88 countries and territories to 71.

HSBC said it remains committed to India, where it is also shutting its global private banking operations.

The country was the fourth-biggest contributor to group earnings before tax last year.

Pre-tax profit for the India branches rose 6.7 per cent to 28.7 billion rupees (S$587 million) in the year ended March 2015, filings from the bank show.

Among HSBC's foreign competitors in India, Singapore's DBS Group Holdings is also pursuing a digital strategy in the country, with the announcement of a mobile banking initiative last month.

DBS, South-east Asia's largest lender, has sought central bank approval to set up a wholly owned unit in India, where it has 12 branches.

State Bank of India (SBI) and ICICI Bank have been leading the push by Indian lenders into digital banking.

SBI, which has launched as many as eight banking applications, accounted for about 38 per cent of India's mobile banking transactions, and ICICI had 18 per cent as of December, Reserve Bank of India data show.

HSBC's origins in India date back to 1853, when the Mercantile Bank of India was established in Mumbai, according to the British lender's website. It bought Mercantile Bank in 1959 and now offers products and services to corporate and retail customers.

HSBC set up India's first automated teller machine in 1987, according to its website.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2016, with the headline 'HSBC to close half its India outlets in digital banking push'. Print Edition | Subscribe