A Republican US senator has questioned whether HSBC faced pressure to suspend a senior executive who downplayed the risks of climate change.
Stuart Kirk, global head of responsible investing at HSBC’s asset management division, was suspended by the bank after he told a Financial Times Moral Money conference in London last month that investors need not worry about climate risk and that “there’s always some nut job telling me about the end of the world”. The remarks were broadly approved by HSBC in advance, the FT has previously reported.
In a letter to HSBC chief executive Noel Quinn released on Monday, Steve Daines, the Montana senator, said he was “concerned that this episode may involve breaches of US law”.
“Based on the company’s prior approval of Kirk’s remarks, it appears to many that Kirk’s suspension was in response to pressure on HSBC from outside parties that may be legally prohibited from influencing the management of your company,” Daines said.
He said that domestic law prohibited the British bank’s US institutional investors from influencing its management.
“To the extent BlackRock” — HSBC’s largest shareholder — “or any similar firm, directly or indirectly through any group with which it is affiliated, influenced your decision with regard to Kirk, these laws may have been violated,” he wrote.
Daines, a member of the Senate banking committee, also queried whether HSBC had contact with fellow members of climate-focused industry groups such as the Net Zero Banking Alliance about its decision.
“The financial services industry’s lockstep commitment to out-of-mainstream environmental ideology raises serious concerns about whether your industry’s susceptibility to groupthink is repeating itself,” he added, referencing the US housing market meltdown that rippled across the global economy.
HSBC did not immediately respond to a request for comment and BlackRock declined to comment. Kirk is a former FT journalist.
The letter came as Republicans in Washington have seized on environmental, social and governance investing as a political issue.
Daines is one of the party’s members who has opposed a proposed rule from the Securities and Exchange Commission that would require companies to disclose more about their climate change risks. Opponents of these rules have argued that they would drive up costs for companies.
Mike Pence, the former US vice-president, has attacked specific funds including BlackRock and ESG investing more broadly for underweighting oil and gas companies.
Assets in US sustainable investment funds fell to $343bn in the first quarter of 2022, according to Morningstar, a 4 per cent drop in the quarter compared with a 6 per cent decline in assets in the overall market.