Posted inESG

HSBC AM suspends responsible investment chief over ESG comments

Group CEO Noel Quinn condemned Stuart Kirk’s statements even though his presentation was approved ahead of the event
Stuart Kirk, HSBC Asset Management

It will have been five days like no other for HSBC Asset Management’s global head of responsible investment, Stuart Kirk, whose comments at a conference on Thursday have seen him put on the naughty step, reports our sister publication, Portfolio Adviser.

Speaking at the FT Moral Money Summit, Kirk’s presentation was about “Why investors need not worry about climate risk”.

According to the BBC, among other things, he told delegates, “who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years”, “climate change is not a risk that we need to worry about” and “there is always some nut job telling me about the end of the world”.

Taking to LinkedIn at the weekend, HSBC group chief executive Noel Quinn condemned the comments, describing them as “inconsistent with HSBC’s strategy” adding that they “do not reflect the views of the senior leadership”.

Soon after, reports emerged that Kirk had been suspended pending an investigation. HSBC has yet to confirm if this is accurate.

Presentation was pre-approved by HSBC AM

In accordance with UK employment law – unless his contract explicitly states otherwise – Kirk has likely been suspended with full pay pending the internal investigation.

Where proceedings take an interesting turn is the fact his presentation had been approved internally ahead of the Moral Money Summit, the FT reported. While the compliance team would not have been aware of every comment he intended to make, the topic, title and slides would have given ample indication of what Kirk planned to say.

Kirk appears to be the first person in a senior ESG-specific role – at least in the UK – to break rank and question the validity of the wholesale drive towards responsible investing.

If his employment history is anything to go by, Kirk seems to be relatively new to the ESG/responsible investment space, having joined HSBC AM in January 2020 as global head of research and insights, before also taking on the global head of responsible investments role in July 2021.

Before that, he was global head of research institute at DWS Group for two and a half years, having previously been global head of multi-asset and thematic research at Deutsche Bank.

While there were undoubtedly elements of ESG in those roles, his current position seems to be the first with responsible investing at its core.

But, whatever his personal opinion, he is paid by HSBC AM to pursue and promote responsible investment as a strategy. Something he failed to achieve last Thursday – his presentation can be found here.

Where the actions of HSBC will come under close scrutiny will be how and why the presentation was approved. The fallout of this latest PR disaster for HSBC may well land on the person(s) responsible for signing off the presentation.

Only time will tell what that means for Kirk’s tenure at the bank and whether he then decides to take action for the reputational fallout from being publicly berated for giving a presentation that was greenlit by his employer.

Part of the Mark Allen Group.