The latest annual results for HSBC are at first glance a company boasting of a job well done. The company’s pre-tax profit growth of nearly 150% is staggering in an industry that still finds itself awkwardly glancing around the room, ten years after triggering one of the worst financial crises in human history.
However, in reality its pre-tax profits in 2016 – approximately $7.1bn – have not dipped as low since 2009. Its profit collapse in 2016 is due largely to a series of significant items totaling $12.2bn, including a goodwill write-off in its European Global Private Banking business to the tune of more than $3bn.
Given that HSBC’s profits were only less than half a percentage point higher than in 2009 – when the global economy was collapsing – it is hardly surprising that HSBC managed to recover its profit in 2017.
And shareholders seem to agree. Today, Tuesday, February 20, investors pushed HSBC’s share price down nearly 5% within 90 minutes of markets in London opening. According to The Times HSBC missed analyst expectations of $19.2bn pre-tax profits by $2.5bn, an underperformance of more than 10%.
HSBC’s plan for future success seems to be the same plan that every company had five years ago – bank on China. The share of the company’s pre-tax profits attributable to Asia has more than doubled in percentage terms and increased by more than 75% in monetary terms since 2006. The most recent figures give a slight reduction in reliance on Asia – 80.55% vs. 89.09% a year ago – but this remains an incredibly risky plan for HSBC given the general wariness about China’s potential to maintain its recent growth rate.
Its overreliance on Asian growth is no more obvious than when one compares its share price to China’s GDP. Over the last two years Chinese GDP growth and HSBC’s London share price look incredibly similar. It is a worrying sign for any company to be so closely linked to a single country’s performance, but the concern is exacerbated when one considers that the future of China’s economic performance is both unstable and uncertain.
As time passes, HSBC will become more and more intertwined in the Asian powerhouse’s economy and – crucially – more and more reliant on its continued success. And when the economy slows – as we all know it will – HSBC will come to regret its close relationship with China.