HSBC buybacks pause in steady quarter

HSBC needed to demonstrate that its new year was off to a reassuringly boring start, after reaching peak face-palm with an unexpected multibillion write down in the final quarter of 2016.

Boring returns

HSBC needed to demonstrate that its new year was off to a reassuringly boring start, after reaching peak face-palm with an unexpected multibillion write down in the final quarter of 2016.

First quarter numbers largely achieve that, though it's another lost quarter as regards the path back to sustainable returns on equity. Average returns retreated. Return on average tangible equity (RoTE) fell back below the medium-term target of at least 10%. That means the stronger, less encumbered and expanding bank that CEO Stuart Gulliver believes is buried under a stream of balance sheet effects and regulatory remediation was not greatly evident during the quarter.

If we exclude operating results from the Brazil business that HSBC still owned in Q1 2016, and changed accounting treatment of debt fair value, RoTE would have poked above 10% by 1.1 points. But both of those impediments will linger throughout 2017, says HSBC. In other words, virtual, rather actual achievement of its returns target this year will be as good as things get. Such returns matter, of course. They are one of the few ways to keep a handle on why it’s worth remaining invested in HSBC. Like several global lenders, the group is comprised of an ideal bank, where profits rose 12% in Q1, and a real one where, profits plunged 18%.

Buybacks will be back

In the context of its ambivalent update, HSBC’s decision to paused pay-outs on top of dividends for the time being, looks curiously timed on the surface. After all, the stock has been drifting off four-year peaks since late February. However, top management has been across the wires over the last fortnight with strategically placed messages stressing commitment to dividends, and that has reassured investors. CEO Stuart Gulliver’s plea that HSBC be allowed “to catch our breath a little bit” is also a strong enough hint that buybacks will resume before too long.

The group has also painstakingly manoeuvred itself into an improved capability to buoy total returns. Progress on risk weighted asset reduction has been solid. The advance of HSBC’s critical regulatory capital buffer to 14.3%, up 70 basis points, was also faster than the 10bp expected. The group also confirms that potential advantages from U.S. dollar rate rises are beginning to feed through, even if the offset from a weak UK base rate and mortgage competition will linger. Elsewhere, the group finally reported promising progress on the Pearl River Delta opportunity, where customer advances rose 17% on the year.

All told, conditions for HSBC shares to continue their recovery from Brexit vote lows improved in the quarter. That doesn’t mean the group’s ability to grow is any less problematic, just that a sense of corporate stability has returned after last year’s upsets.

Investors can be more assured that HSBC has returned to its primary purpose of generating free cash flow.

Straddling the range

  • HSBC shares have for months been straddling the resistance range capping their progress since 2014. On Thursday, the stock rose to the top part of that range, seeing its best chance to break above 641p-674p since a failed breach between last December and March
  • The chart currently has an orderly structure backed by the price’s clean reversal, last month, near 61.8% of the late May 2013-June 2016 downtrend
  • Clearly the main watch is whether the shares will have another go at the upper end of the aforementioned resistance range in the medium term
  • Momentum conditions would probably be favourable for one, according to the Relative Strength Index, which is pointing higher and, at 57.23, still has plenty of room overhead to extend gains before any thoughts that it’s overbought
  • A close of the current week above the low of a swing high (marked in my chart with a red rectangle) would provide further evidence that HSBC shares may hurdle 674p in the coming weeks
  • Any such break would clearly eye the previous failure high of HSBC’s last attempted break, at 712p.
  • Clearly, loss of the lower part of the range at 641p would be very negative for buyers, and the picture would worsen should 626.7p (the 61.8% marker we mentioned) also give way.

WEEKLY CHART: HSBC PLC (LSE)

Source: Thomson Reuters and City Index

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