Cost-cutting plan does little for HSBC shares

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am

Investors have snubbed HSBC's multibillion-dollar cost-cutting plan, with the announcement failing to push up the price of its long-underperforming shares.

HSBC shares closed at HK$81 on Friday after trading between HK$80.55 and HK$83.05 in the days since the lender unveiled on May 11 its biggest cost-slashing plan. On May 9, the shares closed at HK$84.

Analysts and brokers said investors had not rushed to buy the stock as the proposal to cut costs by up to US$3.5 billion to boost profit would take time. They also wanted to see more details from the bank on how it will increase revenue growth.

'Cost-cutting or restructuring plans will need two to three years to complete and to generate profit,' Sun Hung Kai financial director Joseph Tong Tang said.

Henry Kwok Wai-ki, investment manager at ICBC Investment Management, did not think the measures would make HSBC more attractive. 'I like to see earnings growth coming from the top line,' he said.

The plan unveiled by HSBC chief executive Stuart Gulliver involved closing loss-making branches and operations while boosting business on the mainland and in other emerging markets. He planned to cut annual costs by US$2.5 billion to US$3.5 billion by 2013.

Gulliver vowed to keep HSBC's growing China and India retail banking operations open, even though they are losing money. But it may withdraw from 39 loss-making retail banking markets. Hong Kong and Britain, the bank's two most profitable markets, will not be affected.

VC Brokerages director Louis Tse Ming-kwong said the plan would not bring an immediate profit rise. 'There are uncertainties about whether the cost-cutting will achieve the targets and whether its plan to expand into emerging markets such as India and China will be successful,' he said.

Tse said that if HSBC was successful in achieving its long-term plan to list in Shanghai, it would help to expand its investor base and help its share price. 'But then, there is uncertainty as we do not know if mainland regulators will let HSBC be among the first batch of foreign firms to list in Shanghai,'' he said. 'China may list China Mobile or other firms first.'

Tong said the bank had grown too big since 2000 and lacked a clear strategy. In 2003 it spent US$15.5 billion to purchase the US subprime mortgage lender Household International, now known as HSBC Finance. In 2009, HSBC halted consumer-finance lending at the unit, which had contributed to about US$60 billion of provisions in North America, according to Bloomberg data.

The stock has traded in a range of HK$70 to HK$90 during the past two years, bouncing back from a low of HK$33 after its US$17.7 billion rights issue plan. This is a far cry from its peak of HK$140 in October 2007.

One investor who grilled Gulliver at last week's shareholder meeting said she had spent HK$1.4 million buying HSBC at HK$140. Her investment had lost more than 40 per cent.

'Why is Standard Chartered's share price so much more attractive than ours?' she asked.

Tong said Standard Chartered had adopted a clear strategy in emerging markets. 'HSBC is doing everything everywhere. This gives it a lack of a focus,' he said.