What HSBC Holding plc’s Results Really Meant


Banks have been accused of ‘underlyingitis’: producing various versions of their profit figures to tell the story they want to. So I’ve taken to applying my own consistent, judgmental analysis to banks’ income statements, sifting them into two figures: underlying profits — generally, what the banks would like their profits to be; and statutory profits before the fair value adjustment of the banks’ own debt (FVA) — the warts-and-all bottom line. You can follow the links to see my analysis of Barclays‘ and Lloyds‘ results.

To be fair, HSBC (LSE: HSBA) (NYSE: HSBC.US) is not a bad offender and I’ve actually increased its underlying profit figure to place it on a comparable basis. I excluded costs for mis-deeds such as PPI mis-selling and US money laundering fines which I’ve bundled together under the heading ‘litigation’. Hopefully these shouldn’t be a permanent feature.

Here are the last three years’ results for HSBC:





Underlying profit before tax




Exceptional/one-off items












Statutory profit before tax 




Statutory profit before FVA 




 Upward trend

There has been a nice upward trend in the underlying result. FVA — HSBC calls it ‘own credit spread’ — is a meaningless accounting adjustment that counter-intuitively represents changes in the market value of the bank’s bonds. It knocked $5bn off HSBC’s results in 2012, and stripping that out you can see that the bottom-line profit actually fell last year.

Indeed, HSBC disappointed the market, failing to meet targets it set itself in 2011. Return on equity was 9.2%, short of a 12-15% target, and cost: income was nearly 60%, well shy of an original target of 48-52% subsequently softened to ‘mid 50s’. But some of that was due to the litigation costs, which is why my underlying figures tell a better story. Since 2011 the bank has made sustainable annual cost savings of $4.9bn, nearly double the bottom end of its target of $2.5-3.5bn.

Emerging markets

That augurs well for the future, and HSBC is poised to enjoy the fruits of an improving global economy. The bank is primarily a play on increasing wealth within emerging markets, and trade between them. 70% of 2013’s profits came from Asia Pacific, with Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa together making more than Europe and North America combined.

Banks produce a welter of information and it's difficult to sift the really important numbers from the fog of data. I've focused on the income statement here, but also important are aspects such as balance sheet quality and liquidity.

To help you understand the banking sector, 'The Motley Fool's Guide to Investing in Banks identifies six key ratios with which to compare the UK banks.  What's more it explains each of the ratios, so you can interpret new results as they are reported. You can get the guide downloaded to your inbox by just clicking here -- it's free.

 > Tony owns shares in HSBC and Barclays but no other stocks mentioned in this article.