Investment: HSBC should weather the Far East storm

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The Independent Online
IT'S NOT so much the Asian fluthat HSBC shares have caught, it's more like a nasty bout of Far Eastern pneumonia.

Since the Asian crisis blew up last September, shares in the banking giant - owner of Midland Bank, among others - have underperformed the market by around 35 per cent.

Things weren't looking much brighter yesterday, when the stock dipped 33p following weaker-than-expected first-half figures.

HSBC, which reports in US dollars, made $3.69bn (pounds 2.23bn) before tax in the six months to June, down from $4.29bn (pounds 2.62bn) in the same period last year, a drop of 14 per cent.

Asia put a serious hole in the numbers. Total provisions for bad and doubtful debts almost quadrupled to $1.15bn (pounds 694m) - around 80 per cent of this related to Hong Kong and the Asian Pacific Region.

Attributable profits tumbled at all principal Asian subsidiaries, and analysts expect the financial crisis to dominate over the short to medium term.

There is no sign, however, of panic at the banking group. HSBC has reduced its exposure to the more risky areas of Asia, and has taken a conservative stance when calculating provisions.

It has more experience in the region than virtually any other global bank, and it has an incredibly diverse portfolio - the bulk of which turned in a solid performance in the half.

HSBC also has a healthy balance sheet - its tier one capital now stands at $29bn. In short, the group looks well-placed to weather the Asian storm.

HSBC shares closed yesterday at 1490p, putting it on a 1999 p/e ratio of just 11. But investors beware - the stock is very sensitive to Asian news flow, and short-term gyrations are almost inevitable. Good value, but one for long-term investors only.