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HSBC has emblazoned the front of its latest annual report with a photo of a Boeing 747 being loaded with cargo. The intention is to stress its links with global trade, but is there also meant to be a subliminal message about this being a bank that is ready for takeoff?
Perhaps. HSBC has shed plenty of excess baggage since Stuart Gulliver became chief executive officer two years ago. It has ditched 47 businesses and cut 13 per cent of staff. The drag from North America, where the impairment charge halved in 2012, is easing. And capital has grown – a fully loaded Basel III core Tier 1 ratio of 10.3 per cent gives Mr Gulliver the scope to invest in growth where he sees the chance.
But if HSBC is an aircraft, it is just leaving the gate. Monday's 3-per-cent share price dip suggests that not all is working as smoothly as it might. Costs are one of the big areas of concern. They were 11 per cent higher last year than in 2011. Much of that is down to one-offs (or what Mr Gulliver hopes are one-offs) such as claims for insurance misselling and money laundering fines. But even after all that, costs rose slightly and the underlying cost-to-income ratio of 56 per cent is still higher than the bank's target range of 48 to 52 per cent.
At least revenues are rising, although one of the drawbacks of HSBC's diversification is that its strong gains in Asia were held back by flat performances in Europe and North America. Still, the 7-per-cent increase in underlying revenues is better than most other Europe-based banks. That is one of the reasons why HSBC is pricey. At 1.3 times forecast tangible book value, shares trade at a premium to the sector average. But that has been the case for a while and it did not stop HSBC from beating the European banking sector over the past year. Sometimes it is worth paying up.