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Another year, another familiar strategic update at HSBC.

HSBC -0.43%

The giant’s need to reiterate its pivot to Asia underscores how slow and awkward this is.

The London-based, China-focused bank announced its annual results on Tuesday. As with peers, incomes have been hit by falling interest rates globally and by heavy loan loss provisions related to a pandemic. Unlike investment banking competitors, the rise in trading income from HSBC’s reduced own business was little compensation. A long-awaited new strategy was more or less the same, except for lower returns to shareholders.

Stocks fell early in the session, extending a year of underperformance. For much of the past decade, the stock has traded above most European peers due to HSBC’s heavy activity in Hong Kong and mainland China, two profitable, fast-growing markets. But that gap has narrowed significantly over the past year, likely for two main reasons: Investors want faster organizational change and fear that HSBC’s business model of connecting East and West , does not become more difficult.

The bank has broadly met its targets for 2020. However, the return on tangible equity or ROTE fell to just 3.1% from 8.4% a year earlier, and dividends were suspended at the request of the UK regulator. . The pandemic seems like a valid excuse. The real disappointment lies in his predictions for future returns. The target ROTE has been reduced and delayed, even with an additional $ 1 billion in cost reduction. Dividend expectations were also lowered: the increasing quarterly payout was replaced with a payout ratio of 40% to 55%, possibly supplemented by buyouts or special dividends.

Strategically, the bank continues to focus on moving more assets from Europe and the United States to Asia, as well as increasing its wealth management activities and making its operations more digital. The direction of travel makes sense, but the pace remains terrifyingly calm, especially as competition in the region picks up. Discussions continue on long-standing exits from retail operations in France and the United States

The speed of change could accelerate under the leadership of CFO Ewen Stevenson, who has been tasked with the new overhaul. A relative outsider, he joined HSBC in 2019 from RBS,

now known as NatWest, where he led a major overhaul of what was once the world’s largest bank in terms of assets.

HSBC stocks are also weighed down by geopolitics. Management says little on the subject of Sino-US relations other than to highlight a long history of success in bridging international divisions. This discretion may be the best way to juggle competing priorities, but does little to allay investor fears that his dual identity could eventually become untenable.

The bank does not have good answers to geopolitical questions, which gives it all the more reason to tackle organizational questions. For a company that derives much of its position in high-growth Asian markets, the expected returns from HSBC are surprisingly modest. For his actions to regain their former glory, that must change.

Write to Rochelle Toplensky at

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