I really don't know why anyone would buy HSBC Holdings(LSE: HSBA) at 450p right now. Sure, the shares are on a rock-bottom P/E of around 9.5 for this year, dropping to under nine on 2017 forecasts. And there are dividends of around 8% forecast (although their cover wouldn't leave much room for safety).
But you can get Lloyds Banking Group on the same kind of P/E ratings, albeit with a slightly lower dividend of 6.7% predicted for 2017. And what it and the likes of Barclays (with a 2017 P/E of 6.5) don't have is the same massive exposure to China -- about 80% of HSBC's business comes from Asia, principally China and Hong Kong.
The Chinese economy is surely shouldering an enormous volume of toxic debt, and the big uncertainty is how the government will approach it -- it has a habit of forcing banks to keep lending even when prudence would argue against it. Now, the feared hard landing might not happen, and the authorities might take drastic action to prevent a banking crash. But we just don't know. And while there are better investment options out there (including better banking options), I just don't see the need to take on the HSBC risk.
You can be sure of it
The modest recovery in oil prices is making Royal Dutch Shell(LSE: RDSB) look ever more attractive. With oil managing to hold at around $40 a barrel, Shell shares have gained 30% since 20 January, to 1,678p.
There's a 31% drop in earnings per share (EPS) forecast for this year, which would lift the P/E to 21, and that might frighten you -- but a big recovery predicted for 2017 would drop that to 12. The lack of dividend cover for this year might look scary too -- there's a 7.7% yield on the cards, and only around 60% of that could be paid from forecast earnings. But Shell has already said it will pay at least 188 US cents per share in 2016, and it's still engaged in asset disposals to prop up its balance sheet, so I think it's likely to be able to make it.
Chinese demand could again slump, attempts by OPEC to freeze production could fail (and probably will at the current first attempt). But the producing nations simply need the oil price to recover and it surely will in the long term -- and over that timescale, Shell looks like a buy to me.
The safest of all?
Then we come to GlaxoSmithKline(LSE: GSK), probably the safest of these three. We've seen a 13% share price rise since last September's low, to 1,400p, as the company's big investment in beefing up its drug development pipeline is expected to finally bear fruit. Although there's a 50% fall in EPS forecast for this year, 2017 is predicted to bring a modest upturn to put the shares on a P/E of 15.5.
The dividend might look risky again, barely covered by forecast earnings, but it seems safe enough. At 2015 results time, Glaxo added a special payment of 20p to its ordinary dividend of 80p, and said it expects to pay 80p per share again for 2016 and 2017 -- and that would yield 5.7% on today's share price. I think we're looking at another long-term buy.
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Alan Oscroft owns shares in Lloyds Banking Group. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Barclays, GlaxoSmithKline, HSBC Holdings, and Royal Dutch Shell. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.