Managing money for the wealthy really pays off

by ELISA MARTINUZZI/ pic by AFP

SERGIO Ermotti (picture) is under no illusion. The CEO of UBS Group AG said on Tuesday that the range of possible economic outcomes from the coronavirus crisis is too wide for any meaningful judgement about the future. Yet managing money for the wealthy may well be a winning strategy for bankers during the worst slump in decades. The Swiss bank is doing pretty well out of it, reporting a big jump in first-quarter (1Q) profit.

Just as the lockdowns are hurting some parts of the economy more than others, Europe’s largest lenders will struggle to varying degrees. Most are grappling with mounting loan losses and some pressure on revenue. Things will get tougher for everyone.

UBS, the world’s leading wealth manager, might be in a less worrying place than some of its peers, however. Profit in the first three months of 2020 jumped 40% to US$1.6 billion (RM6.96 billion) as rich individuals and institutional investors increased their trading with the firm.

What’s more, the bank set aside just US$268 million for loans that may go bad. That’s much smaller than the provisions made by other large banks, but it reflects the modest size of the UBS loan book, made up largely of mortgages (sold to Swiss clients for the most part).

Loans to its wealthy clients, which are mostly backed by securities, saw some margin calls in the quarter, but losses were contained. Ermotti’s pivot to the rich looks shrewd.

Even if things don’t improve, UBS should cope. Losses on loans to oil companies would rise by US$250 million if West Texas Intermediate crude prices stayed at US$10.

More generally, under the bank’s current model of economic stress, UBS would have another US$470 million of charges if it assumed losses on healthy loans too. That’s manageable.

While trading activity is slowing and fee income will probably decline as clients sit on more cash, Ermotti didn’t cut UBS’ targets. In the 1Q, profitability as measured by return on common equity Tier-1 capital reached 17.7%. The bank aims for between 12% and 15%.

Elsewhere, the situation looks more bleak. Spain’s Banco Santander SA is setting aside €3.9 billion (RM18.27 billion) for loan losses, cutting its profit by 82% in the quarter. Its diversification across 10 core markets from Brazil to Poland isn’t much of a shield in a global pandemic.

The Spanish bank’s exposure to small and medium businesses, and to consumer finance, isn’t helping. Loan-loss provisions have soared, while business has nosedived. New consumer lending in Italy and Spain fell to between 10% and 20% of its usual level once the lockdowns kicked in.

Santander’s underlying return on tangible equity dropped to 11.1% in the quarter, well below its medium-term target of between 13% and 15%. Chairman Ana Botin had seemed confident that her bank could weather the crisis with a 5% decline in earnings in a V-shaped economic recovery; on Tuesday she said the bank would need to review its strategic targets.

Credit losses are also piling up at HSBC Holdings plc, an Asia-focused European lender, which is taking its biggest charge for bad debt in almost nine years. Provisions of US$3 billion in the 1Q led to a 51% slump in adjusted profit. HSBC set its range of potential credit losses for the year at between US$7 billion and US$11 billion. “Part science, part art”, is how HSBC CFO described his effort to gauge likely credit losses.

The banks’ 2Q earnings will provide a clearer picture of the winners and losers, and yet more lending support from regulators could soften the blows.

But UBS’ expensive decision after the financial crisis to move away from capital-intensive lending and trading is paying off. — Bloomberg


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