European Banks Set to Trail Wall Street as Provisions Swell

European banks probably failed to live up to U.S. peers’ record fourth-quarter profits as they set aside more money for troubled loans and missed out on the rally in equities trading.

Ten of Europe’s biggest lenders probably set aside $15 billion for doubtful credit in the fourth quarter, taking the year’s total to $61.5 billion, the highest since 2012, according to analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Many of the top U.S. banks, by contrast, bolstered profit by releasing reserves made earlier in the year.

“The sector provisioned what it could,” said Iacopo Dalu, an analyst at Janus Henderson which manages $358 billion including bank stocks. “Profitability will be subdued for longer than in other regions because there isn’t the level of earnings to absorb the cost of defaults early on.”

European Banks Set to Trail Wall Street as Provisions Swell

Weakened by years of negative interest rates, European lenders had taken a relatively optimistic view of the Covid-19 pandemic when it first hit, making use of regulatory flexibility to avoid large upfront hits while their U.S. rivals quickly notched up billions in provisions. Since then, a rally in fixed-income trading in the wake of the pandemic has bolstered the region’s securities firms, though a shift toward stocks in the final months of the year means companies such as Deutsche Bank AG that exited or cut back their equities desks stand to benefit less.

The top five U.S. investment banks -- which combined for a record $30 billion in profit in the quarter -- saw their fixed-income trading revenue rise almost 10% from a year earlier while the equities business surged 35%. That’s a reversal from the prior three months, when banks recorded the biggest gains in bond trading.

Several European banks managed to eke out a rare win over their Wall Street peers in the third quarter because they did relatively well in fixed income. The same firms now stand to lose out, because they have struggled in equities in recent years. On average, analysts surveyed by Bloomberg expect European banks to post smaller gains or even declines in stock trading, while delivering a better performance in fixed income.

French lenders BNP Paribas SA and Societe Generale SA may see equities revenue fall in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, according to the estimates. Both banks have sought to grow in the business, yet they were stung when the cancellation of corporate dividends during the pandemic caused losses on related investment contracts.

European Banks Set to Trail Wall Street as Provisions Swell

Deutsche Bank has said fixed-income trading revenue grew 10% in October and 23% in November. Chief Financial Officer James von Moltke has guided that the bank will probably set aside about 1.8 billion euros ($2.2 billion) in 2020 for doubtful loans. That implies about 260 million euros in the fourth quarter, although analysts expect a higher number. Chief Executive Officer Christian Sewing has said such costs will fall next year. Deutsche Bank reports earnings on Feb. 4.

UBS Group AG may prove an exception, because it kept a relatively large equities desk when it pivoted away from trading and toward wealth management after the financial crisis. Switzerland’s biggest bank will give investors a first glimpse of how Europe’s securities firms fared when it reports earnings on Tuesday. New CEO Ralph Hamers may also drop hints about any changes he plans for the world’s largest wealth manager.

European Banks Set to Trail Wall Street as Provisions Swell

Local rival Credit Suisse Group AG has already flagged a solid performance in its investment bank, with fourth-quarter revenue up more than 15% in dollar terms from a year earlier. But the smaller of the two large Swiss institutions is facing a barrage of other issues, including a writedown on a hedge fund investment and surging legal provisions, that will push it to a fourth-quarter loss when it reports Feb. 18.

Germany’s Commerzbank AG, too, is expected to report a loss as it takes a 2.1 billion-euro hit related to the pandemic and the continued low-interest rate environment. The Frankfurt lender, which is expected to present a fresh turnaround plan this quarter, is writing off 1.5 billion euros in goodwill on its books and setting aside about 630 million euros for bad loans to reflect the impact of a second lockdown.

European Banks Set to Trail Wall Street as Provisions Swell

Many European lenders had justified their relatively low bad loan reserves by pointing to taxpayer-funded economic support measures enacted by European governments in the pandemic. Still, it’s an open question how the quality of banks’ assets will be affected as payment holidays and loan guarantees expire, according to the European Banking Authority, which says a fifth of the 587 billion euros of credit with frozen payments was considered to be higher risk at the end of the third quarter.

While the pandemic is different to previous economic crises, the aftermath of the 2008 credit crunch suggests banks may see provisions remain elevated in coming years. There’s also the question of whether Covid-19 will have longer-lasting effects on the economy and the financial system.

That, in turn, could affect another aspect that bank shareholders will be scrutinizing when earnings kick off next week -- the outlook for dividends and buybacks. The European Central Bank in December lifted a de facto ban on dividends, while urging the continent’s banks to keep dividends and share repurchases to less than 15% of profit for 2019 and 2020, a stricter cap than the Bank of England has set.

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