Banking Industry Gets a Needed Reality Check

European bank bosses are on the front foot again. During the brutal first half of 2020, some lenders posted losses amid soaring provisions for bad loans. Now they’ve been emboldened by a third-quarter profit rebound. Most of the region’s bankers are sounding confident that the worst of the pandemic pain is behind them, despite the new wave of lockdowns. A dose of caution is warranted.

Keen as they are to persuade regulators that they’re fit enough to resume dividends and boost trader rewards, Europe’s banks might be underplaying the potential impact of the economic contraction and an ongoing squeeze on profit margins. For a more sobering assessment of the industry, look at Germany’s Commerzbank AG, which has less exposure to the booming trading business than its rivals and expects to lose money this year. 

The German lender’s gloom is in marked contrast to its peers, including Italy’s Intesa Sanpaolo SpA and UniCredit SpA. Intesa is sticking with its profit target for 2021, and sees net income of at least 5 billion euros ($5.9 billion) in 2022, about a quarter more than analysts are forecasting. Similarly, UniCredit reiterated its objective for a profit of at least 3 billion euros next year after reporting third-quarter income that beat estimates. The bank is on course to earn closer to 800 million euros this year.

Such certainty on how 2021 may play out is questionable. Banks have benefited from a surge in trading revenue this year — even France’s Societe Generale SA, which is scaling back its securities unit, improved both debt trading and equities revenue in the third quarter. But who knows whether market conditions will remain as favorably volatile? 

If the bumper trading profits ease off next year, banks will be more exposed to a decline in lending income. UniCredit saw revenue drop 7.8% in the first nine months of the year, even with the trading bonanza. It’s betting that it can repeat 9.5 billion euros of net interest income next year, driven largely by loan growth as economies recover.

But no one knows how deep a scar the new lockdowns will leave. The euro area is headed for a double-dip recession in the fourth quarter, according to Bloomberg Economics.

Key to European bankers’ optimism is that — after they set aside more than $69 billion in the first half of the year — the bulk of the bad-loan provisions are behind them. In this crisis, under new accounting rules, banks have had to take this action sooner for loans that may sour. But there are still valid doubts about the pandemic-ravaged economy overt the next few months.

UniCredit’s chief executive officer, Jean Pierre Mustier, says things are looking better on non-performing loans, but he acknowledges that government-backed payment moratoria are only just expiring. That makes it difficult to draw conclusions about which customers will resume payments.

Commerzbank is blunter still: “The rapidly evolving nature of the coronavirus pandemic means that the form and impact of the response measures” will need “to be monitored very closely over the coming days and weeks.” It suggests loan provisions might be higher than the 1.5 billion euros it’s targeting for 2020.

Maybe Commerzbank, in the midst of a messy management change, has been lending to the wrong customers, making it more of a unique case. But the European Central Bank’s “severe but plausible scenario” estimates that non-performing loans at euro zone banks could reach 1.4 trillion euros this time around, far outstripping the region’s previous crises.

The ECB will have this in mind as lenders try to convince it to allow the restart of shareholder payouts next month. Banker optimism only gets you so far.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Elisa Martinuzzi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering finance. She is a former managing editor for European finance at Bloomberg News.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.