European Banks Back Away From Targets Again Amid Brexit Squeeze

  • RBS latest European bank to cast doubt on profitability target
  • HSBC, StanChart and UBS also abandoned time element of goals

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European banks have pushed back profitability targets so many times, the dates are now more placeholders than deadlines.

Eight years after the financial crisis hit its peak, several of the region’s lenders said they’ll probably need more time to reach the return on equity goals they set for the next few years. Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc on Friday became the latest to do so, blaming the impact of lower-for-longer interest rates and depressed customer activity after the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union. The state-owned firm joined HSBC Holdings Plc, Standard Chartered Plc and UBS Group AG, who all also watered down their return guidance when presenting second-quarter results.

“There are a multitude of reasons they’re cutting their forecasts, but there has definitely been a general squeeze,” said Alan Beaney, a director at RC Brown Investment Management, which owns U.K. and European bank shares including RBS and HSBC. “Brexit is another excuse to step back from targets.”

The commentary has been almost uniform across the industry and is bad news for a sector that’s already seen dramatic share-price declines. The European Stoxx 600 Banks Index has fallen 32 percent this year and the 30 firms it tracks trade on average at half their book value, the accounting estimate of their current worth.

‘Considerable Uncertainty’

Brexit has introduced more potential costs and economic uncertainty for banks that have already cut thousands of staff to trim costs. With the U.K. economy edging toward a recession, the Bank of England Thursday cut its benchmark rate for the first time since 2009, while the European Central Bank’s deposit rate has been negative for more than two years.

The latest round of target adjustments is far from the first. Last year, HSBC lowered its ROE goal to a minimum of 10 percent, from a bogey of 12 percent to 15 percent. Deutsche Bank AG in April 2015 said it was targeting a return of tangible equity of 10 percent by 2020, a lower level and later date than its previous goal of 12 percent ROE by 2016.

Brexit “has created considerable uncertainty in our core market,” RBS said in its second-quarter results statement. “In the current low rate and low growth environment, achieving our longer term cost-income ratio and return targets by 2019 is likely to be more challenging.”

RBS reported a negative 11 percent return on tangible equity in the second-quarter, well short of the more than 12 percent it aims to generate. The bank, which is still 72 percent owned by the government, made a second-quarter net loss of 1.08 billion pounds ($1.42 billion) after taking 1.28 billion pounds of conduct and litigation charges. RBS’s cost-income ratio was 117 percent compared with a target of less than 50 percent in 2019.

UBS, HSBC

UBS said last week it will no longer provide short-term expectations for profitability because there is “very little visibility” on earnings under “current market conditions and continued macroeconomic and regulatory uncertainty.” The bank maintained its return goal of more than 15 percent, but no longer provides a time frame, saying instead that it expects to hit them in a “normalized” environment.

On Wednesday, HSBC abandoned a target of surpassing a 10 percent return on equity by the end of next year, citing economic and political uncertainties. Earnings at Europe’s largest bank fell 45 percent from a year earlier. That was before Mark Carney’s BOE rate cut on Thursday, which HSBC said will probably trim another $100 million from its income for the rest of this year.

To read more about HSBC’s second-quarter earnings, click here.

Barclays had already softened its financial guidance in March, cutting its return on equity target to “double-digit” in the “medium term” from 11 percent by the end of this year.

Societe Generale SA Deputy CEO Severin Cabannes on Wednesday reiterated that his bank may no longer be able to reach a return on equity of 10 percent this year considering “very high” risks and uncertainties. The Paris-based lender could achieve its profitability target “in a normalized environment,” he said in a Bloomberg Television interview.

By contrast, French rival BNP Paribas SA stood by its 2016 targets and Credit Agricole SA maintained its profitability goal for 2019.

Asia-focused Standard Chartered said lower growth rates in Hong Kong and Singapore, added to uncertainty caused by Brexit, meant it reaching its profitability goal was “likely to take longer than we had hoped.” The firm had been targeting an 8 percent return on equity by 2018, rising to a 10 percent return by 2020. That compares with a 2.1 percent return in the first six months of the year.

“To get to a very exciting return, we’ll have to get out of this very uncertain regulatory and economic environment,” CEO Bill Winters said Wednesday. “We are still miles away from what we think is the value that our bank represents.”

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