Key Themes From The 1Q16 Earnings Calls by EY

Top 10 themes: a year-over-year comparison

1Q16 Earnings Calls

Main topics discussed in the 1Q 2016 earnings calls

Revenues and profitability falter in what should have been the strongest quarter of the year

“1Q 2016 was extraordinarily challenging for the global capital markets and for the industry. While there has been improvement in the last month or so, there remain a number of macroeconomic and geopolitical risks to the global markets and the global economy. As such, we would expect the revenue environment to remain challenged in 2016.” — Marcus Schenck, CFO, Deutsche Bank

  • Banks faced an extremely difficult operating environment in 1Q 2016.
  • Despite macro challenges, most banks were able to maintain strong capital and leverage ratios …
  • … However, trends in profit drivers were markedly less resilient.
  • Revenue weakness reflected extreme market volatility in January and February.
  • Concerns about credit quality escalated sharply, although higher provisions were more evident at North American banks with exposure to the oil and gas sector than in Europe.
  • Expenses remained high, driven by investments in regulatory compliance and digital initiatives.
  • Returns on equity (ROE) were down at most of the banks included in this analysis.

In 1Q 2016, positive earnings performance was elusive. Net income was down at almost all of the banks included in this analysis. While there were a few instances of improved results — Macquarie Group reported record full-year earnings; Bank of New York Mellon, BNP Paribas and Societe Generale reported an increase in quarterly earnings from 1Q 2015; and Royal Bank of Scotland turned in a narrower net loss — the prevalent trend for 1Q 2016 was disappointing performance.

Typically, the first quarter of the year is the strongest for the banking sector. However, in January and February 2016, banks around the world faced stiff headwinds from a range of macro challenges that significantly curtailed client activity levels and impacted revenue performance. Market conditions eased somewhat in March, but by then it was too late to reverse the impact on 1Q 2016 profitability.

The weak start to the year does not bode well for the rest of 2016. Anxiety about global economic growth, the trajectory of oil prices and geopolitical issues remain firmly in place, clouding the revenue outlook for the year and raising questions about whether banks should be doing more to cut costs and reposition their businesses. Notably, management at many banks did not appear to be optimistic about near-term prospects:

  • Bill Winters, Group Chief Executive, Standard Chartered: “Is the economic environment going to stay as relatively benign as it has been for the past month or is it going to look more like January and February? We don’t know.”
  • David Mathers, CFO, Credit Suisse: “This is a very challenging macro environment. Some of the conditions that obviously resulted in 4Q 2015 being difficult and 1Q 2016 being difficult could easily recur in the balance of this year. There are still the same macro effects that we saw in the first quarter. So just be cautious.”

1Q16 Earnings Calls

Market challenges impacted trading, investment banking and wealth management segments

“Markets were challenging, equity issuance was effectively non-existent and retail activity was extremely subdued, reflecting the many uncertainties with which investors grappled.” — James Gorman, CEO, Morgan Stanley

As expected, trading revenues tumbled when compared to the first quarter of 2015. The steep decline was partially due to the fact that last year’s first quarter performance benefited considerably from the Swiss National Bank’s move to decouple the Swiss franc from the euro. The bigger problem, however, was the extreme market volatility driven by macroeconomic uncertainties in the first two months of 2016. Trading woes were exacerbated by a drop in investment banking revenues, as companies delayed IPOs, equity issuance and M&A plans amid the market turbulence.

Weakness was also evident in banks’ wealth management operations, which normally help to offset more volatile performance in wholesale segments. Many banks reported lower transaction and incentive fees as clients fled to the sidelines.

  • UBS reported “the lowest level of transaction volumes recorded for a first quarter.”
  • At Citigroup, CFO John Gerspach noted: “The first quarter is historically a strong period for wealth management in Asia, with higher transaction activity driving strong investment sales revenues. Given weak investor sentiment during the quarter, we didn’t see the typical rebound in transaction activity, and therefore, our wealth management revenues declined significantly from last year.”
  • Goldman Sachs CFO Harvey Schwartz said 1Q 2016 was “the first quarter in a while that we faced significant headwinds across each of our business segments.”
  • Deutsche Bank’s wealth management revenues were down 8% from 1Q 2015. CFO Marcus Schenk said: “The decline versus the first quarter 2015 was driven by lower performance and transaction fees as a result of the current market environment, with lower client activity.”

1Q16 Earnings Calls

North American banks boost provisions, while European banks highlight lower cost of risk

“The cost of risk stands at 46 basis points versus 64 basis points in 4Q 2015. … From a historical point of view, you have to go back before the beginning of the financial crisis to find such a low level of cost of risk.” — Philippe Heim, Group CFO, Societe Generale

During the 1Q 2016 earnings season, management at banks across regions highlighted a continuation of positive trends in overall credit quality. Lower non-performing loan (NPL) ratios, higher coverage ratios, a drop in new impairments and lower cost of risk in Europe all point to a normalization in the credit cycle and more rigorous underwriting standards.

Despite this, analysts appeared to be worried about the adequacy of banks’ provisions amid lower commodity prices and slower global economic growth. As a result, credit quality emerged as the single most dominant topic discussed in earnings calls around the world.

Of particular concern was banks’ exposure to energy borrowers in North America. Many banks have been forced to build reserves against oil and gas portfolios faster than anticipated as falling oil prices have put energy borrowers under considerable stress. Not only has this raised concerns about the potential for a new credit crisis, it is also taking place in a low revenue growth environment, essentially amounting to a one-two punch on bank profitability.

Other portfolios that are being carefully monitored include shipping; metals and mining; New Zealand dairy; and selected economies such as Brazil, Indonesia and Russia.

Management acknowledged that there are pockets of stress that they are closely monitoring for further deterioration, but defended the strength of their provisioning. In contrast to their cautious stance on revenue prospects, many provided an optimistic outlook for overall credit quality trends.