The repeated act of earning more than is spent.
“Banks have been hit by loan losses as well as investment losses due to the financial crisis. Recovering from the crisis effectively means returning to stable profitability,” said Moody analyst John Tofarides when asked what indicators are the most important to watch.
Profitability is perhaps the most obvious indicator, but can also be the most misleading. Banks in the UAE, for example, saw a healthier first quarter of 2010 than second quarter, due mainly to an edict from the Central Bank to stop provisions for the first quarter. When a let up of bad loans did not materialize, they then had go into provisioning overdrive, which is why most saw smaller profits growth in the second quarter of 2010 than the first. Aggregate profits of the entire GCC banking sector declined 5 percent year-on-year at the end of June, and more tellingly, 10 percent quarter-on-quarter, according to Global Investment House, reversing the upward blip if the first three months of 2010.
UAE banks struggled the most in the second quarter and saw profitability shrink a dramatic 42 percent quarter-on-quarter. Omani banks, which saw profit drop 4 percent, were the other losers for the quarter. Banks in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar averaged positive profit growths of 1 percent, 6 percent and 7 percent respectively, relative to the first quarter. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, however, were the only two countries with negative profits growth year-on-year.
Standard and Poor’s (S&P) predicts that profitability will be the last indicator to stabilize and return to a steady upward trajectory.
So, recurring profitability is the sign that the financial fever has broken, the virus killed, and the GCC patient is back on the road to recovery.
The percentage by which the total value of a bank’s loans changes over a certain period of time.
Healthy lending is the only way for banks to return to normal profitability. They can and are increasing their non-interest income through upping fees and offering more paid services, but if they are to fully recover, lending must resume.
But finding viable lending opportunities is challenging when personal as well as corporate finances are under such stress. Lending growth therefore can show not only the health of a bank, but also the health of the financial environment in which it operates. But the vacuum of viable lending is not the only hurdle. In crisis, banks become exceedingly cautious and reluctant to lend.
Steady lending growth will show not only an encouraging financial trend, but a behavioral shift as well, said Peter Baltussen, CEO of Dubai Commercial Bank. “Incremental loan growth will indicate whether banks are indeed willing to reverse their risk-averse approach of the previous years and start a positive credit cycle again, which will have a direct positive impact on the economy,” he said.
In the first quarter of 2010, lending growth was varied throughout the region with most of the bad news coming from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. However, though trends exist, lending practices vary more from bank-to-bank than from country-to-country. So this is an area where banks must be scrutinized individually rather than aggregated from each country (see chart). Though most of the region’s largest banks posted positive lending growth for the first half of 2010, many growth rates were quite low, leading regional experts to be very pessimistic in the their estimates of when lending will return to normal.
Sophia el-Boury, a UAE bank analyst at Shuaa Capital, said: “We’re not very optimistic in terms of lending growth. From now until the end of the year, banks will still be prudent and cautious to lend; the current operating environment is still changing.”
Loans that are not bringing income to the lending institution.
“Bad and doubtful debts and provisions reflect the credit worthiness of a bank’s customers and, sometimes, a region’s overall economy,” said Chief Executive Officer at United Arab Bank Paul Trowbridge of the GCC financial press’s new favorite phrase. “While reasons for potential non-payments can include disputes over supply, delivery or conditions of goods, they in general provide a clear indication on the appearance of financial stress within customer operations.”
According to S&P, non-performing loans have been steadily climbing since 2008, increasing across the GCC from 2.7 percent at the end of that year to 5.4 percent by the end of September 2009. S&P predicted in its February Banking Industry Report Card that NPLs would peak by mid 2010.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have seen the lowest NPL ratios of all GCC countries. Qatar’s success in avoiding bad debt is no doubt due to the government’s swift action at the onset of the financial crisis, with the government buying up loans to the real estate sector from its banks and injecting capital into the system in October 2008. Kuwait is showing the most NPL struggles due to its banks’ predilection for local investment firms and real estate, which quickly became delinquent upon the onset of the crisis.
“Starting the second half of 2010 and assuming the economic recovery proceeds according to our expectations, we believe that asset quality for Gulf banks will likely bottom out before slowly improving,” stated the S&P report. NPLs are an important indicator not only because they demonstrate the general economic health of borrowers, but also because they forecast the continuing fortification against them, which is a major drag on profits.
The setting aside of funds to allow for existing or expected bad loans.
“The level of provisions has been the single biggest swing factor for regional banks in recent years,” said Dubai Commercial Bank’s Baltussen. Provisions in the GCC as a whole jumped nearly 5 percent year-on-year in the second quarter of 2010. Amid buzzing news of recovery at the beginning of the year, provisioning slowed across the board with the UAE Central Bank actually instructing its institutions to stop provisioning for their biggest threat, Dubai World.
The instructions seem to have been quickly disregarded, however, as there was a 48 percent quarter-on-quarter increase in provisioning in the GCC in the three months to July 1, with nearly half of the quarter’s provisions taken by UAE banks. Saudi banks came in second regarding provisions, representing 23 percent of the quarter’s total.
Aggregate figures show provisioning by GCC banks peaked in the fourth quarter of 2008 when it became clear that the GCC would not be shielded from the crisis, and again in the fourth quarter of 2009, when the scandal and defaults of Saad Group and Algosaibi & Brothers had come into full effect and Dubai World had faltered. The second quarter of 2010 has seen the third most provisioning of any quarter since the crisis began, reaching nearly $2 billion.
A slowdown in provisioning will be perhaps the first sign of recovery for each country’s banking sector; an event that may be already occurring in Oman, as provisions there have returned to normal levels this quarter, according to Global Investment House.