News analysis

Local banks ride bumpy 2016 but stay resilient

Non-performing loans a major disruption but all show steady growth in their fee businesses

For the three local banks, it was a year full of worries and distractions, with asset quality issues, an economic slowdown and geopolitical surprises shadowing their businesses at every turn.

And as the market witnessed declines of earnings at DBS Group Holdings, OCBC and United Overseas Bank, these concerns seemed validated.

But the trio also showed resilience amid the challenges, which should help them weather the still-uncertain future.

All three banks saw their full-year net profits fall. DBS enjoyed the largest bottom line, with a net profit of $4.24 billion last year that was 5 per cent lower than 2015's.

OCBC's full-year net profit slid 11 per cent to $3.47 billion last year.

The uncertainties in the struggling oil and gas sector aside, loans growth and margin improvement will be the factors DBS, OCBC and UOB are counting on for growth this year.

The uncertainties in the struggling oil and gas sector aside, loans growth and margin improvement will be the factors DBS, OCBC and UOB are counting on for growth this year.ST FILE PHOTO

At UOB, 2016 net profit fell 3.5 per cent to $3.1 billion year on year.

Exposure to non-performing loans (NPLs) related to the struggling oil and gas sector proved to be a major disruption, as the banks had to fork out massive amounts of specific allowances for this soured credit.

This hit $1.11 billion for DBS last year, up from $551 million in 2015.

For UOB, it was $969 million, up from $392 million. OCBC's specific allowance for loans rose from $232 million to $484 million last year.

Chief executives of the three banks cautioned that the oil and gas sector will remain under pressure this year. They cited no names but current market fears around Ezra Holdings' troubles speak volumes.

Still, DBS and UOB believe that, after the massive allowances last year, the NPL issues have inflicted their worst damage. New NPL formation at the two banks slowed down between the third and fourth quarters, a trend that is expected to continue this year.

OCBC was less confident on this front, with chief executive Samuel Tsien warning of more distress ahead.

The oil and gas uncertainties aside, loans growth and margin improvement will be the factors the banks are counting on for growth this year.

Industry expectations of overall loans growth in 2017 mostly point to a medium to high single-digit percentage increase. The latest official bank lending data - which notched up 2.9 per cent year-on-year growth in December, the highest since February 2015 - has not doused these hopes.

Loans growth will have to be backed by better net interest margins, which were a mixed bag last year.

Full-year net interest margins improved from 1.77 per cent to 1.8 per cent last year at DBS.

But OCBC's net interest margin was unchanged at 1.67 per cent, while UOB's dropped from 1.77 per cent to 1.71 per cent.

However, with the United States Federal Reserve eyeing multiple rate hikes this year, Singdollar rates will most likely follow.

As an indication, DBS expects every 0.01 percentage point of local rate increase will translate into some $6 million of revenue.

Just as importantly, all three banks showed steady growth in their fee businesses - such as full-year income from wealth management, which grew between 8 per cent and 19 per cent among the trio. This suggests well-built and regional franchises that can withstand temporary market shocks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2017, with the headline 'Local banks ride bumpy 2016 but stay resilient'. Print Edition | Subscribe