UBS posts 40% Q1 net profit rise as wealth shows resilience

UBS had previously said it expected to report first-quarter net profit of around US$1.5 billion. PHOTO: REUTERS

ZURICH (REUTERS) - The world's largest wealth manager, UBS, reported a 40 per cent rise in January-March profit on Tuesday (April 28), buoyed by ultra rich clients reshuffling portfolios to cope with the coronavirus outbreak and as a revamp helped its core business to its best quarter since 2008.

The bank booked net profit of US$1.6 billion (S$2.27 billion), slightly ahead of its previous guidance of around US$1.5 billion. It reported strong operating performance across all business divisions, even after accounting for the risk of increased defaults resulting from the virus.

"Looking ahead, the range of possible outcomes remains very wide, and it is too early to make reliable predictions about the timing and shape of any potential economic recovery," Switzerland's largest lender said in a statement.

"The continued disciplined execution of our strategic plans will help to mitigate this."

The bank recorded US$268 million in credit loss expenses for the quarter, saying it was primarily exposed to credit related to wealth management clients and within Switzerland, noting its credit book was "of high quality".

Cross-town rival Credit Suisse on Thursday posted a sevenfold increase in credit loss provisions, as lenders globally brace for rising defaults due to the virus.

UBS' core business managing money for the world's wealthy saw invested assets decline sequentially to US$2.339 trillion on the back of falling asset valuations, while revenue grew across all main lines, helping operating income rise 14 per cent.

The resilient performance by UBS' wealth management business puts it on a firmer footing going into the crisis compared to rivals more focused on corporate and retail banking. HSBC and Santander both reported sharp falls in first-quarter profit on Tuesday, and set aside billions in expected loan loss provisions.

UBS' investment bank more than tripled pre-tax earnings compared to a tough start to 2019, while asset management increased earnings by 52 per cent. Its Swiss retail and corporate business took a 16 per cent hit on the back of lower expected recovery from loans to credit-impaired corporate counterparties.

In investment banking, its global markets revenue jumped 44 per cent, with earnings from foreign exchange, rates and credit trading doubling while equities were up 18 per cent.

UBS in January presented a revamped vision for its flagship wealth business, seeking to boost lending and extend more complex financing to wealthy clients, as well as increasing access to private and capital markets through upped collaboration between private banking, asset management and its investment bank.

The coronavirus outbreak has stymied some of the businesses in which UBS is hoping to increase its wealth foothold, as deal-making and IPOs ground to a halt during the quarter, and as a worldwide market rout triggered margin calls which prompted some wealth managers to rein in leverage extended to rich clients.

UBS' results, however, pointed to resilience in wealth management, as pre-tax profit grew 41 per cent and as it brought in a net US$12 billion in fresh client inflows and US$3.9 billion in net new loans.

The bank recorded a US$53 million credit loss expense across the loans it extends to wealthy individuals - where the bank has previously pointed to conservative risk management - or 0.03 per cent of its wealth management lending book, and a low level of margin calls.

In the Asia-Pacific region, UBS' wealth business recorded its highest pre-tax profit on record, as transaction income jumped 93 per cent.

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