Each year, The Banker magazine (to which I contribute a monthly column) publishes their list of the Top 1000 banks. It’s a great research resource that I’ve been tracking since 1994, when half the banks in the top 10 were Japanese. Now, half of them are Chinese. Ten years ago, they were all American (apart from a few token Europeans).
Twenty years ago, they all wanted to be dominant in their territories. Today, they want to dominate their regions. Ten years ago, they wanted to dominate the world.
The latest top 10 list makes for interesting reading however, as we see the Chinese banks rising to be the stablest today …
… I just wonder, with shadow banking and non-performing loans, whether these Chinese banks will still be in the top 10 ten years from now?
Anyways, the list is one that I could spend hours talking about but, rather than doing so, I’ll let The Banker’s very own Brian Caplen and Philip Alexander do the talking.
Top 1000 World Banks 2014: Back on track?
by Philip Alexander
Global banking profits jumped in this year’s Top 1000 World Banks ranking to exceed their pre-crisis peak. So is the sector back in good health? Not universally so, reports Philip Alexander.
Global profits for The Banker’s Top 1000 World Banks ranking for 2014, based on financial results for the end of 2013, have jumped by almost 23%, to $920bn. This means annual profits have for the first time exceeded the pre-crisis peak of $786bn in the 2007 ranking. Of course, the lesson of the crisis is to question whether these impressive results are sustainable.
The Banker’s steadily deepening coverage of a growing number of data points for the banks in this ranking enables detailed analysis of that question. The first obvious answer is that banks are stronger than ever. The level of capital held by banks in this ranking continues to accelerate, with the minimum Tier 1 capital required to enter the Top 1000 World Banks now fast approaching $400m. This has almost doubled since the 2005 ranking.
The aggregate capital-to-assets ratio in the 2013 financial year enjoyed its largest rise since the emergency bail-outs and recapitalisations that showed up in the 2009 figures. The aggregate ratio as of the end of 2013 was 5.86%. In 1971, the first year for which The Banker compiled data for assets and capital plus reserves in what was then the top 300 banks ranking, the aggregate capital-to-assets ratio for the top 10 banks was 4.53%.
The ECB effect
The capital-to-assets ratio for 1971 was dragged down by certain European banks – Chase Manhattan Corp notched up a ratio of 6.97%, whereas Banque National de Paris could only muster 1.22%. Plus ça change, American bankers might be inclined to say. The top 10 US banks in the 2014 ranking have an aggregate capital-to-assets ratio of 7.84%. This compares with a ratio of just 4.47% for the top 10 banks in the EU.
To some extent, the difference is explained by US Generally Agreed Accounting Principles (GAAP), which allow netting of derivative positions. International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) used in Europe require derivative positions to be reported gross. The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) proposed a compromise method of measuring asset size for its simple leverage ratio, which will incorporate some netting. Efforts to converge GAAP and IFRS have faltered, and the US regulators have instead opted simply to impose a higher leverage ratio – 6%, instead of the Basel recommendation of 3% that is likely to be adopted in Europe.
However, the EU is actively looking to catch up. Policy-makers have acknowledged that the American decision to recapitalise large banks immediately after the financial crisis in late 2008 has enabled a faster recovery in the sector. By contrast, European banks have recognised losses only gradually, and capital levels have remained weak, especially in the eurozone.
That is beginning to change. The creation of a single supervisory mechanism under the European Central Bank (ECB) in late 2013 led directly to the launch of the ECB’s comprehensive assessment, which includes a review of existing asset quality and a stress test of future solvency based on certain downside scenarios. The asset quality review is possibly the more significant part of the equation – an earlier stress test in 2011 failed to identify banks at risk because it did not address whether existing asset valuations were correct.
The effects of Europe’s greater scrutiny on capital adequacy are evident in this year’s ranking. Banks in the peripheral eurozone that were damaged by slumps in asset quality are beginning to rebuild. In total, 52 banks have entered the Top 1000 ranking in 2014, and most of these are due to improvements in the timeliness of reporting data for our ranking. Of the eight that have grown their way into the Top 1000, half are from the peripheral eurozone countries, including the capital increase of almost 2000% at Bank of Cyprus following a government rescue supported by the EU. Unsurprisingly, Bank of Cyprus also tops our table of highest movers by Tier 1 capital, and the top 25 on that list includes two Greek and two Spanish banks. The capital-raising trend has continued into 2014 as banks that might fall close to the ECB’s 5.5% Tier 1 risk-based capital ratio threshold under the adverse stress test scenario take pre-emptive action. Banks in Greece, Italy and Austria are leading the way, while the Slovenian government is undertaking a large-scale recapitalisation of its deeply troubled banking sector.
First in, first out
In total, Tier 1 capital in the eurozone rose by 5.3% in the 2014 ranking, while deleveraging continued – assets fell by 4.5%. But retained earnings are the easiest way to raise capital. The return on capital for US banks in the Top 1000 is 15.74%, compared with just 2.04% for banks in the eurozone. This profitability allows US banks to increase capital organically and Tier 1 capital levels rose by 6.6% in the 2014 ranking, compared with an increase of 1.3% in the asset base. The capital build-up may also partly reflect preparations for the advent of the high US leverage ratio.
While return on capital is still weaker in Europe than in any other region of the world, it has staged a strong comeback in this year’s ranking. Western Europe’s percentage of global banking profits has risen almost seven-fold in the 2014 ranking, although it still represents just 11.1% of world profits. The peripheral eurozone accounts for two of the top five increases in profit in the world. That includes the number one improvement – Spain’s $85bn increase, returning to a still rather modest profit of $12.7bn. Greece also returns to profit, and the improvement in France (the fourth largest rise in profits) is mainly due to Crédit Agricole, which has rebounded from a $2bn loss to a $10.6bn profit after shedding its Greek subsidiary Emporiki.
The gradual recovery in Europe is also changing the value of foreign subsidiaries. While several banks have already shed their holdings in Greece, other eurozone subsidiaries have improved their performance. Two of BNP Paribas’s group companies – in Belgium and Luxembourg – have joined the list of the top 25 most profitable foreign subsidiaries, while ING Bank’s subsidiary in Belgium has risen two places.
However, it is far too early to say that the eurozone’s woes are over. Several previously heavy loss-makers in Spain such as Bankia, Banco Popular and Banco Mare Nostrum returned to profit in 2013. But our 2014 ranking shows that there are still several others suffering heavy losses, including two among our table of top 25 largest loss-making banks. Moreover, other eurozone countries are still in the doldrums. Italian banks account for four of the largest five losses in the world. Cyprus banks recorded a loss equivalent to 80% of capital, while Slovenia has suffered a return on capital of -120%.
We noted in a chart last year the different pace of losses in five eurozone countries, with Ireland recognising losses earliest and Greece suffering the sharpest individual hit in one year (2011). We have updated this chart below, and the trend has become quite stark for Greece, Spain and Slovenia. Greece has recovered very steeply after digesting the damage from sovereign debt restructuring and recession in 2011. It is now among the top 10 countries for asset growth in this year’s ranking, although this is partly due to the two largest banks, Piraeus and Alpha, consolidating assets acquired from smaller players that were outside the Top 1000.
By contrast, Cypriot banks only addressed the fall-out from their exposure to Greece in 2012, with Cyprus Popular Bank put into liquidation in March 2013 and Bank of Cyprus rescued. Similarly, Slovenia was slow to recognise the losses caused by banks’ exposure to troubled state-owned enterprises. Under pressure from EU authorities, that situation changed in 2013 with a country-specific stress test. Of the four Slovenian banks that were in the Top 1000 ranking for 2012, two have dropped out of the ranking altogether due to the decline in their capital. We have calculated the chart belowusing data from all four banks through the cycle. Losses accelerated massively in 2013, and the comparison with other eurozone states provides some indication of the time that may elapse before Slovenia returns to profit.
The difficulty of persuading banks in crisis-hit countries to recognise losses early is certainly not confined to the eurozone. Kazakhstan is one of the top recovery stories in this year’s ranking, with a loss on capital of 12% last year becoming a 21% return on capital this year. The financial crisis hit hard in 2009, with the country’s largest bank BTA departing the Top 1000 after its Tier 1 capital turned negative – the bank has not yet recovered its place in the ranking. The new market leader, Kazkommertsbank, managed to avoid heavy losses until 2012, when the National Bank of Kazakhstan (NBK) instructed the lender to reclassify part of its portfolio. That led to a $1bn loss from which the bank has now recovered strongly, showing the benefits of acknowledging asset quality problems. However, Kazakhstan remains among the top 10 countries for impairments as a percentage of total operating income. The NBK governor explains in an interview with The Banker how he wants banks to be more active in their management of non-performing loans (NPLs) to end the curse of “zombie banks”.
The provisioning process in Romania among foreign-owned banks also appears to have been protracted. The country’s largest bank, Banca Comerciala Romana, recorded heavy losses in 2012 and has now returned to profit. The country’s second largest bank, BRD Groupe Société Générale, was more profitable in the early years of the crisis, but is now reporting steepening losses. Advisors working on the ECB’s asset quality review suspect Romanian real estate valuations could be a source of further negative surprises for eurozone banks active in the country when the results are published in October 2014.
The persistence of high impairments is a worry for a number of EU countries as well. Although Ireland recognised NPLs relatively early in the downturn – taking heavy losses in 2010 – a full recovery seems to recede ever further into the future, with losses deepening again this year. Portugal has not suffered the kind of extreme negative returns of other eurozone crisis countries, but results continue to worsen. Its losses this year are the largest during the current cycle, which inevitably raises questions about whether the sector can return to profit as swiftly as Spain or Greece.
Not much goodwill
Impairment charges in all four countries are still among the top 10 worst. But while Spain, Greece and Ireland all saw sharp declines in impairments for 2013, those in Portugal are still rising. The other equally worrying situation is Italy, where impairments are also still rising two years after the peak of the eurozone sovereign debt crisis.
In the case of UniCredit, the largest loss in this year’s Top 1000, the largest single item was a series of write-downs of goodwill on commercial banking in Italy, Austria and central and eastern Europe (CEE). Goodwill write-downs, especially on CEE subsidiaries, have played a large part in the losses over this cycle for both Italian and Austrian banks. And they can work both ways. While foreign banks wrote off goodwill on their Greek subsidiaries, Greek banks acquiring assets from those foreigners rushing for the exits frequently recorded goodwill gains. Alpha Bank’s return to profit in 2013 was greatly assisted by a dramatic goodwill write-up of €3.3bn on Emporiki, which it acquired from Crédit Agricole for a token €1 at the start of 2013.
Pre-crisis merger and acquisition (M&A) activity played a major part in value destruction across Europe, including the RBS acquisition of ABN Amro and the Cooperative Bank’s Britannia purchase. Both these less-than-proud parents are among the top 25 loss-makers this year. Goodwill valuations cross the boundary between the heavily regulated banking sector and the self-regulated world of external auditors, but regulators are certainly beginning to pay greater attention to this opaque area. In a report published in June 2014 that covered both banks and corporates, the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) called for improvements in disclosures related to business combinations.
“Despite the fact that issuers included in the sample recognised goodwill in most of the business combinations analysed, descriptions of the factors making up goodwill were often ‘boiler plate’ or insubstantial. Given the impact of business combinations on financial statements, ESMA believes that enhanced information by issuers would contribute to investor protection and increase market confidence,” ESMA noted in its press release.
Financial reporting in Europe may be difficult to interpret, but the challenge of analysing China is on a different scale. We have long noted the uncertainty surrounding very low NPL ratios reported in China, and the growing role of the ‘shadow banking sector’, where trust companies and wealth management products provide an alternative source of credit. At the start of 2014, some of these concerns came out of the shadows, with the default or near-default of several trusts exposed to the coal mining sector.
However, the reported numbers for the Chinese banking sector still present a picture of good health. After ICBC took the top spot in the Top 1000 for the first time last year, in 2014’s ranking it has been joined by China Construction Bank at number two. And the total Tier 1 capital of Chinese banks has also overtaken that of the US for the first time ever, at $1190bn, to make it the largest single banking sector in the world. Reported NPL ratios are still about the 1% mark for the vast majority of banks. The increase in profits in China is more than $50bn: the second highest improvement in the world after Spain’s recovery from losses, and equivalent to half the size of the total profits for the whole of western Europe.
Of course, these figures may be flattered by rolling over loans to distressed companies when they cannot repay and leaving the shadow banking sector to pick up lending to riskier customers. But banks are not immune from the risks of alternative credit, as many of them distribute the wealth management products or refinance trust companies. And it is important to look at the long-term trend, as bank assets can only grow sustainably if the underlying economic growth supports them. In the Top 1000 ranking 20 years ago, all the top six positions were held by Japanese banks. This year, just one Japanese bank – Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group – clings to the top 10, and total Japanese bank capital is less than half that of China’s. The Japanese banking boom was simply unsustainable.
So how does China’s compare? The banking sector runs with a capital-to-assets ratio fully two percentage points lower than that in the US, despite the comparative lack of borrower information in China. This leaves it with a smaller cushion if NPLs were to accelerate. Since 1999, the average profit growth of Chinese banks has been more than 50% per year, while assets have risen by more than 20% per year. While China’s economic growth has frequently been the fastest in the world, it has never exceeded 14% per year.
In the past four years, economic growth has slowed into single figures, but Chinese bank profits have actually accelerated. The only other major economy witnessing this kind of acceleration is the US, where profits recovered strongly after the 2008 crash, but remain below the pre-crisis peak of 2006. Even with China’s economic convergence process and vast market, it is difficult to envisage growth rates in the banking sector maintaining their current trajectory unless economic growth also returns to a higher level.
While questions grow around the Chinese banking boom, Japanese banks are quietly emerging from their post-bubble lost decade that began in the mid-1990s – a turnaround that was then thrown off course by the 2008 financial crisis. This year’s performance in the rankings has been skewed by the 22% decline in the Japanese yen, which hit the relative capital levels of Japanese banks in dollar terms. However, return on capital has jumped by almost two percentage points, to 12% in this year’s ranking. And there are tentative signs of Japanese banks regaining their appetite for cross-border expansion. The largest cross-border M&A deal to affect this year’s Top 1000 is the acquisition of Bank of Ayudhya in Thailand by Japan’s largest bank, Mitsubishi UFJ.
We dived deep into the data last year to use the Top 1000 as an early-warning tool for mapping potential banking sector overheating or asset quality risks worldwide. Changes in impairment levels are the most obvious danger sign, but sharp increases in loan-to-deposit ratios are also important for identifying countries with rising household leverage and banks that are becoming increasingly reliant on wholesale funding. And while asset growth is positive if sustainable, any asset growth that is fuelled by wholesale funding or occurring at a time of rising credit risk is clearly rather less reassuring.
Using these indicators, Bulgaria shows up as a potential source of concern. The country has the second highest asset growth rates, and yet asset quality is deteriorating sharply. The rise in impairment charges is among the top 10, and from an already high base. Only Slovenia and Italy among the top 10 impairment increases have higher absolute levels of impairment as a percentage of total operating income.
The Bulgaria story also points to another indicator of risk that is qualitative rather than quantitative – the dangers of M&A activities that are apparent from the goodwill write-offs in the eurozone. The previous wave of M&A before the crisis was mostly carried out by banks from developed markets moving into emerging markets. There are still a few such deals, including the BNP Paribas expansion in Poland announced late last year. But the trend has mostly reversed: emerging market banks are buying subsidiaries in their home or neighbouring countries from retreating developed-market players. Banks in Panama, Poland and Kazakhstan that are large enough to feature in the Top 1000 have all provided examples of this phenomenon.
The risk is that banks with less experience of managing integration processes and carrying out due diligence on acquired assets may suffer similar accidents to those that afflicted banks such as RBS during the financial crisis. Some emerging market regulators are already alert to the dangers. The Colombian central bank, for example, instituted a new regulation in August 2013 that required banks to eliminate goodwill from their Tier 1 capital calculations. Combined with an 8.5% devaluation of the Colombian peso (all our figures are calculated in US dollars), this led to a 37% slide in the reported Tier 1 capital of Bancolombia following its acquisition of HSBC Bank Panama. Another Colombian bank on the acquisition trail, Banco Davivienda, witnessed a 27% decline in capital. The good news is that this tough line by the regulator today reduces the risk of unpleasant surprises in the future.
Bulgaria in jeopardy?
In Bulgaria, foreign-owned banks have been very conservative in recent years, and in some cases have withdrawn from the country altogether if it is considered too marginal to their business plans. This is partly due to the strains on parent banks stemming from the eurozone crisis, but deteriorating asset quality in Bulgaria has also contributed. The slack in the sector is being picked up by local banks that are less directly affected by events in the eurozone. First Investment Bank, one of only two locally owned Bulgarian banks in the Top 1000, acquired MKB Union Bank from Germany’s BayernLB in 2013, contributing to a 30% rise in assets. In May 2014, Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB) – which is too small to appear in the Top 1000 – acquired Crédit Agricole’s assets in Bulgaria.
But locally owned banks also have smaller capital bases, less access to global liquidity and often opaque ownership structures. Moreover, foreign banks in Bulgaria are generally reporting high total impairments at between 30% and 55% of total operating income. By contrast, some of the locally owned banks report this ratio at about 20% to 25%, suggesting these banks may be slower to recognise problem assets, and the impairment ratio could continue to accelerate. For CCB, the risks crystallised just weeks after the Crédit Agricole deal closed. The Bulgarian National Bank announced in June 2014 that the bank had been placed into conservatorship because “CCB’s liquidity had been depleted and the bank had suspended making payments and conducting all types of banking transactions”.
Ukraine is another obvious hotspot. Sadly, the banking sector had been showing signs of improvement before the country’s slide into violence in 2014. Impairment charges, while still among the top 10 worldwide, fell by a quarter as a percentage of operating income in 2013. And asset growth was among the top 10 highest in the world, with both private and state-owned banks contributing.
The largest rise in loan-to-deposit ratios should not come as a surprise: with large depositors facing a haircut as part of the international bail-out, Cypriot banks suffered a 41% loss of deposits. Among other countries showing sharp rises in loan-to-deposit ratios, some are less concerning. Uruguay, Gabon and Uzbekistan still have ratios well below 100%, providing plenty of funding headroom for asset growth.
Kazakhstan’s weak spots
By contrast, Kazakhstan, already mentioned among the top countries for impairments, is still some way from a healthy structure in the banking sector. The country had the third highest rise in loan-to-deposit ratios worldwide, as a 4% rise in deposits could not keep pace with a 22% rise in loans. Dependence on wholesale funding was one of the weak spots of Kazakhstan’s banking sector before the financial crisis, and government rescues of large banks have done little to improve confidence. A malicious text message campaign in early 2014 questioning the solvency of several Kazakh banks prompted fresh deposit outflows, although these were reversed once the culprits behind the false information were arrested.
The warning signs continue to flash in Brazil, which is on the list of top 10 loan-to-deposit ratio increases for the second year running. Azerbaijan, which we flagged as another country with a rather heated banking sector last year, is still in the spotlight. Its loan-to-deposit ratio increase falls just outside the top 10, and asset growth is one of the highest in the world. And Turkey has crossed an important threshold, with the loan-to-deposit ratio rising above 100% and climbing rather rapidly.
Among the sharpest rises in impairments, political risk in Egypt is clearly feeding through to asset quality. The Russian consumer lending market was already showing signs of a correction in 2013, and any broadening of US and EU sanctions during 2014 would only aggravate the problem further. However, impairments in Turkey rose by just 2.3% of operating income in 2013, despite the political turbulence. Profitability is slipping a little, and Finansbank, owned by National Bank of Greece, dropped out of the list of the top 25 most profitable foreign-owned subsidiaries worldwide.
The resilience of Turkish asset quality is perhaps testament to good risk management at Turkish banks, and a well-run bank can head off most risks aside from a full-blown sovereign debt crisis or civil war. We noted Bank of Georgia last year amid a very rapid rise in assets, loan-to-deposit ratio and a doubling in impairments as a percentage of total operating income. In the 2014 ranking, asset growth has eased into single figures, outstripped by a 13.7% rise in deposits to stabilise the funding position. Impairments rose by just two percentage points of total operating income, suggesting the bank’s management has moved quickly to ensure that asset growth remains sustainable.
In certain countries, banks can only do their best to cope with the situation as they find it. Venezuela tops the list of countries for asset growth, and along with Argentina it also enjoys the highest return on capital. The asset growth and rates of return are driven by very high inflation, which in turn produces steep interest rate spreads. Leading banks are often state-owned, and have been urged by policy-makers to continue lending even into this relatively risky macroeconomic environment, and with comparatively low capital bases behind them. Still, there are opportunities for foreign banks, and BBVA’s subsidiary in Venezuela is among the top 25 most profitable foreign-owned subsidiaries.
Operational risk riddle
In recent years, the BCBS has focused on two aspects of bank assets – credit risk (lending exposures) and market risk (exposure to financial markets). But the BIS ratio that we include in this ranking has a third component – operational risk, including losses from theft, technological failures, natural disasters and litigation. Historically, operational risk-weighted assets (RWAs) were the smallest component of most banks’ risk-based asset calculations, and consequently came under less regulatory scrutiny.
However, the past year has seen a rapid rise in the size of fines paid out by banks due to enforcement actions in the US and EU over issues such as money-laundering, assisting tax evasion, manipulating financial benchmarks such as Libor, and false accounting or misleading investors over subprime mortgage securities. Fines over Libor have totalled $6bn already (see our March 2014 cover story), while JPMorgan paid out $14bn over a range of offences including mis-selling subprime securities and poor controls around the ‘London whale’ rogue trading scandal. UK banks have paid out £22bn ($37.33bn) in compensation for mis-selling payment protection insurance and the figure is still rising. At the time of going to press, France’s BNP Paribas is still discussing a settlement that could top $8bn over alleged evasion of US sanctions on Sudan and Iran. This has all brought operational risk into much sharper focus, and its significance for bank performance is no longer peripheral.
Switzerland is the top country for operational RWAs, which account for more than 20% of total RWAs in the country. This is no surprise: Swiss banks have faced a barrage of allegations and fines for assisting tax evasion in the US and EU. The regulatory assault can even become a threat to a bank’s very existence, with 270-year old Swiss bank Wegelin shutting down in 2013 following US tax evasion allegations.
Developed markets dominate the list for the largest operational RWAs, with Thailand the only emerging market to break into the top 10. However, conflict risks in some emerging markets clearly present severe operational challenges that may be underestimated. Part of the problem of operational RWAs is that historic data is thin, filled with one-off extreme events that are far harder to model than, for instance, the performance of a decades-old mortgage portfolio. BNP Paribas actually cut operational RWAs as a proportion of total RWAs fractionally in 2013, which explains why the French authorities are warning that the fine could lead to capital erosion – the bank was underprepared for the scale of potential losses. Regulators are beginning to wake up to the difficulties of modelling operational risk. The European Banking Authority began consulting in June 2014 on rules to enable supervisors to assess banks’ modelling techniques for operational RWAs, but the journey is likely to be long.
Even if their operational risks are rising, many of the largest banks have been strengthening their Basel ratios with heavy cuts to trading activities, which reduce their market RWAs. After UBS wound down much of its fixed-income trading activities in 2013, the bank sliced more than half off its market RWAs. Market risk is now a much smaller component of the bank’s RWAs than operational risk – 6% compared with 34%. Barclays shaved more than 30% off its market RWAs, while RBS continued its long-running process of deleveraging with a further 26% cut in market RWAs. Among the banks with large trading desks, only three – BNP Paribas, Credit Suisse and HSBC – increased market RWAs in 2013, by less than 20% in both cases. Understandably, end-users of financial markets are beginning to fret about reduced liquidity as market-makers scale back their activities, especially in fixed income.
US regulators remain sceptical about the value of Basel risk-based capital rules, and American banks do not report the breakdown of RWAs in their regulatory financial statements. The good news is that disclosure in general continued its improving trend in the 2014 ranking. In total, 44 banks have entered or re-entered the Top 1000 thanks to more timely disclosure of their key financial data. They include the Postal Savings Bank of China, which at almost $23bn in Tier 1 capital is by far our largest new entrant. Another 17 Chinese banks join the ranking this year thanks to improved data collection. As ever, the coverage in this ranking continues to be enhanced by the tireless efforts of our research team.
Research for The Banker’s Top 1000 rankings was carried out by Adrian Buchanan, Guillaume Hingel, Valeriya Yakutovich and Alberto Berardi.