By Katharina Bart
ZURICH (Reuters) - Swiss bank Credit Suisse eked out a small first-quarter profit, as cost cuts and a better-than-expected showing from its fixed income arm offset a 1.5 billion Swiss franc ($1.65 billion) charge on its debt.
Credit Suisse posted a net profit of 44 million Swiss francs on Wednesday, down from 1.13 billion last year and compared with a forecast for a 436 million franc loss.
The quarter's profit was helped by 178 million francs from the selling down of its stake in Aberdeen Asset Management.
The first quarter is typically the strongest for investment banks and can set the tone for the year.
Credit Suisse financial head David Mathers was at pains to avoid drawing that upbeat conclusion, however.
Instead, he echoed comments from U.S. investment banks, such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, saying April market conditions had dropped off from healthier first-quarter activity levels when they reported recently.
Much like the U.S. banks, Credit Suisse's fixed-income sales and trading bolstered the quarterly net profit which was 1.355 billion Swiss francs without the debt effect.
The securities unit posted a 26 percent slide in pretax profit on the quarter to 993 million Swiss francs, after slashing risk-weighted assets by 33 percent to $210 billion to meet stricter new rules for banks on riskier business.
The investment bank benefited from a favorable showing from interest rate products, foreign exchange trading, emerging markets and debt products, Credit Suisse said.
"Credit Suisse's improvement against what the market expected is largely due to the investment bank and fixed-income sales and trading, which dampens enthusiasm somewhat because it's not what I see as sustainable long-term profits," Bank Sarasin analyst Rainer Skierka said. He rates the stock at neutral.
At 0947 GMT, the stock traded 0.4 percent lower, lagging a 1.8 percent rise in the broader European banking sector.
Credit Suisse chief Brady Dougan said the bank doesn't expect to cut more jobs than the ongoing program envisages, under which 7 percent of its workforce, or 3,500 staff, are set to go.
The bank is ahead of target to cut costs by 1.2 billion francs, when extrapolating the first quarter to 2012.
Credit Suisse said it was "encouraged" by the first quarter performance overall, especially the aggressive spending cuts, but that it was too early to lift the cost target.
Dougan voiced confidence Credit Suisse, which posted a return-on-equity of 0.5 percent in the quarter, or 15.9 percent when stripping out the debt loss, can top 15 percent regularly.
Credit Suisse's private bank, while attracting 8.4 billion Swiss francs in net new money, continued to struggle with sluggish client activity as well as under a strong Swiss franc, which hits assets and revenues.
Clariden Leu, one of Switzerland's oldest bank brands which was integrated into Credit Suisse earlier this month, shed 4.1 billion Swiss francs in assets in the first quarter.
Overall at the private bank, "slightly higher transaction revenues were offset by lower fees due to mix shifts in customers and assets, which is a negative read-through for other private banks," Nomura analyst Jon Peace said.
Hometown rival UBS reports next Wednesday.
Credit Suisse recorded an overall withdrawal of 7.1 billion Swiss francs in assets, because the private bank's fresh assets were offset by the loss of a large fixed-income mandate in asset management.
The results could give Dougan some breathing room ahead of the bank's shareholder meeting on Friday. Detractors accuse Dougan of failing to scale back Credit Suisse's investment banking unit decisively enough.
Credit Suisse made no comments on its attempt to settle a U.S. tax probe over allegations it helped wealthy Americans hide their money through hidden Swiss offshore accounts.
Noting it is involved in a number of proceedings, Credit Suisse said it took net litigation provisions of 68 million francs in the quarter, but estimated the range of possible losses not covered by provisions at zero to 2.3 billion francs.
Dougan said Credit Suisse, which took a 295 million franc provision last year in connection with the U.S. probe, was "adequately provisioned" against outstanding matters.
(Katharina Bart +41 58 306 7312; Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford and Andrew Callus)