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More cost cuts key for European banks as growth hopes stall

A woman uses a cash point machine at a HSBC bank in the City of London February 28, 2011. REUTERS/Andrew Winning
A woman uses a cash point machine at a HSBC bank in the City of London February 28, 2011. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

By Steve Slater

LONDON (Reuters) - Europe's banks are under pressure to show how they plan to step up cost-cutting and shrinkage when they announce first quarter results in forthcoming weeks, as the scars from bad loan losses and indebted economies refuse to fade.

The recent near-collapse of Cyprus's banking sector has shown that euro zone shocks may not yet be over and as losses from bad loans continue to rise, analysts are looking to see banks take action in response.

"In an environment where top line growth is still slow and returns are still below the cost of equity, then more action on cost cutting is one of the main levers the banks are able to pull," said Jon Peace, analyst at Nomura in London.

Banks have done well at shrinking their balance sheets and have cut risk-weighted assets by about a quarter, according to a report last week by Morgan Stanley and Oliver Wyman. The same report showed they have made less progress on tackling costs, which have only come down by 4 percent.

HSBC , Barclays , Deutsche Bank , UBS and Credit Suisse are all axing jobs and reshaping to show they can improve profitability and deliver dividends to investors.

In particular, new bosses at Barclays, Deutsche Bank and UBS will be expected to show progress in their shake-up plans. HSBC, Europe's biggest bank, started its revamp earlier than most, and next month is expected to target another $1 billion in savings after reaching its $3.5 billion annual target. That is likely to mean thousands more job cuts.

"Every bank now has a cost saving plan and preaches a new cost mantra. 2013 will be about delivering on these cost savings, especially as the easiest wins should come earliest," said James Chappell, analyst at Berenberg Bank.

However some are concerned that banks may be underestimating the impact on revenue from the cuts, adding to an already significant hit from low interest rates and tougher regulations.

Several countries have stepped up scrutiny on capital and leverage at banks in recent months, which analysts said could delay a rise in dividends and prompt more asset sales, such as Lloyds' plans to sell its asset management arm.

BAD DEBTS TREND HIGHER

Losses from bad loans are expected to remain high while the euro zone crisis drags on, notably in Spain, Italy and other peripheral countries, where struggling small companies are a particular worry.

Many banks will be shielded from the full impact, however, after Spain and Italy told their banks to hike provisions for bigger losses.

First-quarter results from Spain's Santander , BBVA and Caixabank are due next week, just after Barclays and Credit Suisse kick off the reporting season. Santander and BBVA are expected to fare better than domestic rivals thanks to large overseas businesses.

Revenues from investment banking, an even more volatile part of quarterly earnings, are expected to bounce back from a poor fourth quarter but are unlikely to match the strong start to the year seen in 2012, analysts said.

Wall Street's big five banks have shown investment bank revenues down 7 percent on the year, but up 35 percent on a weak fourth quarter. Revenues in fixed income, currencies and commodities (FICC) and equities fell 5-10 percent on average from a year ago, but advisory income jumped by about a fifth. Compared to the fourth quarter, FICC and equities revenues were up sharply and advisory income was flat.

European rivals should show similar trends, but may lag the U.S. leaders, who appear to be winning market share. First quarter revenues for Europe's investment banks are expected to rise 38 percent on average from the previous three months but dip 9 percent on the year, analysts at Credit Suisse forecast.

Bank executives will also face renewed scrutiny on their own pay packets shortly after quarterly earnings at annual shareholder meetings.

The issue is likely to be hottest in Switzerland, where a warning shot was fired last week when investors in private bank Julius Baer rejected its executive pay plan. Credit Suisse could face opposition at its AGM on April 26 over its plan to issue shares to pay bonuses.

(Additional reporting by Sarah White in Madrid; Editing by Sophie Walker)

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