Swedbank opens kimono on Baltic Lending … not a pretty sight

SwedbankSwedbank, Sweden’s fourth largest lender & one of the biggest banks in the Baltic region, revealed the full scale of Swedish exposure to economic turmoil in Eastern Europe last week. The bank posted dismal figures due to large losses on loans made to firms in the troubled Baltic region.

Swedbank was the first in a series of Swedish and other Nordic banks scheduled to announce results in coming days as the region’s lenders count the cost of aggressive expansion in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Nordic banks piled into the former Soviet states after their entry into the European Union in 2004 and initially prospered from rapid growth in the region.

The bank revealed a surge in bad loans from the Baltic States and Ukraine. Investors were reassured by the bank’s insistence that it could weather the storm without raising fresh capital, pushing the stock up more than 11 % after a day of volatile trading. At the same time, it announced that it would slash 16% of its workforce. However, it closed on Friday up 21.5% as investors were reassured that it would not raise extra capital.

The worse-than-expected second-quarter losses show that Sweden’s banking sector is still facing a barrage of bad loans from the Baltic States, even as the country is hailed as a financial role model after its recovery from a banking crisis in the 1990s. Bank’s aggressive lending has backfired in recent months as the Baltic economies have plunged deeper into recession than anywhere else in the EU.

Swedbank, the largest lender in the Baltics, posted net losses of SKr 2, 01bn ($257m), compared with net profits of SKr 3,6 bn a year earlier. It was the bank’s second consecutive quarterly loss and much worse than the SKr 1,27 bn deficit forecast by analysts. Loan losses soared from SKr 423 mln a year ago to SKr 6,67 bn, with about two-thirds of the amount in the Baltic States and a third in Ukraine. In response, the bank said it planned to reduce staff by 3,600, about 16 % of its workforce, by this time next year, with most of the cutbacks in the Baltic States.

“The most recent quarter has been marred by continued uncertainty about the future of the economy,” the bank’s Chief Executive, Michael Wolf, said in a statement. “The recession is now making itself more visible, and all signs are that the downward trend will continue for some time.”

Faced with mounting losses on loans in recession-hit economies, where bad loans have shot to highs of 18% of total lending in Latvia and 24% in Ukraine, Swedbank is trying to cut costs and lower its risk profile to secure funding and ride out the storm. Swedbank will continue to close branches and increase staff cuts as it takes a defensive stance, in anticipation of further economic hardship in the region, having followed a more aggressive path of expansion, the bank will be returning to more traditional practices.

“We are taking the necessary steps to right-size business units to reflect the lower economic activity in the banking sector as a whole,”  said Wolf  “We expect impaired loans to increase in the second half but it will be less than in the first half”

The negative results came after a mission from the International Monetary Fund visited Latvia recently in order to negotiate the release of a € 200 mln ($283m) tranche of a €7.5bn emergency loan agreed late last year. The IMF has held back the funds while it seeks commitments from the Latvian government over structural reforms, increasing nervousness that the rescue package could unravel.

Swedbank assured investors that it was strong enough to absorb its Baltic losses, quashing fears it would have to raise fresh capital. The bank’s chief financial officer, said the bank had “a very resilient capital situation”

Another Swedish bank – SEB, the second-biggest banking group in the Baltic region after Swedbank, is to report activity results next week. Analysts forecast that its operating profits will be down more than 40 %.

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