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Fitch issues warning on profitability of Nigerian banks

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By Babajide Komolafe

Fitch Rating agency yesterday warned that Nigerian banks will struggle to sustain the same level of profitability this year due to reduction in government borrowing through treasury bills (T-Bills).

Last year the federal government introduced a new debt strategy designed to refinance some of its maturing domestic debt with external borrowing. Consequently, the Debt Management Office (DMO), last month used proceeds of the $500 million Eurobond offer, issued in November to repay N198 billion worth of T-Bills which matured during the month.

Also the T-Bills’ issuance calendar for the first  quarter of this year (Q1 2018) issued by CBN,  showed  N200 billion difference between the   N1.2 trillion worth of T-Bills   scheduled to  mature during the quarter and the N1.1  worth of T-Bills   to  be issued during the quarter, indicating lower borrowing from government.

This development, according to Fitch may affect 30 percent of banks’ interest income in the 2018 financial year.

In a statement issued yesterday, Fitch said: “The slowdown in T-bill issuance marks a change of strategy as the government looks to increase its financing from external sources and longer-dated domestic issuances. Record T-bill issuance in 2017 helped support the Central Bank of Nigeria’s strategy to maintain naira exchange-rate stability.

“High yields on T-bills issued in 2017 (around 13 percent -14 percent on 90-day T-bills) attracted investors and helped to support the naira. An increase in oil export earnings and the introduction in April 2017 of the Nigerian Autonomous Foreign Exchange Rate Fixing (NAFEX) mechanism, commonly referred to as the “Investors and Exporters’ FX Window”, also helped naira stabilisation during the second half of 2017.

“Nigerian banks are highly reliant on net interest income for profitability and T-bills proved to be an important source of profits in 2017. Interest on securities represented 30 percent of total gross interest earned in nine months ended September 2017, (9M17), averaged across Nigerian banks rated by Fitch (2016: 23 percent).  By end-September 2017, government securities including T-bills represented more than 15 percent of the banks’ assets as new lending fell, reflecting weak credit demand, tighter underwriting standards and banks’ reluctance to extend new loans as they focused on extensive restructuring of troubled oil-related and other portfolios.

“Even the country’s largest banks cut back on new lending, with Guaranty Trust Bank’s stock of outstanding loans falling 10 percent during 9M17, FBN Holdings’ by 4.6 percent, Zenith’s by 3.7 percent and Access’s by 1.1 percent. United Bank for Africa’s loan book grew 5.6 percent, but this is likely to have been driven by non-Nigerian lending as the bank operates in 22 other African countries.

“We expect falling T-bill yields and lower issuance to put pressure on Nigerian banks’ profitability in 2018. The CBN’s latest issuance schedule shows NGN1.1 trillion ($3.6 billion) of rollovers in 1Q18 against N1.3 trillion of maturing bills. In 2017, rollovers fully covered maturing bills.

“Performance metrics at all banks will be affected by weak demand for lending, falling T-bill yields, lower foreign-currency translation gains and rising loan impairment charges, but the largest banks are best placed to withstand these challenges.  “Operating returns are still strong at GTB (9M17 operating return on average equity (ROAE): 37 percent), Zenith (28 percent), UBA (22 percent) and Access (20 percent), while FBNH’s operating ROAE is lower (12 percent) but improving.

However, some second-tier banks with a 9M17 operating ROAE of 4 percent -6 percent may struggle to remain profitable in 2018.

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