Post-crisis, tackling risk at European banks

Post-crisis, tackling risk at European banks

It’s time to raise the profile of a metric that has played a minor role to date: RoRWA—the rate of return on risk-weighted assets.

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Post-crisis, tackling risk at European banks

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Now that risk figures so prominently in European banking, it’s time to raise the profile of a metric that has played a minor role to date.

This benchmark—the rate of return on risk-weighted assets, or RoRWA—reliably integrates a balance-sheet-management perspective with the revenue and cost side of the business. It’s the single most practical measure to help European bankers manage their institution’s performance and make savvy risk-reward decisions.

Why does RoRWA deserve more respect now? Five years since the global financial crisis, bankers still find themselves waging battle on many fronts, from low interest rates, to a loss of customers’ trust, to stiff new target capital requirements and regulatory mandates—all while they operate in weak Eurozone economies. Moreover, even as revenue growth flattens and new digital technologies push up capital investments, banks are not making much headway on reining in costs.

Only the fittest will survive this Darwinian process. Today’s period of disruptive change calls for a holistic yet simple view of the returns that banks generate on every unit of capital they commit to their business, on a risk-adjusted basis.

RoRWA fits the bill for several reasons. First, it tracks how well the bank manages its balance sheet and appetite for risk. Managers can see whether they properly price offerings to reflect their risk and cost, and how well they allocate capital to areas and products that generate higher returns.

Second, the benchmark guides decisions on how a bank factors in risk to its cross-selling opportunities that bring in fees, commissions and other revenues.

Third, it reveals the cost-efficiency per unit of risk for the volume of business a bank generates.

Fourth, RoRWA shines a light on the cost of risk by disclosing how well a bank is able to minimize its loan-loss provisions on a risk-adjusted basis.

Bain did a comprehensive RoRWA analysis of 121 banks across 12 core EU countries plus the four fast-growing markets of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Poland, South Africa and Turkey, from the onset of the global economic crisis in 2008 through the end of 2012, the latest data available. Here’s what we found:

Most banks failed to earn their cost of capital. We computed that the RoRWA required for banks to cover their cost of capital fell within a range of 1.6% and 2.1%, depending on bank size and country. It’s a hurdle that most banks have failed to clear, on average, in any year since 2008 and fell well short of in every year apart from 2010. The average RoRWA peaked in 2010 at 1.3% and has since declined to 0.5%, which means banks have been destroying value. The exception was in high-growth countries, where banks’ RoRWA easily cleared the capital-cost bar; Ziraat Bankasi in Turkey reached 15.8% in 2012.

Size mattered. Within core Europe, the 10 biggest pan-European banks (by total assets and market capitalization) fared best overall. Helped by large increases in net interest income and strong improvements in financial margins, their RoRWA came closest to earning their cost of capital.

Other large European banks with subsidiaries outside their home country reduced their operating costs, partially offsetting declines in risk-weighted fee income and higher loan-loss provisions. But the RoRWA for these banks still failed to clear their cost-of-capital hurdle.

Local banks in core Europe struggled as they were weighed down by nonperforming loans and flat revenues. Their RoRWA was negative in both 2008 and 2012 and did not come close to covering the cost of capital.

Economic growth counted, but management effectiveness played a critical role. Overall, RoRWA correlated strongly with GDP growth trends. But there also was a wide variance in the performance of banks competing within individual markets. Particularly in slow-growth countries, RoRWA by bank varied widely in every year, suggesting that the quality of management played a major role in determining performance. For example, banks in the UK and France have been treading water, but Standard Chartered Bank and HSBC in the UK and BNP Paribas in France ranked among the top performers in their size clusters.

Illuminating the road ruts ahead

Bringing profitability back to attractive levels—meaning above the cost of capital—will not be easy. We expect continued pressure on interest as well as on fee income. For most banks, managing the cost of risk will also be a challenge, as stagnant economies tend to drive up this cost.

Getting a better grip on operating cost, the RoRWA analysis shows, should lead the agenda for most banks. Structural costs can be addressed using several means: adopting new digital technologies and modernizing IT platforms; optimizing processes through such approaches as outsourcing and offshoring; and expanding global procurement initiatives.

Local banks in core Europe face perhaps the stiffest challenges, as restructuring will continue in the face of stagnant economies and a higher cost of risk. We expect to see further consolidation in this group. For the surviving institutions, higher performance will hinge on better management of the deleveraging process, containment of the cost of raising new capital and more accurate factoring of risk into their price structure.

Finally, high-growth countries still offer most promising opportunities for RoRWA growth of the 10 biggest and other large pan-European players that aim to diversity their portfolio. The best performers will be those banks that keep tight control of the reins as they ride these booming economies.

By Walter Sinn, a Bain & Company partner based in the firm’s Frankfurt office; Rocco D’Acunto, a partner based in Milan; and Andrea Oldrini, a manager based in Milan. They are all members of Bain’s Global Financial Services practice.


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