SocGen posts 28% profit fall but sees growth in Africa, Russia

Continued pain at Societe Generale’s domestic retail division and a fall in the profitability of its global banking arm during the second quarter was partially mitigated by strong growth in the French lender’s overseas retail banking operations.

Here are the highlights from the earnings release:

  • Net income down to 1.06 billion euros ($1.25 billion), slumping 28 percent from 1.46 billion euros a year ago.
  • Revenue fell 26 percent to 5.20 billion euros, vs. 5.39 billion euros according to Thomson Reuters.

“We have taken an advantage from the improving environment in central and eastern Europe, from the dynamic in Africa which has compensated the still negative interest rate environment in the euro zone and the low market volatility,” Severin Cabannes, deputy chief executive officer (deputy CEO) of the French bank told CNBC on Wednesday.

The lender’s traditional domestic retail business continues to be plagued by the challenge of persistently low interest rates which sent net interest income down by 6.6 percent during the quarter versus a year ago. It also reported that it had set aside 300 million euros to pay for any potential legal costs, further weighing on profits during the quarter.

Meanwhile, costs at the division shot up by 3.7 percent year-on-year, outpacing the higher end of earlier guidance, as efforts to transform the business continued apace.

Key among such efforts are the pivot towards a more commission-based business model to ensure increased stability in revenue generation and the broad roll-out of a digitalization plan to improve the bank’s efficiency and cost profile. While commissions edged up by 5 percent during the quarter, the digitalization plan expanded its scope and ambition — both within the French Retail Banking division and throughout the rest of the firm.

According to Cabannes, Societe Generale delivered, “an increase in our investment program to accelerate the digitalization of our client relationship first, our internal processes automation and the development of new services and products in specific parts.”

The absence of legacy structures and bureaucracy remains a key factor in allowing Societe Generale to move more nimbly in newer markets and more fully embrace the digital banking revolution.

“In metro markets like France we have to transform the existing model,” explained the deputy CEO, alluding to the slower pace of structural change in French retail banking compared to the bank’s other businesses.

“The good news in emerging markets like in Africa or Central Europe or even in Russia is that we can go directly to e.g. mobile banking which is exactly what we do and we are offering to our clients directly the digital offering,” he added.

The lender’s growing reliance on its retail operations in overseas markets was demonstrated by the International Retail Banking & Financial Services division making the largest contribution of the bank’s three core divisions to both quarterly and first half net profit. The trend towards pursuing opportunities in markets such as Africa, Russia and central and eastern Europe is set to persist, according to Cabannes.

“In the future, it’s the area where the growth potential is bigger and we will allocate scarce resources to that part, of course,” he revealed.

This despite the more fragile geopolitical and economic backdrops in such emerging markets which the deputy CEO acknowledged could create heightened uncertainties. Cabannes noted that it was still too early to tell what the increased U.S. sanctions would mean for its business in Russia – which currently constitutes around 10 percent of operations – but that it would create an “additional complexity to manage.”

The bank’s previously announced four-year plan – to reduce branches and headcount as a result of the digitalization and automation drive – is still “completely on track” according to Cabannes.

With regards to further headcount shuffling due to Brexit, the French banking veteran said that Societe Generale had the luxury of not being forced to make drastic decisions before receiving more clarity on the final outcome given it benefits from having hubs in both Paris and London.

“We are not in a hurry to decide that but the order of magnitude of the number of people in the hard Brexit scenario is this number between 300 and 400 from London to Paris,” he said, confirming the potential staffing changes alluded to by CEO Frederic Oudea last month.

Source: CNBC