* UniCredit’s CEE arm sees steady 2015 results
* Remains committed to Russian market
* Seeks to boost market share as rivals scale back (Recasts with comments from news conference)
By Michael Shields and Angelika Gruber
VIENNA, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Bank Austria expects to keep profits steady this year even if it makes less money in Russia, the central and eastern European (CEE) arm of Italian bank UniCredit said on Thursday.
It also played down any need for quick action to boost its 10.3 percent core capital ratio, saying its strong earnings capacity should let it strengthen its balance sheet over time.
Chief Executive Willibald Cernko said that barring open warfare he expected “positive results” this year in Russia, where 2014 pre-tax profit fell by a quarter to 447 million euros ($506.90 million).
Overall pretax profit rose 6 percent to 1.5 billion euros.
Led by Bulgaria and Croatia, its Balkans business boosted pretax profit 65 percent to 452 million, underscoring the Vienna-based lender’s diversified portfolio in the region.
Cernko stressed that Russia remained a core market but one that does not have to be a workhorse for the group. Even if results there slip again, “we expect to be able to offset this in other central European markets so that we can present 2015 results roughly in line with what we could do in 2014”.
It hopes to sell this year its business in Ukraine, hit by civil war between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.
Chief Financial Officer Francesco Giordano told a news conference that the group uses currency hedges to cover expected profits from Russia but not the impact on capital from the rouble’s fall, which ate into capital ratios last year.
But he expressed satisfaction with the 10.3 percent common equity tier 1 capital ratio under Basel 3 standards at the end of last year. It had stood at 11.3 percent under less stringent Basel 2.5 rules a year earlier.
“It is probably sensible to expect that the direction is more up than down...We have rather strong earning capacity which we deem at this point in time to be sufficient to lead as where we want to be.”
Bank Austria aims to increase its market share in the region as rivals scale back, it said.
UniCredit, Italy’s biggest bank, met its 2014 profit target but its core capital weakened slightly.
Bank Austria - CEE market leader ahead of Raiffeisen Bank International and Erste Group - saw 2014 profit rebound to 1.38 billion from a writedown-marred 2013 loss.
Raiffeisen Bank International reported a 2014 loss of nearly 500 million euros and is retrenching heavily in the region to boost its capital buffers. Erste Group Bank has forecast a record 2014 loss of up to 1.6 billion euros amid hits from Romania and Hungary. ($1 = 0.8818 euros) (Reporting by Michael Shields; editing by Susan Thomas)