July 30, 2020 / 4:30 AM / 14 days ago

StanChart to sharpen focus on costs after first-half profit hit by loan losses

HONG KONG/LONDON (Reuters) - Standard Chartered PLC (STAN.L) on Thursday posted a 33% fall in first-half profit after credit impairment charges jumped six-fold as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and said it would continue to keep a tight lid on costs.

FILE PHOTO: A man walks past the head office of Standard Chartered bank in the City of London February 27, 2015. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

The lender, however, struck a more positive tone when it came to further provisions against bad debts, saying it expects impairments in the second half to be lower unless economic conditions deteriorate significantly.

StanChart’s credit impairment in the first-half rose to $1.58 billion (1.22 billion pounds) from $254 million a year earlier, but expenses fell 10%. The bank said it aims to keep expenses below $10 billion in both this year and next.

Pre-tax profit for StanChart, which focuses on Asia, Africa and the Middle East, dropped to $1.63 billion in the January-June period from $2.41 billion in the same period last year, the London-headquartered bank said in a stock exchange filing.

The latest profit compared with the $1.53 billion average of analyst estimates compiled by Standard Chartered.

The bank also said it expects income, which grew 3% in the first-half, to be lower in the second half as trading activity slows in its financial markets division while interest rates remain low.

“Low interest rates and depressed oil prices continue to be headwinds and we expect new waves of COVID-19 related challenge in the coming quarters,” Chief Executive Officer Bill Winters said in the earnings statement.

StanChart is accelerating some elements of existing projects aimed at creating a leaner organisation as well as developing some new expense reduction initiatives, and Winters said this would involve “very small number of redundancies”.

It reiterated it would not pay dividends for the time being following a request from Britain’s Prudential Regulation Authority, adding it hoped to resume payments “as soon as prudently possible”.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 16.5 million people across the world, is hitting businesses - from retail to aviation - globally as governments freeze economies to slow its spread.

StanChart's Hong Kong-listed shares gave up their gains after the results to be down 1.2% at 0723 GMT, while the Hong Kong market index .HSI was off 0.8%.

HONG KONG IMPACT

As with fellow British lender Barclays (BARC.L), which reported earnings on Wednesday, StanChart’s overall performance was helped by its trading arm which held up much better than its corporate and retail banking businesses.

StanChart’s retail, commercial and private banking business all saw profits nearly halve year on year, while its corporate and institutional banking division saw only a 13% decline as frenzied trading in stocks and bonds bolstered income.

The bank’s earnings outlook has, however, also been clouded by political unrest in Hong Kong, whose economy contracted 9.0% in April-June, shrinking for the fourth quarter in a row and the second biggest drop on record.

Hong Kong is the single largest market for the bank.

The lender along with its London-headquartered peer HSBC Holdings PLC (HSBA.L) last month broke from their usual policy of political neutrality to back Beijing’s imposition of a controversial national security law on Hong Kong.

The banks, who have faced criticism from UK officials that their actions enabled Beijing to undermine the rule of law in the former British colony, have said they believed the law would restore stability in Hong Kong.

StanChart said on Thursday there was increasing risk due to “the escalation of tensions between the U.S. and China in part due to the growing trade, security, social and political tensions in Hong Kong” and the imposition of the law.

Reporting by Sumeet Chatterjee in Hong Kong and Lawrence White in London; additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Jacqueline Wong

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