October 25, 2018 / 6:24 AM / 21 days ago

Britain's Lloyds Bank downplays Brexit fears as profits rise

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s Lloyds Banking Group (LLOY.L) shrugged off fears of a chaotic, no-deal Brexit and pledged to keep pumping credit into the economy regardless of the outcome of negotiations between Brussels and London.

The bank’s finance chief George Culmer told reporters on Thursday that Lloyds remains hopeful that the two sides can secure a deal before Brexit day in March 2019, when the UK will undergo its biggest policy shift in four decades.

“There is great uncertainty out there, but our continued expectation is for some sort of withdrawal agreement going forward,” Culmer said, adding that 97 percent of the bank’s business is UK-focused.

“What is fundamental is that we continue to support our customers whatever the outcome.”

Reuters this month reported that the Bank of England had laid out a contingency plan to ensure that banks such as Lloyds, Britain’s biggest mortgage lender, do not suddenly slam the brakes on lending in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Lloyds, which is a bellwether for the economy given its broad exposure to UK consumers, said it had seen no change in customers’ ability to repay debt.

Despite lengthy talks between Britain and the European Union, the terms of divorce remain uncertain five months before the country leaves the bloc with or without a deal.

FILE PHOTO: A woman uses a cash machine at a Lloyds Bank branch in central London, Britain February 25, 2016. REUTERS/Paul Hackett/File Photo

That has clouded confidence in British lenders and helped to drag down Lloyds’ share price by 17 percent this year despite its strong performance.

PROFIT UP

Lloyds shares remained flat at the market open after it reported a third-quarter pretax profit of 1.8 billion pounds ($2.32 billion), outperforming the 1.7 billion pound average from company-compiled analyst estimates.

It was helped by a growing net interest margin - a key measure of bank profitability - and falling costs. The net interest margin rose 8 basis points to 2.93 percent.

Lloyds also said it had grown its lending to small businesses and in higher-margin areas such as car finance - two strategic aims laid out in the three-year plan laid out in February.

The bank aims to digitize operations and grow outside of core markets such as mortgages, where it has effectively exhausted opportunities for significant growth.

Another key ambition is an increased presence in insurance and wealth, where the bank has secured two partnerships in recent weeks.

The bank reported a core capital ratio of 15.5 percent, up from 14.9 percent a year ago, reflecting continued efforts to make its balance sheet recession-proof.

CFO Culmer said the bank is likely to return some of that excess capital to shareholders, with the board set to make a decision after December.

In a separate statement, the bank said Culmer, who played a key role in turning Lloyds around after its 20.3 billion pound bailout in 2008, would retire after interim results in 2019.

Editing by David Goodman

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