Malaysia: Banks shift lending patterns

With an election looming and uncertainty over the state of the global economy, Malaysia’s banks may have to work hard to maintain earning levels amid predictions of lower rates of household borrowing growth.

Many analysts are tipping a slowing of loan growth in 2013. The results of a study by Alliance Research, a division of Alliance Investment Bank, points to loan growth of between 7% and 9% in 2013, down from the 11% for 2012 and 13.6% in 2011, respectively, in part due to net interest margin compression and higher provisions for non-performing loans.

The report, released at the beginning of January, also said even the lower levels of growth could be optimistic – at least in the first part of the year – if consumers became more cautious in their spending patterns ahead of the general election, scheduled for the end of April at the latest. Consumer activity, and subsequently bank lending, could also be negatively affected by the possible introduction of new taxes and higher utilities tariffs following the election, the report noted.

While individual lending could slow, this may not apply to the business sector, at least according to an investors’ note issued by HwangDBS Vickers Research, a division of a local investment bank by the same name, in early January. The report says there should be increased demand for finance from firms looking to benefit from the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), a government initiative to develop the country into a high-income economy by the end of the decade.

With the ETP aiming to more than double per capita income by 2020 and create 3.3m new jobs, the government is encouraging private sector investment in key areas. The private sector in turn is looking to the banks to help finance the retooling, infrastructure and expansion needed to take part in the state-backed projects. These borrowing requirements could boost bank-lending activity during the year, HwangDBS said.

Wong Yin Ching, co-head of financial institution ratings at RAM Ratings, a domestic credit ratings agency, told local media in early January, “We anticipate stronger financing demand from corporations as well as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), underscored by the rollout of projects under the ETP and the 10th Malaysia Plan”.

These views were backed by a report prepared by the research unit of MIDF Amanah Investment Bank in early January, which noted the ETP projects would drive demand for corporate loans debt-capital fundraising, again with strong calls for funding from SMEs.

While the elections and unsteady global markets could impact the Malaysian economy, an investor note issued at the end of December by RHB Research Institute said it was maintaining its overweight outlook for the banking sector, which it described as robust and “safe”.

“We think the sector’s ‘defensive’ qualities will help tide investors through the volatile first half on even keel,” RHB said. “As macro conditions improve after that, we see the banks as one of the major beneficiaries.”

While the reduced rate of growth for banks’ loan portfolios could see a lower level of earnings across the sector, there was potential for revenue-generating expansion elsewhere. According to Asian Development Bank economist Jayant Menon, the opening up of the Myanmar economy to outside investment, along with the development of the economies in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, held out the promise of growth for Malaysian banks.

“There is also a lot of potential for banks to increase their sales and revenues in these new frontier markets,” he said in an interview with state news agency Bernama in late December.

RHB Bank board member Tan Sri Azlan Zainol said recently RHB would explore opportunities in Myanmar. This, along with a move into the Indonesian market, was part of RHB’s strategy to expand its overseas earnings from 5% of revenue to 30% by 2020, he said in mid-January.

Though loan activity may slow this year, the economy is predicted to expand by around 4.8% in 2013. With a rebound in Asia in 2014 forecast, the country’s lenders should be well placed to boost revenue in the medium term.

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