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Maybank downgrades Singapore banks to 'neutral' on NPL risks; lowers UOB and OCBC to 'hold'

Felicia Tan
Felicia Tan • 3 min read
Maybank downgrades Singapore banks to 'neutral' on NPL risks; lowers UOB and OCBC to 'hold'
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Maybank Securities analyst Thilan Wickramasinghe has downgraded his rating on Singapore banks to “neutral” as he sees non-performing loan (NPL) risks mounting.

This is as central banks continue to fight inflation with slowing growth.

“Sector NPLs are at their lowest since 2015 with limited sectoral stress observed in 4QFY2022. Unprecedented Covid-19 stimulus, economic re-opening, low unemployment are contributory factors. However, a potential acceleration of Fed rate hikes, high recession probabilities in the US, Europe and stubborn inflation increases downside risks to this status quo,” he writes.

“Indeed, during the global financial crisis (GFC) it took just three quarters for NPLs to rise from 1.5% to 2.5% and specific provisions (SP) jumped nearly two times between 1QFY2008-4QFY2009. Similarly, during the offshore and marine (O&M) crisis, SPs increased nearly three times between 1QFY2016- 4QFY2017. While China’s re-opening is a positive, how much of an offset this could provide is so far unclear,” he adds, estimating that credit charges could rise to 24 basis points (bps) to 26 bps in FY2023 to FY2024 compared to just 15 bps in FY2022.

‘Limited upside catalysts’ to banks

In his March 10 report, the analyst points out that the sector’s risk-reward is now “largely balanced” as the banks continue to report “resilient” operations with “strong capital levels, elevated margins and a wealth management turnaround” that should see the banks through the “current tough macro environment”.

See also: Singtel's higher dividends keep analysts positive, target prices increase

He adds that he sees the banks’ net interest margins (NIMs) remaining “higher for longer” following their record growth in FY2022, but also notes that their growth may taper off.

“With further hikes [from the US Federal Reserve or US Fed] forecasted, margins are set to remain elevated, which should keep net interest income (NII) supported even if loan growth disappoints,” says Wickramasinghe.

“However, we expect the pace of NIM expansion to decelerate sharply (+8 bps y-o-y FY2023) as funding competition heats up driving deposit costs higher. Low-cost current account savings account (CASA) deposits dropped to 53% of the total versus a peak of 65% in FY2021. We expect this to fall further to 47% by FY2023 increasing costs,” he adds.

See also: Broker's Digest: Centurion, Food Empire, Frencken, Netlink NBN Trust, Thai Beverage, Singapore Airlines

On the back of this, the analyst sees a “bright” spot in non-interest income, especially in wealth management – where the sector has continued to see inflows in assets under management (AUM).

“A diversion of these funds to higher risk fee-generating activities from passive fixed deposits needs better macro clarity. Therefore, the timing of an inflection is unclear in so far in 1HFY2023,” he says.

As the analyst sees “limited upside catalysts”, he has downgraded his rating on the sector. Wickramasinghe has also downgraded his calls for United Overseas Bank (UOB) U11 -

and Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) O39 - to “hold”.

The analyst’s target prices for UOB and OCBC are at $31.73 and $13.58 respectively.

Among the banks, DBS D05 -

is the analyst’s top pick with its strong franchise, as well as return on equity (ROE) and North Asia growth. Wickramasinghe has a “buy” call on DBS with a target price of $39.12.

Regionally, the analyst prefers Malaysian banks, CIMB and RHB, keeping his “buy” calls and target prices of RM6.60 ($1.99) for CIMB and RM5.72 for RHB. He also remains “positive” on the Malaysian banking sector.

As at 10.05am, shares in DBS, UOB and OCBC are trading at $32.91, $28.54 and $12.19.

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