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Sunday, 17 February 2013

Big Malaysian banks with diversified defensive qualities seen upside

IN view of the weaker loan growth this year, which banking stocks will prove to be winners?

From the softer loan growth reported in December 2012, moderating at 10.4%, analysts expect loan growth will continue to weaken this year.

The 10.4% loan growth in December compares with a growth of 13.6% and 12.8% in 2011 and 2010 respectively.

Most analysts estimate loan growth this year to be within the 9%-11% range. “Together with the ongoing interest margins headwind, there are limited opportunities to drive earnings growth for banks materially beyond our current expectation of a high single-digit to low-teen growth,” says a Kenanga Research analyst.

However, Alliance Research banking analyst Cheah King Yoong sees loan growth falling within 7%-9%.

“I suppose our 7%-9% forecast is lower than other analysts’ 10%-11% forecasts due to our assumption that the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) related loans may not be a key loan driver this year, given that significant amount being disbursed in 2012 could be repaid this year, which could drag the business loan growth momentum for 2013,” he says.

However, Cheah expects housing loans to resume its reign as key loan drivers this year, on the support of the continued robustness in property loans and recovery in hire-purchase loans.

Lending indicators turned negative in December with loan applications falling flat with a 14.6% year-on-year drop at RM53.6mil while approvals and disbursement activities dropped by 21.1% and 7.9% on a year-to-year basis respectively.

“The fall in lending indicators support our investment case that both lenders and borrowers are turning cautious with the impending 13th general election, which has to be called by the first half of 2013, and is now widely expected to be held in March,” says Cheah.

As at end-2012, business loans outstanding expanded by 9% year-on-year due to slower disbursements and base effect. Meanwhile, household loans continued to expand by 11.5% from a year ago.

“Drilling deeper into the business segment, the slowdown in year-on-year loan growth was mainly caused by transport, storage and communications as well as other sectors, with loans to these sectors contracting by 8.2% and 17.4% year-on-year respectively,” RHB Research analyst David Chong says.

He adds that it is possibly a reflection of lumpy repayments or refinancing via debt capital markets.

Key loan growth drivers came from real estate, construction, wholesale and retail trade, hotels and restaurants, and primary agriculture sectors.

CIMB Research banking analysts Winson Ng says the weak lending loan indicators do not point to a strong rebound in loan growth in the coming months. “On the other hand, we think that the erosion of net interest margin will be less drastic this year as banks will be more rational in their pricing of loans after the stiff rate competition in the past two to three years,” he says.

Ng reiterates his “neutral” rating on Malaysian banks. He adds that asset quality is expected to remain intact, which alleviates fears of a spike in credit costs for new impaired loans. “There are still some positives for Malaysian banks including financing opportunities from ETP projects, undemanding calendar year 2013 price-earnings of 11.5 times, and an attractive net dividend yield of 4.5%,” he says.

The banking sector could face two potential de-rating catalysts, which could pose further downside risks to analysts’ loan growth forecasts for 2013.

“Lending activities could decelerate in the first quarter of 2013 with slowing corporate loan disbursements and consumers turning cautious pending the upcoming general election,” Cheah says.

Another catalyst would be if the Government were to implement the goods and services tax (GST) and resume the subsidy rationalisation programme and raise the electricity tariff to close its budget deficit. “This fiscal tightening policy could have an adverse impact on consumer spending and consumer loans in the later part of the year,” says Cheah.

CIMB notes its preference for big banks that have better defensive qualities. “Maybank’s diversified business portfolio with top-three ranking in all business segments will enable it to reap the greatest benefits from the implementation of the broad-based ETP,” Ng says.

He adds that Maybank’s key earnings catalyst will be its rapid expansion in Indonesia which will enable the group to gain market share in the region and fuel its fee income growth.


Meanwhile, Public Bank Bhd’s fundamentals remain unrivalled, with a return on equity in the mid-20 percentage point range, the best asset quality with an impaired loan ratio of below 1% and a cost-to-income ratio of 30%.

“We expect the group to keep its credit cost low in 2013 to 2014, thanks to its superior asset quality, especially with the full adoption of FRS (Financial Reporting Standard) 139. Loan growth is projected to be a decent 11%-12%. The push for fee income growth, primarily from wealth management and bancassurance, will provide a further fillip to topline growth,” Ng says.

However, Alliance Research believes that Public Bank’s future risk-reward dynamics are less appealing.

“With the election uncertainties expected to be cleared by the first half of 2013, we believe that Public Bank may underperform its higher beta banking peers post-elections,” Cheah says. This is coupled with its rich 2013 price-to-book valuation of 2.8 times and declining asset growth trajectory.

Cheah expects high beta banks that underperformed in 2012 to outperform its competitors in 2013.

RHB Capital Bhd serves as our top pick of the banking sector since we believe that its current low valuation is no longer justified,” he says.

In the mid-cap section, Cheah has cast his eye on the often-overlooked Affin Holdings Bhd due to its turnaround story and good proxy to the merger and acquisition theme.

For investors looking for a direct and pure exposure to the fast-growing Islamic banking sector, BIMB Holdings Bhd is the way to go, says CIMB’s Ng.

“Re-rating catalysts include the best loan growth among the Malaysian banks under our coverage, the potential to venture into the under penetrated and fast-growing Indonesian financial market, brisk fee income growth, primarily from its takaful operations, and expected expansion of its net interest margin by optimising its loan-to-deposit ratio which is currently only 50% plus,” he says.

RHB Research and Kenanga Research remain “overweight” on the banking sector, while Alliance Research and CIMB Research maintain their “neutral” stance.