Canadian banks produce decent earnings despite economic headwinds

TORONTO – Despite low interest rates and a slowdown in consumer lending, Canada’s big banks managed to eke out another quarter of decent earnings growth by controlling costs and investing in their wealth management and capital markets businesses.

Some of the banks — CIBC and National Bank — also raised their annual dividends.

“They’re doing what they can, where they can, because they can’t change the interest rate environment,” said Robert Sedran, an analyst at CIBC World Markets.

The anticipated slowdown in Canadian consumer lending has arrived, leading to earnings that Sedran described as not spectacular but “good enough,” considering the economic headwinds the banks facing.

“I don’t think the numbers were great; I think the numbers were good. And that’s all we were expecting, so I tend to look at the quarter favourably from that perspective.”

Scotiabank (TSX:BNS), TD Bank and the Bank of Montreal (TSX:BMO) all came in just short of analyst estimates, while Royal Bank’s earnings matched expectations.

CIBC (TSX:CM) managed to beat analyst expectations by four cents while National Bank (TSX:NA) did so by a wide margin, raking in adjusted earnings of $2.08 per share compared to a consensus estimate of $1.98.

Combined, Canada’s six big banks earned roughly $7.5 billion during the quarter, up from $7.1 billion a year ago.

TD Bank and BMO both said signs the U.S. economy is recovering — such as shrinking unemployment and an increase in home values — should help their retail operations south of the border.

However, analysts noted that low interest rates and competitiveness in the U.S. banking sector are likely to put pressure on profit margins.

That’s why it’s crucial for Canadian banks that wish to compete in the U.S. banking sector to “get themselves to scale,” said Sedran, noting that he thinks TD and BMO have both succeeded in doing so through their various acquisitions.

“Having said that, as a bank, you’re still struggling under a low rate environment there, as well,” said Sedran.

“But the opportunity in the next few years seems to be more aligned towards the U.S. business growing than the Canadian personal and commercial banking business growing.”

TD bank’s CEO Ed Clark has indicated that so far, strong volume growth south of the border has been able to offset most of this compression, putting the bank in a strong position if and when interest rates in the U.S. should rise.

Improving economic conditions in the U.S. are likely to help even those Canadian banks that don’t have retail operations there.

Royal Bank (TSX:RY) said it is focusing on growing its capital markets business in the U.S., while Scotiabank also signalled that improvements in the American economy should help its various businesses.

Looking forward, Sedran expects more of the same in the next few quarters.

“The way I look at Canada is that profit growth is normalizing,” said Sedran.

“I think we’re still going to be able to get sort of mid-digit single earnings growth in Canada, it’s just not as compelling as what we have been getting.”