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Euromoney, February 25 2019

Results week showed record profits at Singapore’s banks – but all three institutions had footnotes in the numbers that we should pay attention to

The full-year results of the three Singaporean banks tell us plenty about the challenges that are facing institutions in the shadow of the US-China trade war.

Singapore was always likely to be a bellwether for the impact of issues in global trade. It is the ultimate hub, for everything from shipping to private banking; it is a place of ease through which things both physical and virtual move. Any dent in the willingness of people to transact is going to hit Singapore. So is any slowdown in China.

There is no reason for alarm yet. All three banks recorded impressive full-year net profit growth in 2018: OCBC by 11% to S$4.49 billion; DBS by 28% to S$5.625 billion; and UOB by 18% to S$4.01 billion. All three are record figures. Only one of the three – OCBC – registered a decline in fourth quarter numbers year-on-year.

But each result has something in the background reflecting a more challenging environment.

At DBS, it was the treasury markets division, where income declined 21% year-on-year, and where fourth quarter income halved to S$92 million, the lowest figure on record. This reflected difficult market conditions and people being unwilling to transact amid such uncertainty.

At OCBC, it was the drop in the overall fourth quarter number, and the underlying reason behind it: a plunge in the earnings contribution from its insurance arm, Great Eastern Holdings. That 70% drop in net profit contribution year-on-year was, in turn, due to unrealized mark to market losses in the insurance arm’s investment portfolio. Non-interest income for the quarter fell 32% year-on-year because of that drop in Great Eastern income, and wealth management fees also fell.

And at UOB, it was the drop in ‘other non-net interest income’ (a category which excludes fee income), down 20% year-on-year for 2018, and down 46% year-on-year in the fourth quarter. This was due to unrealized mark to market on investment securities.

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Chris Wright
Chris Wright
Chris is a journalist specialising in business and financial journalism across Asia, Australia and the Middle East. He is Asia editor for Euromoney magazine and has written for publications including the Financial Times, Institutional Investor, Forbes, Asiamoney, the Australian Financial Review, Discovery Channel Magazine, Qantas: The Australian Way and BRW. He is the author of No More Worlds to Conquer, published by HarperCollins.

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