Swedbank: framgång 2020 höjer fair value till 192 kr

AKTIE: Efter tredje kvartalet rapporterar Swedbank hög lönsamhet och liten påverkan av Covid-19. I framtiden är osäkerheten ändå hög på grund av anklagelser om penningtvätt, men Morningstar höjer fair value från 183 till 192 kronor (2020-10-21).

Morningstar Equity Analysts 2020-10-21 | 15:02
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analys Swedbanks aktie, höjer fair value

Analyst Note | Oct 21, 2020

Looking at Swedbank’s third-quarter results and performance year to date one may think 2020 is just another year. Return on equity in the third quarter came in at 14.3%, which is outstanding for a European bank in the best of times and only applaudable during a global pandemic. Year to date, and excluding the SEK 4 billion administrative fine Swedbank booked in the first quarter, the bank would just miss its 15% return on equity target as well. Its largest market Sweden has seen one of the least economically harmful lockdowns in Europe with full-year 2020 GDP estimates across reputable sources ranging in the low- to mid-single-digit declines. This does not take away from this outstanding performance in our view, however. We increase our fair value estimate to SEK 192 per share from SEK 183 to adjust for the time value of money. Our long-term outlook on Swedbank and our narrow moat and stable trend ratings are unchanged.

Credit impairments in the quarter came in at SEK 425 million or 10 basis points. Although we are three earnings seasons into this pandemic now, the reporting of IFRS 9 loan-loss provisions continues to make us scratch our head. Although Swedbank updated its economic outlook upward and should have booked reversals as a result--SEK 773 million to be precise--management decided to overlay this with an expert adjustment of SEK 804 million, and thereby completely offsetting the more beneficial outlook. We cannot shake the feeling that banks are using the loan-loss provision line to massage earnings and more importantly earnings expectations. Positive in the case of Swedbank, we think the bank currently prefers to overprovision, something it can easily stomach given its strong preprovision profitability.

Business Strategy and Outlook | Oct 21, 2020

Swedbank is one of the largest retail banks in Sweden and the largest in the three Baltic states. While its foundation is based in Swedish savings banks, a position that still benefits Swedbank today and is part of the rationale for our narrow moat rating for the lender, its dominant presence in the Baltics is owed to the acquisition of Hansabank in 2005. Since then, Swedbank has transformed both its Swedish and Baltic lending arms into highly efficient banking operations, taking advantage of economic growth in the Baltics, a booming real estate market in Sweden, and digitalisation initiatives to improve efficiency. As a result, Swedbank has transformed itself into the best-performing Swedish bank recently.

All is not good, however. Reports of suspicious money flows as part of about EUR 135 billion in gross transactions from nonresident customers over the last decade, and more importantly the handling of said transactions, weigh heavily on the bank's short- to medium-term outlook. Not only does the bank face potentially substantial fines from regulators, the scandal takes focus away from Swedbank's core business and investments into the future.

Next to the more direct impact of fines, Swedbank's operations in the Baltics are in limbo. Although management is adamant that the Baltics will remain core, this may not be Swedbank's decision alone. Danske, after winding down most of its Estonian operation amid its money laundering scandal, was required to close shop entirely by Estonian regulators. A similar fate could overcome Swedbank. We do not include such a scenario in our forecasts, given that it is unlikely for Estonia to push out all international banks as the country lacks national banks to support its economic development. But, uncertainty about Swedbank's place in the Baltics as well as its strategy going forward are high as a result.

Economic Moat | Oct 21, 2020

We assign Swedbank a narrow moat rating based on cost advantages and customer switching costs. Swedbank's narrow moat stems from its strong position in the stable Swedish market, where it operates a highly efficient bank while maintaining access to loyal customers through its collaboration with regional savings banks. Nearly every second household in Sweden has an account at Swedbank, and although not all of these are primary accounts, it generates competitive advantages for Swedbank in the form of economies of scale and scope. Underlying our moat assessment for Swedbank is our view of the Swedish banking system, which we rate as good. Swedbank also has a high market share in the Baltics, a segment that has been profitable for Swedbank, but that also carries risks.

Following our banking moat framework, we analyzed cost advantages based on operating, credit, and funding costs and are confident that Swedbank enjoys advantages in operating costs, as evidenced by its low cost/income ratio.

Sweden has one of the most efficient banking sectors in Europe. In Sweden itself, Swedbank has the lowest cost/income ratio among the four largest banks, the result, we believe, of Swedbank's digitalisation efforts amplifying its large customer base. Swedbank has 4.3 million customers in Sweden and shows stable market shares in both deposits and lending. While every bank aims to achieve economies of scale, and operating leverage is inherent in every bank's business model, Swedbank has a competitive advantage beyond its large scale. The cooperation with 58 savings banks in Sweden, which use Swedbank's IT system and offer Swedbank's products to its clients, allows Swedbank to increase its operating leverage while gaining access to loyal regional customers with low risk profiles. The "independent" savings banks contribute about 30% of product sales for Swedbank in Sweden. This additional distribution channel is difficult to replicate, especially since the agreement allows Swedbank to push its products to clients without binding capital in branches and staff. In fact, it allows Swedbank to offload some of the IT development spending to the savings banks. Although the cooperation agreements are renegotiated about once every decade, the close relationship between Swedbank and the savings banks makes it unlikely that a competitor could replace Swedbank in this arrangement. The savings banks collectively own 14% of Swedbank, creating a symbiotic relationship.

We think Swedbank's moat is supported by implicit switching costs based on its ability to cross-sell various products to its large share of customers, connection to loyal customers through its regional savings banks agreement, and high mortgage lending market share. Typically, banks in Sweden do not charge customers when closing accounts or terminating products. Some products, such as fixed-rate mortgages, could require a fee to be terminated. In the larger scheme of things, this is not enough to create a significant switching cost argument, however. We believe the low explicit cost to switch banks is largely owed to the good availability of loan approval, default and income data on banking customers reducing the information asymmetry between former and new bank. This reduces risk premiums incurred by the bank in assessing new customers’ creditworthiness, which if significant would be passed on to customers in the form of explicit switching costs. We do not believe that Swedbank customers are exposed to explicit switching costs that are material enough for a moat rating.

A bank can also create implicit switching costs in the form of customer relationships, trust, and products. We believe that offerings are largely commoditised in Sweden, but economies of scope allow banks with a large product offering to cross-sell to and lock in its clients. Prerequisite for achieving such switching costs is a large customer base, which Swedbank has. Next to Swedbank's high market share in mortgage lending, which tend to be rather sticky products, Swedbank has been expanding its other products. The most prominent example is Robur, Swedbank's asset-management arm, which manages about SEK 1.3 trillion in assets. Swedbank also offers pension, savings, credit card, life and nonlife insurance, and payment products. While none of these are particularly moaty in their own right, a one-stop-shop solution like Swedbank offers can lead to implicit switching costs if combined with strong customer trust and satisfaction.

Strong customer relationships are another form of implicit switching cost, even though this can be costly in the form of staff and fixed costs for branches and therefore is often believed to be suboptimal in the age of digitalisation. Although digitalisation has its perks, such as lower costs through leveraging fixed IT costs on a large customer base, we don't think a fully digital offering is the be all and end all. Swedish banks are front-runners when it comes to online and mobile banking solutions, leaving little room for banks to carve out a competitive advantage on the digital side. Customers seem to be largely agnostic to the minor digital differences in banks' offerings. On the other hand, Swedish customers continue to rank regional banks with local branches highest in satisfactory metrics. As a result, we believe that banks able to connect its digital offerings with a regional branch network can enjoy implicit switching costs through closer client relationships to customers who value such services. Swedbank has the largest customer base in Sweden, with nearly half of every household having an account at the bank. Not all these accounts are primary accounts, but we believe the fact that half of Swedish banking customers choose at least one of Swedbank's offerings indicates a strong trust in Swedbank and allows for easier cross-selling of products. Additionally, Swedbank's collaboration with regional savings banks gives Swedbank access to more loyal customers. In sum, Swedbank can combine its digital offerings with a local branch network, which leads to a high share of customers who value consistency and trust higher than price savings from a potential switch of banks. This is evidenced in Swedbank’s ability to maintain high market shares in Sweden despite challenger banks undercutting the four largest banks in Sweden on mortgage pricing over the last couple of years now.

Although Swedbank itself does not rank high in customer satisfaction surveys in Sweden, the overall customer relationships Swedbank has with clients is likely better than peers’, except for Handelsbanken. The independent savings banks that offer Swedbank’s products to its customers rank in the top of customer satisfaction surveys, allowing for more loyal customers, ultimately benefiting Swedbank.

Swedish banks depend to a large extent on wholesale funding, which leads to stable net interest margins as interest expenses on debt vehicles have more room to decline than deposit funding. This is advantageous in a scenario such as low or negative interest rates; however, it does not generate a competitive advantage through a cycle. Swedbank is no different in that respect. The bank finances about half of its asset base with wholesale funds. Following our moat framework, we would prefer higher levels of deposit funding, in particular non-interest-bearing current accounts, which provide a tailwind in higher interest-rate environments.

From an operating environment point of view, we rate the Swedish banking system as good under our framework, thanks to its stable economic environment and good regulatory setup (which has been on an increasing trend in recent years). Finansinspektionen (the Swedish FSA) and the Riksbank (Sweden’s central bank) are primarily responsible for monitoring compliance and maintaining financial stability in the country. These supervisory bodies believe strongly in tougher capital and liquidity requirements for the system, and they monitor banks closely.

Fair Value and Profit Drivers | Oct 21, 2020

We increase our fair value estimate to SEK 192 from SEK 183 per share to adjust for the time value of money. Our fair value estimate corresponds to 1.3 times book value and 19 times earnings based on 2020 estimates. Given the impact of the coronavirus, we think the 10 times 2021 earnings is a more meaningful gauge, however. In the medium term, we anticipate an average return on equity of 12%, which is above our cost of equity assumption of 9%.

Our fair value estimate is primarily driven by net interest margin, provision ratio, and operating cost assumptions. We pencil in 1.3% as our midcycle net interest margin assumption, which is about 5 basis points above 2019. We anticipate a progressive increase in credit costs toward a midcycle level of about 20 basis points, up from just 9 basis points in 2019. Finally, we believe Swedbank will keep its low-cost-leading position relative to peers, although higher anti-money-laundering costs in the form of staff and compliance systems will lower efficiency to some degree. We forecast a midcycle efficiency ratio of 45% compared with 44% in 2019. We included the SEK 4 billion administrative penalty imposed by Swedish supervisors for inadequate AML processes in our 2020 estimates.

For 2020, we have adjusted our estimates based on currently available information and the potential impact the coronavirus pandemic may have on Swedbank. We assume a 4-basis-point drop in the group's net interest margin and more importantly, a spike in the provision ratio from 9 basis points in 2019 to 27 basis points in 2020. We currently don't see a material risk to Swedbank's capitalisation.

Risk and Uncertainty | Oct 21, 2020

We rate Swedbank's uncertainty as very high, given the significant allegations regarding money laundering in the company's Baltic operations, the investigation into potential insider information violations, and inquiries by U.S. authorities about withholding information on the involvement of Swedbank's clients in the tax scheme revealed in the Panama Papers.

As of now, EUR 135 billion in gross transactions is believed to have flowed through Swedbank's nonresident accounts in its Baltic operations. We do not believe that this figure is a good indication of potential fines Swedbank may face. Rather, we think that the potential economic impact can fall in a wide range of possible scenarios, hence our very high uncertainty rating. The ultimate fines, if any, will depend on the culpability of Swedbank, what was known when, and which illegal activities were reported adequately. Bank privacy laws and investigation-related requirements to withhold information from the public make a narrow assessment of the potential impact fruitless.

Swedbank's exposure to the Swedish mortgage market could pose a downside risk in the event of a sudden decline in growth but also asset prices. Higher amortization requirements have cooled real estate markets somewhat in Sweden, but a structural imbalance between affordable housing supply and demand are likely to persist in the medium term. For now, housing prices have remained stable during the coronavirus pandemic.

Stewardship | Oct 21, 2020

Our Poor stewardship rating is based on management’s unsatisfactory handling of the money laundering case. We had thought that the pattern seemed strangely familiar to Danske’s conduct when faced with similar accusations. Indeed, involvement was denied by both banks until made public by whistleblowers or third parties gaining access to internal documents to prove otherwise, upon which both lenders acknowledged what was revealed but hid behind bank privacy laws when asked about the full extent of the matter. This resulted in a strange attempt to display transparency by way of citing official press releases and reports. The latest similarity between Danske's and Swedbank’s cases has been the release of Swedbank's former CEO, Birgitte Bonnesen, who, like Danske’s former chief executive, used to oversee the Baltic operations. We would have preferred a quick and comprehensive acknowledgement of involvement, getting ahead of the news cycle and showing full transparency in the matter. A bank’s business relies on trust by clients, regulators, and even competitors, and we believe that management’s actions have shown poor stewardship with regard to its most valuable asset.

When it comes to expansion to the three Baltic states, Swedbank followed a similar merger trend to many of its peers. In 1996, the bank expanded its operations to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania when it acquired a 12.5% stake in Eesti Hoiupank, a bank that merged with Hansabank in 1998. In 1999, it acquired a more than 50% stake in Hansabank, and in 2005, it acquired the remaining outstanding shares. It changed its name to Swedbank in 2006. While the bank expanded to Russia and Ukraine in 2007, it closed its Russian and Ukrainian operation in 2013. However, its expansion in the Baltics became volatile when market conditions for financial institutions deteriorated in 2008, as they did for all Swedish banks with exposure to the Baltics. In December 2008, the bank made a cash call from shareholders for SEK 12.4 billion. In 2009, following the financial crisis, its Baltic operations balance sheet suffered from bad debt, and the bank was forced to raise SEK 15 billion in capital via a share issue. While no major Swedish bank was forced to obtain government help during the crisis, Swedbank and SEB were the only two large players who participated in the Swedish government’s loan guarantee program.

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