UBS Group AG became a favorite with investors and the envy of European rivals after Chief Executive Officer Sergio Ermotti scaled back its trading unit to focus on managing the more than $2 trillion that wealthy customers have at the bank.
Three years on, as Credit Suisse Group AG and Deutsche Bank AG struggle to catch up -- ordering management shakeups and sweeping job cuts designed to shrink their securities businesses -- UBS is facing fresh hurdles of its own.
UBS clients in regions including Brazil, Russia, the Middle East and Asia, reacting to losses in stock markets or businesses exposed to energy prices, sat out the turbulent second half of 2015 and yanked a net 3.2 billion Swiss francs ($3.3 billion) in assets. With markets still churning early this year, the Swiss bank may be headed for a third straight disappointing quarter in wealth management, its biggest division.
“With lower assets under management and lower margins, there is going to be a double whammy to revenues,” said Andreas Venditti, a Zurich-based analyst at Vontobel with a buy rating on the stock. “People might underestimate that wealth management is a cyclical business,” like investment banking.
The bank is still doing better than peers. UBS is trading at 125 percent of tangible book value, a measure of what the company would theoretically be worth if liquidated. That’s second only to JPMorgan Chase & Co. among 10 global investment banks tracked by Bloomberg Intelligence. Shares have outperformed its main European rivals in the past two years.
Credit Suisse has warned it may not make a profit in the three months through March because of restructuring costs and writedowns on illiquid securities. Deutsche Bank has said it doesn’t expect the year to be profitable.
Analysts surveyed by UBS earlier this month are estimating a 63 percent drop in first-quarter net income, with pretax profit falling 34 percent at its wealth management unit. That division, which doesn’t include the brokerage-based wealth management business in the U.S. and Canada, saw earnings decline 9.6 percent and 47 percent respectively in the third and fourth quarters, missing estimates both times. The bank reports on May 3.
“While client activity has recovered somewhat from the lows we saw in the fourth quarter, transaction-based revenues have not rebounded to levels typically seen in previous first quarters,” Ermotti said at a conference in London on March 16. “Our invested asset base will also be affected by declines in global markets, most notably equity markets, as well as changes in currency.”
Many entrepreneurs in emerging markets pulled funds to support businesses exposed to energy prices and other assets hit by the selloff, Chief Financial Officer Kirt Gardner has told investors. UBS declined to comment ahead of results, said Tim Cobb, a spokesman for Switzerland’s biggest bank.
As the first quarter is historically the year’s strongest, lower profit may erode dividends. The analysts in the UBS survey see profit dropping at every unit, with only the investment bank showing a steeper decline than wealth management. UBS plans an ordinary payout of 60 centimes and a special dividend of 25 centimes for 2015, the latter reflecting a tax gain. Ermotti, 55, said he doesn’t anticipate an extra payout for 2016.