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Banks to see lower growth as consumers cut borrowing

Canadian consumers aren't borrowing like they used to - this was reflected last quarter when the nation's banks reported earnings. As the Big Six prepare to unveil their fiscal second-quarter numbers this week, that trend is expected to have a bigger impact.

Consumer lending won't be in decline for the banks, but it will expand at a slower pace than before as households, on average, continue paying down debt.

This will be one factor that should keep a lid on revenue growth. After surprising Bay Street last quarter with better-than-expected earnings, driven by higher revenue from their trading and wealth management operations, the banks will have a harder time matching those strong performances in the second quarter.

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The banks will still be making significant profit, but no big surprises are expected.

"Sluggish top-line [revenue]growth is likely to emerge as one of the most important themes in the Canadian banking sector," CIBC analyst Rob Sedran said in a research note.

The banks will be looking find growth elsewhere, and business lending will be a key area of focus. The question is whether it can make up for the drop in consumer borrowing as a revenue stream.

There are encouraging signs so far, but they are far from conclusive. In the first two months of the fiscal second quarter, Canadian business borrowing grew by 1.3 per cent, compared to 0.9 per cent for household credit, according to Bank of Canada statistics.

Meanwhile, loan loss provisions - which pumped up bank earnings a year ago when the economy began to improve - are no longer the balance sheet booster shot they were last spring, since the numbers have stabilized.

But even though the banks will have a tough job trying to match their past performances, analyst Peter Rozenberg of UBS is still predicting solid earnings growth of about 13 per cent for the sector as a whole.

Here are a few things to look for from five of Canada's six largest banks that report this week. Bank of Nova Scotia reports next week on May 31.

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Wednesday: Bank of Montreal

Investors looking for a dividend increase from BMO will likely have to wait. Bank of Montreal is expected to be the last of the lenders since the downturn to raise its dividend.

BMO remains focused on digesting the recent $4.1-billion acquisition of U.S. bank Marshall & Ilsley Corp. The deal closes next month, meaning it will have little impact on the quarterly numbers, but analysts will still be looking for key information on the M&I front.

The deal doubled BMO's U.S. branch network to 700, so attention will be paid to how well customers in Illinois and nearby states are keeping up with their loan payments, as an indicator of what the balance of the year will look like for BMO.

At home, business lending growth will be an important area to watch, since it is where BMO sees much of its near-term revenue growth in Canada. "BMO is amongst the best-positioned banks in business banking which is now improving," Mr. Rozenberg said in a research note.

Thursday: Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce

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CIBC is a good bet to boost its dividend this fiscal year, but not a favourite to make the move this week. Chief executive officer Gerry McCaughey wants the bank to be in the lower end of its payout ratio and CIBC isn't there yet.

The bank's target range is between 40 and 50 per cent, and National Bank Financial analyst Peter Routledge estimates CIBC will be at the upper end of that spectrum in the second quarter. "This suggests a dividend increase in the latter half of fiscal 2011," he said in a research note.

In the meantime, analysts will be looking at CIBC's extensive credit card portfolio to gauge the effect of consumer de-leveraging on the bank, and whether Canadians are keeping pace with their payments, as recent evidence suggests. However, analysts note the large credit card portfolio CIBC acquired from Citigroup last summer is showing signs of higher losses this spring, which would be a concern if the trend continues.

Thursday: National Bank of Canada

Before the recession, National Bank could be relied upon to boost its dividend a few times a year, and the bank looks poised to resume that strategy.

After becoming the first Canadian lender to raise its payout following the economic downturn, many analysts expect the Montreal-based bank will do it again this quarter or next.

"Following the company's last dividend raise in [the fourth quarter] we expect another raise this quarter," CIBC's Mr. Sedran said in a research note, pegging the boost at about 6 per cent. Mr. Routledge has forecast an increase as high as 11 per cent.

Elsewhere, credit loss provisions aren't expected to have much of an impact on National Bank's quarter, but it could see a decline in capital markets revenues, as well as a drop off in lending compared to a strong first quarter, Mr. Sedran said.

Thursday: Toronto-Dominion Bank

TD has the largest exposure to the U.S. retail banking market of any Canadian player. Its 1,300 U.S. branches stretch from Maine to Florida and are good at sopping up deposits. However, that revenue is subject to the fluctuations of the Canadian dollar.

This will be one trend analysts will be watching at TD, since revenue made in U.S. dollars translates to less profit in Canadian funds given current exchange rates. It's a force that will also make an impact on Royal Bank and BMO.

"This will likely create some headwinds to earnings," Barclays Capital analyst John Aiken said in a research note. However, the impact will be less than the actual gains the soaring Canadian dollar has made. While the dollar is up 6 per cent since the end of the first fiscal quarter, banks use the average for the three-month period, which is about 3 per cent.

Friday: Royal Bank of Canada

Canada's largest bank has yet to increase its dividend since the downturn, but the time has likely come. In fact, most analysts would be surprised if it didn't make an announcement on that front.

RBC is a good example of a bank that will have a tough time living up to the first quarter, in which it enjoyed strong capital markets revenue. Mr. Rozenberg at UBS expects the bank to post "lower but still solid" trading and underwriting revenues.

Barring any unexpected developments, Royal will be the only bank to top $1-billion in trading revenue in the quarter, which it did in the first quarter as well.

Mr. Rozenberg expects RBC will continue reporting higher trading revenue, a function of the bank's investment in its capital markets operations of late. "We believe that significant investments in personnel and trading systems will result in a higher normalized range for trading revenues," Mr. Rozenberg said.

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Senior Writer

Grant Robertson is an award-winning journalist who has been recognized for investigative journalism, sports writing and business reporting. More

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