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Brazilian banks come to grips with consumer-first reality

A worker checks currency sheets at the Brazilian mint in Rio de Janeiro in this file photo. Banks in Brazil, which for years charged some of the world’s highest lending rates, face new scrutiny in a changing sector.

SERGIO MORAES/REUTERS

Brazil's banking sector will undergo profound changes over the next two years as government efforts to keep interest rates at record lows translate into lower credit costs and more competition, the head of the nation's largest foreign lender said on Thursday.

Banks in Brazil, which have for years charged some of the world's highest lending rates and fees for services, will at some point come to terms with a new reality in which their pricing power will remain under frequent scrutiny, said Marcial Portela Alvarez, chief executive of Banco Santander Brasil SA.

Government pressure on banks to cut rates and boost access to credit is being overshadowed by a change in the mindset of consumers and corporations, which are demanding better service and lower prices, he said. Brazilian lenders have entered a new phase in which profitability will be linked more to cost efficiency than interest income.

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"Brazil changed. This is not a government issue, it is Brazilians urging banks to normalize the cost of credit," Mr. Portela said at a news conference to discuss third-quarter earnings. "These changes will take place in Brazil within the next two years, not the 15 years they took in other nations."

The imminence of a "new normal" for Brazilian lenders marked by tougher oversight of the financial industry, margin compression, and lower profits has weighed on shares in the sector. The Bovespa stock exchange's financial sector index has shed 11 per cent since April, when President Dilma Rousseff began a crusade to force banks to cut lending rates.

Quarterly results for Brazil's top three private sector banks, which were unveiled this week, have reinforced the view among investors that profits at the nation's lenders are sinking. Return on equity, the industry's most widely followed gauge of profitability, is expected to tumble further in coming quarters.

Santander Brasil reported an 8.5-per-cent decline in third-quarter profit earlier in the day, after rising delinquencies forced management to boost bad loan provisions.

Recurring net income, or profit excluding one-off items, fell to 1.501-billion reais ($743-million U.S.) from 1.643-billion reais in the third quarter of 2011, Santander Brasil said on its website.

Recurring profit rose 2.5 per cent from the second quarter as a jump in fee income and a 30-per-cent reduction in bad loan provisions helped offset the impact of higher operating expenses and plummeting interest income. Investors in Brazil follow quarter-on-quarter results more widely than annual comparisons.

Previously, Itau Unibanco Holding SA and Banco Bradesco SA reported disappointing third-quarter results. Executives at Itau told investors on Wednesday that expense and provision cuts should help mitigate a decline in profitability as government pressure on the industry weighs on the lender's ability to generate revenue.

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Units of Santander Brasil, a blend of the bank's common and preferred stock, advanced 1.6 per cent on Thursday as global risk taking gained traction – the gains bucked a run of seven straight daily share price declines. Units fell earlier in the day after some analysts warned that sluggish operational performance may trigger reductions in earnings estimates.

"Sluggish results continue to weigh on the stock and compromise the bank's guidance, in our view. After the third quarter of 2012, we see 5-per-cent to 10-per-cent downside risks to our 2013 forecasts," said Jorg Friedemann, an analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Sao Paulo.

Weaker earnings at Santander Brasil contributed to a two-thirds drop in net profit at parent company Banco Santander SA on Thursday. The Spanish behemoth has weathered a banking crisis at home better than rivals because it makes most of its profits elsewhere – half of earnings come from Latin America.

Mr. Portela said the situation facing Santander Brasil's parent in its home market "will have no impact at all" on earnings. The unit remitted 2-billion reais in dividends to Banco Santander this year, down from 2.4-billion reais a year ago, chief financial officer Carlos Lopez Galan said.

Return on equity, a measure of profitability for the banking industry, sank at Santander Brasil to 11.7 per cent from 14 per cent a year earlier. ROE, as the indicator is known, was 11.5 per cent in the second quarter. Unlike its counterparts in Brazil, Santander Brasil suffered a deterioration in asset quality in the quarter as more consumers and companies fell behind on their loan instalments.

Loans in arrears for 90 days or more, the benchmark for delinquencies, rose to the equivalent of 5.1 per cent of its loan book, compared with 4.9 per cent in the second quarter.

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