French banks turn corner after turbulent year

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A French flag flies next to a BNP Parisbassign in Paris. AP

PARIS–French banks are back in the good graces of investors after turning in surprisingly strong quarterly results that appear to show they have put the worst of the eurozone crisis behind them.

Top French bank BNP Paribas turned in a 4.7 percent drop in earnings to 1.76 billion euros for the April to June period, a much smaller fall than had been expected by the market.

Meanwhile Credit Agricole reported that its second-quarter profits soared 60 percent to 1.39 billion euros and Societe Generale also largely beat expectations at 955 million euros.

“They are good results in general for the three banks” even if the asset sales and write downs they undertook last year to react to the eurozone crisis made for difficult comparisons, said Gabriella Serres, an analyst at Aurel BGC brokerage.

The price of shares in BNP Paribas has risen by 3.4 percent since the reporting season began two weeks ago, while Credit Agricole’s shares rose by 12.4 percent, and Societe Generale’s shot up by 17.4 percent.

Meanwhile the overall CAC 40 index has risen by 2.7 percent.

“Whether you look at the direction of the results or capital base, the results held up pretty well, especially in comparison with the rest of Europe,” said Cyril Meilland, a bank analyst at Kepler Cheuvreux brokerage.

Between maintaining new capital adequacy requirements, markets roiled by the eurozone crisis and economic slowdown, French banks have been under pressure to trim their sails.

In 2012 Credit Agricole sold at a loss its Greek unit Emporiki and parted with its brokerage Cheuvreux. Societe Generale also offloaded its Greek unit, Geniki, and sold its stake in US asset manager TCW.

The three banks also scaled back their corporate and investment bank operations, and reduced their holdings of risky stocks and bonds.

At the same time they launched cost-cutting programs: 900 million euros over three years at Societe Generale, 650 million euros over three years at Credit Agricole and BNP is aiming for 2.0 billion euros over four years.

The results for the first half of this year thus looked favorable compared with outcomes for the same period last year, when the banks were forced to book exceptional charges.

But with business activity by these banks holding steady, or even growing, despite the recession in France, investors were pleased.

The banks also managed to keep under control their provisions for loans that risk not being be repaid, another closely watched figure by investors in tough economic times.

“The good news of the quarter is the level of provisions, because instead of what one could expected with the economy doing a bit worse, we have seen quite a few units post provisions lower than in the first quarter, which is very reassuring” said Meilland.

He said the improvement was in part due an improvement in the economic outlook, but also to the way banks had managed their balance sheets and loan portfolios since the crisis began.

But Serres said that although the banks had made progress on reducing costs, they still have some way to go with reducing risky loans and improving revenues.

And the IMF in its latest report on France, released this past week, warned that “low bank profitability remains a risk factor” to the country’s economy.

It added that “the French financial system would need to adapt further to prudential requirements, notably in regard to bank funding structures, which continue to rely heavily on wholesale funding.”

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