Investors battle to swallow Absa’s road to recovery tale
While the lender has rebranded itself and restructured its biggest unit, it was 2018’s worst performer in the six-member SA banking index
Absa is having a hard time convincing some investors it can win back the market share lost while under the control of Barclays.
SA’s third-largest lender was once the leading retail bank with over 10-million customers and more mortgages on its books than any of its Johannesburg-based peers. Now, released from the shackles of London-based Barclays, Absa CEO Maria Ramos can take on more risk with a plan to grow revenue faster than her main rivals from 2019 to 2021.
By its own admission, Absa is lagging FirstRand, Nedbank and Standard Bank in the average number of products per customer and the loyalty of its clients. It has also lost market share among the youth, mass market, middle-income and affluent groups. And, to top it all, Absa was 2018’s worst performer in the six-member SA banking index.
“There is a fair amount of scepticism in the market around how they are going to be able to grow faster than the South African banking sector,” said Jan Meintjes, a portfolio manager at Denker Capital. “We’ve heard that story before. The proof is really in the pudding.”
It’s still early in the game since Ramos, 59, brought in new management in March and restructured the retail and business banking unit — which accounts for more than half of earnings and deposits and 60% of loans.
The division unveiled its own strategy in December, which pivots on first fixing the basics, such as lowering costs, then adding clients and improving retention rates by focusing on customer needs beyond only banking. It also plans to reward long-standing clients with better offers and will cross-sell products between business segments to drive growth.
“Absa has largely been the sleeping giant,” said Neelash Hansjee, an analyst at Old Mutual Investment Group. “They seem to have all their building blocks in place to achieve all of their targets. They are putting on their boxing gloves and they do want to come out, at least, fighting against their peers.”
Absa released targets on December 7, which includes bringing its cost-to-income ratio down to the low 50s by 2021 from 56.2% at the end of June. It is also aiming for a return on equity, a measure of profitability, of 18%-20% from 13.9% in the first half.
“The publication of targets was well received by investors,” Absa said. “We’re making significant progress in key areas of the business”, especially at the retail and business banking unit, where revenue is gaining better momentum, it said.
The lender, which can trace its origins to 1933 when a banking group was created to give Afrikaners access to capital in an economy dominated by English-speaking whites, is making some progress. It boosted lending by 8% in the first half of 2018, driven by growth in its corporate and investment banking subsidiary and its operations in 11 other African markets, while the retail banking unit also grew auto, personal and home loans.
But, like many other SA companies, Absa is being held back by an economy struggling to grow as the country heads into elections this year. President Cyril Ramaphosa has yet to implement many initiatives to kick-start investment in a country whose state-owned firms are saddled with unsustainable debt.
While Absa is beginning to show signs of recovery, it also faces increasing competition in its home market, weighing on margins, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Philip Richards, who predicts Absa will miss its targets.
At least two new digital banks targeted at consumers are due to launch in 2019, including Discovery and TymeBank. Established players, such as First National Bank and Nedbank, are also becoming more aggressive in their tactics to attract consumers and improve their use of digital channels.
The lender has also revamped its other management teams and appointed a new corporate and investment banking head after searching for the right candidate for several months.
However, attracting more of the right talent to run with Absa’s plans will continue to be a challenge, mainly because of the state the lender finds itself in, said Nolwandle Mthombeni, an analyst at Mergence Investment Managers. “There have to be good synergies amongst the people you put in there.”
Ramos will be celebrating 10 years as head of the lender in March and is expected to remain in her role at least until all of Absa’s operations have been rebranded. It has until June 2020 to convert all of its businesses in the rest of Africa from the Barclays brand to Absa.
The CEO can expect to come under “a lot of scrutiny” because she oversaw Absa during the time its market share was in decline, Mthombeni said.