Rebound in trading boosts earnings at France's SocGen



PARIS, May 5 (Reuters) - Societe Generale SOGN.PA on Thursday recorded a higher than expected first quarter profit as its equities unit rebounded from an earnings wipeout to post its best performance in six years.

France's third-largest listed bank, which tumbled in 2020 to its first full-year loss for a decade as the COVID-19 pandemic rattled its businesses, posted a 814 million euros ($977.37 million) net profit in the quarter against a 326 million euros loss a year ago.

Earnings per share amounted to 0.79 euro, above a mean forecast for 0.23 euro according to Refinitiv data.

Under market pressure to boost profitability, SocGen chief executive Frederic Oudea has speeded up an overhaul of business since 2018 to reinforce the bank’s balance sheet by selling units in Eastern and Central European countries such as Poland, Serbia and Bulgaria.

SocGen also exited or cut back some corporate and investment banking (CIB) activities, such as commodities trading. The bank is due to unveil a review of its CIB on May 10.

SocGen benefited from a sector-wide boom in share trading, with first quarter revenues jumping to 851 million euros against just 9 million euros last year when the bank was hit by losses from complext derivative products, and had said it would exit some business lines.

"The equity businesses enjoyed their best quarter since 2015," SocGen said in a statement.

Revenue was up by 2.63% in fixed income and currency trading, outperforming some European rivals such as BNP Paribas BNPP.PA and Barclays BARC.L but still lagging U.S. investment banks.

The positive tone was echoed at other European banks, with ING and UniCredit also reporting better-than-expected earnings on Thursday.

However, European lenders are still grappling with thin margins and home markets still dealing with COVID-19 restrictions, with the resilience of their recovery likely to be tested if financial market volumes become more subdued.

In its French retail business, SocGen posted a 1.8% drop in revenue but said activity was gradually improving.

"The strong recovery in equities and the resilient top line performance in French retail is reassuring and consensus has to upgrade estimates given the turnaround in global markets and lower cost of risk guidance", analysts at JPMorgan noted.

SocGen also confirmed pandemic-related provisions would fall this year from 2020 levels. The bank now sees its cost of risk, which reflects provisions against bad loans, to be between 30 and 35 basis points in 2021 against 64 basis points last year.

Shares in SocGen have gained 38.5% since the beginning of the year after a 45% slump in 2020. Its share price has more than doubled since its lowest at 10.77 euros on Sept. 30.

As part of further initiatives to enhance returns, SocGen entered last month in exclusive talks to sell most of its asset management arm Lyxor to Amundi AMUN.PA for 825 million euros.

The lender said last year it would merge its two retail banking networks in France, with the closure of 600 of its nearly 2,100 branches by 2025.

($1 = 0.8328 euros)
Reporting by Matthieu Protard and Marc Angrand, Editing by Sarah White and Carmel Crimmins

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