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A pedestrian walks past the signboard of the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG) bank branch in Tokyo February 14, 2007. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
A pedestrian walks past the signboard of the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG) bank branch in Tokyo February 14, 2007. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

Japan banks, brokerages grapple with weak market Add to ...

Lacklustre lending activity in Japan's earthquake-ravaged economy and a shrinking retail investment business capped earnings of the country's top banks and brokerages in the fiscal first quarter, raising pressure on them to take more risks and find revenue sources overseas.

Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group , Mizuho Financial Group and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group , the top three banks, respectively, are facing anemic loan demand in Japan, where companies are paying down debt instead of expanding.

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Bank lending in Japan, which makes up the bulk of their revenues, fell for the 19th straight month in June from a year earlier, with the expected boost to loan demand from the March 11 disaster not materializing yet.

"Lending at home is weak and its prospect is not bright. The point is how much the banks can offset that by increasing overseas loans," said Chikako Horiuchi, an analyst at Fitch Ratings in Tokyo.

Investment banking and brokerage units were a drag on the banks, hurt by weak underwriting business.

Top brokerage Nomura Holdings fared better, as its quarterly profit topped forecasts but domestic rival Daiwa Securities struggled, posting its fifth quarterly loss out of six.

MUFG posted the equivalent of a $6.08-billion net profit in the quarter after booking a ¥290.6-billion gain from conversion of its preferred shares in Morgan Stanley into common stock which raised its stake in the Wall Street firm to 22 per cent.

The profit tripled from ¥166.4-billion a year earlier and was above the ¥400-billion estimated by Citigroup Global Markets Japan.

Mizuho's profit slumped 36 per cent to ¥96.4-billion for the quarter, slightly below the ¥100-billion estimated by Citigroup. Sumitomo Mitsui's profit fell 2.4 per cent to ¥206.6-billion, but above the ¥100-billion estimated by Citigroup.

The banks are stepping up their overseas presence not only to combat weak loan take-up at home but also to benefit from a strengthening currency that is driving much of corporate Japan to shop overseas.

The yen hit a four-month low of ¥77.48 on Friday morning, prompting Japan to escalate its warning to financial markets against testing the yen's upside further.

Mizuho is set to seal a deal soon to buy as much as 20 per cent of Vietnam's Vietcombank , sources have said. .

MUFG last month began talks with CIMB to expand their investment banking ties and take a bigger stake in the Malaysian lender. And Sumitomo Mitsui teamed up with Brazil's BTG Pactual in April to offer project finance and advisory services in the Latin American nation.

Brokerages Nomura and Daiwa are also ramping up efforts overseas but with markets jittery and companies wary of inking deals amid global economic uncertainty, succeeding abroad may become more difficult.

In a sign of the headwinds they face, Goldman Sachs Group Inc , the biggest U.S. investment bank, earlier this month posted earnings that were well below market expectations.

In the quarter ended June 30, Nomura, which is expanding in Asia, Europe and the United States after buying part of Lehman Brothers in 2008, posted a ¥17.7-billion net profit compared with a profit of ¥2.3-billion a year earlier.

The result was better than the mean forecast of a ¥13.7-billion profit from three analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

"Its wholesale sector has been performing well, despite the difficulties it is facing, with business progressing in the U.S. market," said SMBC Friend Securities Investment Sector strategist Yasushi Noguchi. "It has managed to create a balance between cutting costs and investment in the correct places."

Daiwa, which is expanding investment banking in a competitive Asian market in a bid to make up for shrinking income in Japan, posted a ¥9.4-billion net loss, compared with a loss of ¥1.2-billion a year earlier.

The result was worse than the average forecast of a ¥2.1-billion yen loss from two analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

"The state of the market doesn't appear to show signs of improvement in the near future, so I think stocks will remain stagnant," said Hisashi Matsumoto, an investment analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley.

At both securities companies, the cost of hiring bankers overseas has also weighed on profitability and, analysts say, will need to be controlled to prevent further earnings erosion.

When Nomura bought the Lehman parts, it offered many of its new employees guaranteed bonuses to keep them from leaving.

Nomura in June cut cash bonuses paid to directors and executives for the previous business year by as much as 95 per cent after lackluster profits.

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