By Souhail Karam
Lender said that focus on personal banking will 'balance the bank's recurrent income.'
Saudi Hollandi Bank, the Kingdom's oldest bank, will put more focus on retail banking in the short term to boost profit growth after multi billion dollar defaults by some Saudi family owned firms.
The lender, part owned by Royal Bank of Scotland, does not have a new cost cutting policy, managing director Bernd van Linder told Reuters on Sunday, after a 50 percent drop in costs led it to a stellar profit growth performance during the second quarter.
This performance had prompted analysts to wonder whether the savings were one offs or Hollandi had started a cost cutting strategy that could help it sustain strong profit growth performances.
In a telephone interview, van Linder said: "The main goal of our new strategy, approved by the board, is focus on personal banking considering the kingdom's young population ... We feel there is a market for it and will balance the bank's recurrent income."
van Linder did not put numbers on the targets of the retail banking push. Its contribution to Hollandi's net profit fell to 8 percent by end June down from 15 percent a year earlier, while corporate banking's contribution to net profit rose to 71 percent from about 56 percent in the first half of 2009.
van Linder said: "We want to raise the contribution of personal banking which will help us stabilise net profit," van Linder said.
He declined to talk about the financial cost of the new strategy. The bank has 44 branches, or about 3 percent of total banking branches in the kingdom.
Growth in bank lending, especially to the private sector, has been slow since early 2009. Saudi bank credit growth was flat throughout much of 2009 due to the global slump and after defaults the same year by local family firms.
van Linder said: "The issue of family owned firms is an isolated incident that does not reflect the overall strength of the Saudi economy."
For Hollandi, the impact translated into an 11.1 percent drop in its loan portfolio by end June, 2010, an acceleration from a 7.4 percent decline in the 12 months to end March 2010.
Like several other Saudi lenders, substantial provisions for non performing loans and a low interest rate environment eroded Hollandi's profitability in 2009.
Hollandi responded by setting aside enough provisions to cover all non performing loans and which stood at $597.3 million by end 2009.
van Linder said: "We had strong control on costs, we have been happy especially that this was achieved without compromising revenue growth ... But I am not sure there is a cost cutting strategy."
He added: "Provisions for non performing loans caused volatility in profit performance ... We continued to maintain a 100 percent coverage of non performing loans in 2010."
In an apparent reference to stock market regulations on public disclosure, he said: "It is hard to say whether the worst is over because we are a listed company."
In a note in March, Fitch said Hollandi's capitalisation was "moderately tight" compared to peers.
Fitch said: "This may be a constraint on its ability to develop its franchise and exploit opportunities for organic growth in the future."
Van Linder declined to discuss this point, but said Hollandi would "easily comply with Basel III" rules expected to be enforced as of 2013 and under which certain forms of non voting capital will not count towards the highest quality of capital reserves.
In May, Hollandi's Chairman Mubarak al Khafrah said Saudi authorities should help to boost lending by placing long term deposits with banks in the world's largest oil exporter.
Khafrah also said that a consortium led by Royal Bank of Scotland may sell its 40 percent stake in Hollandi through a public offering. (Reuters)