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UK banks' buyback plans face risks from prolonged Russia-Ukraine war

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UK banks' buyback plans face risks from prolonged Russia-Ukraine war

Russia's invasion of Ukraine could impact the largest U.K. banks' planned share buybacks if it exacerbates risks in the economy.

HSBC Holdings PLC and Standard Chartered PLC plan to buy back shares of up to $1 billion and $750 million, respectively, in 2022, while Lloyds Banking Group PLC and NatWest Group PLC announced repurchase programs of as much as £2 billion and £750 million, respectively. Barclays PLC also intends to repurchase up to £1 billion of shares, although the bank recently decided to delay its launch to the second quarter due to a bond sale error.

While none of the banks has so far disclosed any material direct exposure to Russia and Ukraine, they could experience second-order effects from the war caused by increasing risks in the economy, Morningstar equity analyst Niklas Kammer told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

"Future earnings and [capital] distributions will clearly depend on how the conflict ultimately affects the economy," a spokesperson for NatWest told Market Intelligence in response to emailed questions. Higher energy prices, supply chain disruption and higher inflation are likely to be the predominant factors that would impact customers and the economy, the spokesperson said, noting that these may aggravate the situation depending on the extent and duration of the conflict.

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Scope Ratings would also be looking at how a weaker operating environment could impact the U.K. banks' earnings and, consequently, their ability to distribute capital.

"There may be spillover effects as the economic recovery is less robust," Pauline Lambert, executive director of financial institutions ratings at Scope, told Market Intelligence. Revenue generation would also be impacted by weaker consumer confidence and disrupted capital markets, while credit costs could rise if the banks' customers are impacted by the conflict, Lambert said.

The five biggest U.K. banks also declared final dividends on 2021 results, and Scope expects them to stick with the planned payouts as they showed a solid performance last year. But compared with dividends, share buybacks by nature are more flexible, Scope's Lambert said. As such, the ongoing war could put a damper on buyback plans if deemed appropriate by the banks' management teams.

NatWest and StanChart have not made any changes to their planned distributions, both banks told Market Intelligence. HSBC, Barclays and Lloyds did not respond to requests for comment.

"The announced distributions should be paid out," Kammer said. "Unless the regulator blocks payments again, which we think is not likely at the moment, we do not see a reason why the banks would not follow through with their current distribution plans," Kammer said. He was referring to the Bank of England's decision at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to restrict banks from paying dividends and repurchasing shares to preserve capital and continue lending to the economy. The restrictions were lifted in 2021.

Strong 2021 performance

The banks' buyback plans, which were announced on the back of a year-over-year rebound in the banks' profits and high capital levels in 2021, all exceeded consensus expectations, according to a March 1 research note from Berenberg.

At the end of 2021, the respective common equity Tier 1 ratios — a measure of financial strength — of HSBC and Barclays stood at 15.74% and 14.74%, while those of StanChart, Lloyds and NatWest were 14.05%, 16.86% and 17.83%, according to Market Intelligence data.

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"We do not expect the war in Ukraine to affect [the] banks' capital levels and/or CET1 ratio targets," Kammer said.

The banks' "exceptional" performance in 2021 was mainly driven by releases in loan loss provisions — funds set aside to cover future loan losses — as they took significant steps to bolster their provisioning in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, S&P Global Ratings said in a March 3 report.

StanChart did not book a release in impairment but recorded a sharp decline in charges on a yearly basis, to $254 million from $2.33 billion.

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The banks' results showed their resilience amid the pandemic and they are expected to deliver more of the same in 2022, Ratings said, while noting that there is a high degree of uncertainty about the extent, outcome and consequences of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Russia-Ukraine exposures

Barclays has "limited" financial exposures to the conflict, CEO C.S. Venkatakrishnan told reporters on a call late February, according to Bloomberg News. The lender has been out of Russia for many years and "exercised a lot of care and diligence" in onboarding Russian entities and clients, Venkatakrishnan said.

While Barclays may have some trading exposure, there does not seem to be anything worrisome thus far in terms of capital, Morningstar's Kammer said.

For HSBC, CFO Ewen Stevenson told Bloomberg TV in February that the bank's "very small business" in Russia presents a "very, very modest" overall exposure.

StanChart has no operations in Russia or Ukraine, a spokesperson for the bank told Market Intelligence. Meanwhile, Lloyds and NatWest have no meaningful direct exposure to both countries, according to Kammer.