Fitch Downgrades Union Bank’s National Rating to ‘BBB-(nga)’

By Dipo Olowookere

The National Long-Term Rating of Union Bank of Nigeria Plc’s BBB(nga) has been downgraded to BBB-(nga) by Fitch Ratings.

In a statement issued by the rating agency, it however, said the lender’s Long-Term Issuer Default Rating (IDR) has been affirmed at ‘B-‘ with stable outlook.

Fitch said the downgrade of Union Bank’s National Long-Term Rating mainly reflects its view of weaker asset quality relative to Nigerian peers’, as highlighted by the bank’s disclosure under IFRS 9.

According to the statement released on Tuesday, the rating company said the IDRs of Union Bank are driven by its standalone creditworthiness, as defined by its Viability Rating (VR).

Union Bank’s VR, as with that of other Nigerian banks, is highly conditioned by Nigeria’s operating environment, with the fragile economic recovery restraining banks’ growth prospects and asset quality, Fitch said.

It added that the financial institution’s VR further reflects a moderate franchise, weak profitability, severe loan-quality problems and adequate capitalisation, funding and liquidity.

However, it noted that the stable outlook reflects Fitch’s base case expectation that Union Bank’s credit profile is unlikely to change significantly over the next one-to-two years.

Union Bank’s operations are concentrated in Nigeria and the lender accounted for 4 percent of banking system assets at end-2017.

Union Bank’s stock of impaired loans is declining, the statement noted, as is its exposure to the troubled oil sector. However, the bank’s impaired loans (stage 3 loans under IFRS 9) ratio (24% at end-1H18) is very high compared with the 9.4% average for rated Nigerian banks, driven primarily by its oil sector exposure, it added. Stage 2 loans measured at a further 30 percent of gross loans at end-1H18. Reserve coverage of impaired loans (32% at end-1H18) is low, reflecting management’s view of collateral on impaired loans, Fitch said.

Furthermore, the rating firm said Union Bank is exposed to large credit concentrations. The 20-largest loans measured at 71 percent of gross loans and 128 percent of Fitch Core Capital (FCC) at end-1H18. The volatile oil sector represented 45 percent of Union Bank’s gross loans at end-1H18.

Union Bank’s operating profit/risk-weighted assets ratio was 1.8 percent in 2017 (compared with rated-banks average of 4 percent), which is weak by emerging market standards.

The bank has a high net interest margin, but this is offset by a high cost-income ratio and large loan impairment charges that have eroded around 55 percent to 65 percent of pre-impairment operating profit in recent years.

Capital metrics are somewhat better than similarly-sized peers’, having improved following a rights issue in 2017, Fitch said. However, as a result of IFRS 9 implementation from this year, Union Bank’s FCC ratio declined to 24 percent at end-1H18 (end-2017: 31 percent), the company added.

Union Bank’s high FCC ratio must be considered in the context of the bank’s large unreserved impaired loans, which measured at 45 percent of FCC at end-1H18.

Union Bank benefits from a strong retail deposit base, which accounted for 52 percent of customer deposits at end-1H18, providing an inexpensive source of stable funding. Single-depositor concentration is in line with peers’, with Union’s 20-largest deposits accounting for 21% of the total at end-1H18. Union Bank’s loans/customer deposits ratio (62 percent at end-1H18) sits at the lower end of the peer group.

Foreign-currency liquidity has been tight in recent years, with Union Bank restructuring some trade finance obligations with international correspondent banks in 2015 and 2016. Foreign-currency liquidity pressures have eased and are no longer a significant rating weakness.

Fitch said it believes that sovereign support to Nigerian banks cannot be relied upon given Nigeria’s weak ability to provide support, particularly in foreign currency. In addition, it said there are no clear messages of support from the authorities regarding their willingness to support the banking system.

“Therefore, the Support Rating (SR) and Support Rating Floor (SRF) are ‘5’ and ‘No Floor’, respectively. This reflects our view that senior creditors cannot rely on receiving full and timely extraordinary support from the Nigerian sovereign if any of the banks become non-viable,” the statement said.

It further noted that Union Bank’s Long-Term IDR is sensitive to a change in the bank’s VR. Downside pressure is most likely to result from a material worsening of impaired loans, including the migration of stage 2 loans into the stage 3 category, putting pressure on capital adequacy. A positive rating action is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

“Union’s National Ratings are sensitive to a change in the bank’s creditworthiness relative to Nigerian peers,” the statement said.

Dipo Olowookere is a journalist based in Nigeria that has passion for reporting business news stories. At his leisure time, he watches football and supports 3SC of Ibadan.

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