By Modupe Gbadeyanka Banks operating in Nigeria may suffer a drop in their profit in the first quarter of 2018 as a result in the slowdown in the supply of treasury bills, London-based rating agency, Fitch Ratings, has revealed. In a statement issued yesterday by the firm, it said Nigerian banks may find it more difficult to sustain profitability given the decline in net treasury bill (T-bill) issuance in Nigeria's 1Q18 issuance programme. The slowdown in T-bill issuance marks a change of strategy as the government looks to increase its financing from external sources and longer-dated domestic issuances. Record T-bill issuance in 2017 helped support the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN)'s strategy to maintain Naira exchange-rate stability. High yields on T-bills issued in 2017 (around 13%-14% on 90-day T-bills) attracted investors and helped to support the Naira. An increase in oil export earnings and the introduction in April 2017 of the Nigerian Autonomous Foreign Exchange Rate Fixing (NAFEX) mechanism, commonly referred to as the "Investors and Exporters' FX Window", also helped naira stabilisation during the second half of 2017. Nigerian banks are highly reliant on net interest income for profitability and T-bills proved to be an important source of profits in 2017. Interest on securities represented 30% of total gross interest earned in 9M17, averaged across Nigerian banks rated by Fitch (2016: 23%). By end-September 2017, government securities including T-bills represented more than 15% of the banks' assets as new lending fell, reflecting weak credit demand, tighter underwriting standards and banks' reluctance to extend new loans as they focused on extensive restructuring of troubled oil-related and other portfolios, Fitch said. It noted that even the country's largest banks cut back on new lending, with Guaranty Trust Bank's stock of outstanding loans falling 10% during 9M17, FBN Holdings' by 4.6%, Zenith's by 3.7% and Access's by 1.1%. United Bank for Africa's loan book grew 5.6%, but this is likely to have been driven by non-Nigerian lending as the bank operates in 22 other African countries. \u201cWe expect falling T-bill yields and lower issuance to put pressure on Nigerian banks' profitability in 2018. \u201cThe CBN's latest issuance schedule shows NGN1.1 trillion (USD3.6 billion) of rollovers in 1Q18 against NGN1.3 trillion of maturing bills. In 2017, rollovers fully covered maturing bills,\u201d the rating company said. Fitch predicted that performance metrics at all banks will be affected by weak demand for lending, falling T-bill yields, lower foreign-currency translation gains and rising loan impairment charges, but the largest banks are best placed to withstand these challenges. Operating returns are still strong at GTB (9M17 operating return on average equity (ROAE): 37%), Zenith (28%), UBA (22%) and Access (20%), while FBNH's operating ROAE is lower (12%) but improving. However, some second-tier banks with a 9M17 operating ROAE of 4%-6% may struggle to remain profitable in 2018. \u201cWe highlighted falling profitability for Nigerian banks in our 2018 Outlook report for sub-Saharan banks, available by clicking on the link below. \u201cOur 2018 rating outlook for the Nigerian banking sector is negative, reflecting continued fragility in the operating environment and the Negative Outlook on the sovereign's 'B+' rating,\u201d it said.