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Trading rebound boosts earnings at France's SocGen

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·3-min read
French bank Societe Generale building in Paris
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By Matthieu Protard and Marc Angrand

PARIS (Reuters) -Societe Generale will press ahead with an overhaul of its investment bank after its equities division posted its best performance in six years in the first quarter, the French bank said on Thursday.

Revenue from share trading surged to 851 million euros from just 9 million a year ago, helping SocGen post a better than expected net profit of 814 million euros ($977 million) after a loss of 326 million euros in the first quarter of 2020.

Shares in France's third-biggest bank leapt as much as 6.6% to their highest since March 2020 and were up 3% at 0926 GMT, outperforming a 0.46% drop in the Stoxx Europe 600 Banks Index.

"The equity businesses enjoyed their best quarter since 2015," SocGen said in a statement.

Under pressure to boost profitability, SocGen Chief Executive Frederic Oudea has accelerated an overhaul of its businesses underway since 2018 to reinforce its balance sheet.

It has sold divisions in Eastern and Central European countries such as Poland, Serbia and Bulgaria and also either quit or cut back some corporate and investment banking (CIB) activities, such as commodities trading.

SocGen's head of global banking and investor solutions, Slawomir Krupa, said the equity trading rebound would not change the CIB review due to be unveiled on May 10 as the lender wants to lower the risk profile of its structured products.

Last year, SocGen was hit by losses from complex derivative products and the bank said it would drop some business lines.

Krupa told reporters that activity over the last three quarters was supporting the bank's thoughts about the investment banking review, without elaborating.

SocGen's shares have rallied 43% since the start of the year after slumping 45% in 2020, while the Stoxx Europe 600 Banks Index has climbed 25% this year, hitting its highest level since Feb. 26, 2020 on Thursday.

"The strong recovery in equities and the resilient top line performance in French retail is reassuring and consensus has to upgrade estimates given the turnaround in global markets and lower cost of risk guidance", analysts at JPMorgan said.

LOCKDOWNS WEIGH

Other European banks have also been able to rely on bumper trading volumes and lower credit risk provisions in early 2021 to compensate for low margins on lending.

UniCredit and ING beat profit expectations on Thursday, as did Italy's largest bank Intesa Sanpaolo on Wednesday.

SocGen's earnings per share jumped to 0.79 euro, above an average forecast for 0.23 euro, according to Refinitiv data.

Revenue from fixed income and currency trading rose 2.63%, outperforming some European rivals such as BNP Paribas and Barclays but still lagging U.S. investment banks.

However, European banks are still grappling with thin margins due to record low interest rates and COVID-19 restrictions, meaning the resilience of their first-quarter rebounds is likely to be tested if trading volumes wane.

In its French retail business, SocGen reported a 1.8% drop in revenue in the first quarter as lockdowns weighed on business but it said activity was gradually improving.

Revenue is expected to be between -1% and +1% this year, the head of retail networks Sebastien Proto told reporters.

SocGen also confirmed that provisions for loan losses due to the pandemic would fall this year from 2020 levels.

The bank now sees its cost of risk, which reflects provisions against bad loans, to be between 30 and 35 basis points in 2021, down from 64 basis points last year.

As part of further initiatives to enhance returns, SocGen entered exclusive talks last month to sell most of its asset management arm Lyxor to Amundi for 825 million euros.

The lender also said last year it would merge its two retail banking networks in France, with the closure of 600 of its nearly 2,100 branches by 2025.

($1 = 0.8328 euros)

(Reporting by Matthieu Protard and Marc Angrand, Editing by Sarah White, Carmel Crimmins and David Clarke)

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