UK financial services optimism in fastest dive since Crash

Sentiment, volumes and profits all deteriorated markedly in the UK’s financial services sector in the quarter to September 2019, according to the latest Financial Services Survey by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and PwC. Various indicators were at their weakest since before and during the financial crisis of 2008. The decline was driven by the fastest fall in banking volumes in 28 years.

The quarterly survey of 83 firms found that optimism about the overall business situation in the financial services sector plunged sharply, falling at the quickest pace since September 2008. This decline was broad-based across subsectors (except general insurers), but particularly acute for banks and building societies. Optimism has now been flat or falling for 15 consecutive quarters, amounting to nearly four years in total.

Volumes and profits fell, but headcount rose

Overall business volumes fell further, at the fastest pace since September 2012, but conditions varied significantly across financial services subsectors. The greatest drag on growth came from the banks – which saw volumes drop at the sharpest pace since March 1991 – and finance houses. Meanwhile, insurance brokers and investment managers saw robust growth. Looking ahead, overall business volumes are set to fall at a sharper pace next quarter.

With volumes declining, profits also fell, at the quickest pace since June 2009. However, the subsector breakdown showed some variation. Profitability in finance houses and building societies fell, and the banking sector saw the quickest decline since December 2010. Insurance brokers saw strong profits growth, while investment management profitability grew slightly. Overall profitability is expected to drop even further in the three months ahead, the weakest expectations since June 2015.

Meanwhile, in a positive sign, employment across financial services grew at the fastest pace in over a year, although growth is expected to slow over the next quarter. Headcount in banking grew at the fastest pace since December 2006.

“Government cannot ignore the voice of this bellwether of the domestic economy”

CBI Chief Economist Rain Newton-Smith commented: “Quarter after quarter after quarter, optimism continues to drop in the financial services sector. Add to that the dive in volumes and profits over the last three months, and it’s clear something has to change.

“The sector is the jewel in the crown of the UK’s world-leading services industry. While it’s encouraging that investment plans have improved, the threat of a ‘no deal’ Brexit is hitting confidence.

“The Government cannot ignore the voice of this bellwether of the domestic economy and one of the UK’s most important globally competitive sectors. No ifs, no buts, the Government must heed the call to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and secure an ambitious deal with our largest trading partner.”

“Pragmatism and resilience are set to be the watchwords”

Andrew Kail, Head of Financial Services at PwC, said: “The deep concerns across the financial services industry, driven by the UK’s unresolved political position, cannot be downplayed. As sentiment has taken a further slump this quarter, we’ve observed a drop-off in plans to launch new products and services as firms batten down the hatches in expectation of a turbulent few months.

“Businesses will be reducing spending on training in the short term, as the focus moves from specialist skills to contingency planning.

“Yet, the resilience of the sector is encouraging in certain areas. Employment numbers have swelled in Q3, most likely in response to an increase in regulation requirements. Pragmatism and resilience are set to be the watchwords as the industry maintains its role as a key cog of growth for the UK economy.”

Concerns about ROI are the main brake on spending

Looking to the year ahead, investment intentions have improved in the sector. Spending on IT continues to expand at a historically strong pace, while investment in land and buildings, training and marketing are all set to grow. Spending is set to remain the same for vehicles, plant and machinery. Investment is largely motivated by the desire to increase efficiency and speed (the joint highest since March 2015), with concerns about return on investment the predominant brake on spending.

Asked whether they are actively managing climate change risks, around 85% of financial services firms are currently doing so or plan to do so. Asked what the greatest negative impact on their business would be over the next year, firms ranked regulation as the number one concern, followed by Brexit and technology.

Key findings from the survey

  • Optimism in the financial services sector continued to drop at a fast pace last quarter (-56%), the 15th consecutive quarter of flat or declining sentiment.
  • 5% of firms said they were more optimistic about the overall business situation compared with three months ago, while 62% were less optimistic, giving a rounded balance of -56%. This was the fastest decline since September 2008 (-59%).
  • 21% of firms said that business volumes were up, while 36% said they were down, giving a rounded balance of -16% – the sharpest drop since September 2012.
  • Looking ahead to the quarter to December, business volumes are expected to fall further, with 9% of firms expecting volumes to rise next quarter and 36% expecting them to fall, giving a balance of -27%.

Incomes, costs and profits

  • Profitability declined in the three months to September, with 18% of firms reporting that profits had increased and 26% saying they fell, giving a balance of -8%. This was the fastest drop since June 2009 (-23%).
  • Income from fees, commissions and premiums fell (-14%), and is set to fall at a similar pace over the quarter ahead (-18%).
  • Income from net interest, investment and trading was flat (0%), with a similar trend expected over the next three months (-2%).
  • Total operating costs rose modestly (+5%), while average costs were unchanged (-1%). Next quarter, total costs are expected to grow at a faster pace (+18%), and average costs are set to rise (+12%).

Employment

  • 39% of financial services firms said they had increased employment, while 16% said that headcount fell, giving a balance of +23% and marking the strongest growth in over a year.
  • Employment growth is set to slow next quarter (+6%).

Investment over the next 12 months

Over the year ahead, financial services firms expect increases in spending on IT, land and buildings, marketing and training, and to keep capital spending flat for vehicles, plant and machinery:

  • IT: +56%
  • Marketing: +25%
  • Training: +14%
  • Land and buildings: +7%
  • Vehicles, plant and machinery: +1%.

The main reasons for authorising investment were:

  • to increase efficiency/speed (87% of respondents)
  • to reach new customers (56%)
  • to provide new services (48%).

The main factors likely to limit investment were:

  • inadequate net return on proposed investment (71% of respondents)
  • uncertainty about demand (59%).

Business expansion over the next 12 months

The most significant potential constraints on the level of business over the coming year are:

  • level of demand (65% of respondents)
  • competition (56%)
  • statutory legislation & regulation (54%).

Climate change risks

Asked whether they are actively managing climate change risks in their business, financial services firms said:

  • yes (40%)
  • have a plan to do so (21%)
  • intend to plan for risks (25%)
  • do not intend to plan for risks (14%).

Negative impacts on business

Asked what would likely have the greatest negative impact on their business over the next year, firms said:

  • regulation (64% of maximum score, with higher ranked concerns translating to a higher score)
  • Brexit (55%)
  • technology (26%)
  • customer switching behaviour (20%)
  • access to talent (18%)
  • access to finance (4%).

Is the current Brexit chaos damaging optimism in your business? For advice on preparing for all eventualities, email me or call me on 020 7099 2621.