NOMPU SIZIBA: Specialist financial services player Sasfin Bank released half-year results. For the six months ended December 2020, the company reported a decline in total income of 1.5% at R633 million, while headline earnings were down 65.8% at R26.9 million – and the board will not be giving shareholders an interim dividend this time around. The company attributes the decline in profit to an increase in year-on-year impairment provisions, and the generally adverse economic effects brought about by the pandemic.
Well, to discuss the results further, I’m joined on the line by Michael Sassoon. He’s the CEO at Sasfin. Thanks very much, Michael, for joining us. You saw a decline in your profits; has the Covid experience proved quite adverse for the group?
MICHAEL SASSOON: Yes, very much so. You know, we have two businesses. The wealth-management business has actually done very well under Covid owing to markets being strong. But our banking business, where we really lend to businesses in South Africa, has taken some increased credit provisions, and this has resulted in the huge drop in profits.
NOMPU SIZIBA: I do see that your loans and advances, for example, contracted quite a lot – by over 13%. I suppose it just speaks to the lack of activity and the lack of risk-taking among businesses.
MICHAEL SASSOON: I think that’s right. I think that when business confidence is low, people who are business entrepreneurs buy less stock, they invest less in their businesses, which means that the demand for credit has dropped to some degree. We also have to be a bit more conservative just to understand the full Covid impact on business clients.
In the last month or two we have seen some green shoots. There has been a bit of an uptick in demand for credit, and hopefully that is a sign for the future. But we remain cautious, given the potential of a third wave or a fourth wave, and the end of May’s vaccine rollouts, and how effective the vaccine rollout will be.
So, while there are some positive signs, we remain cautious.
NOMPU SIZIBA: I don’t suppose you ask when your clients withdraw money – but you do indicate having seen a decline in deposits. To what extent do you think this was influenced by perhaps businesses having to withdraw money to tide themselves over during a period when they were not receiving any revenue?
MICHAEL SASSOON: There was quite a small drop in deposits – about 3%. It was really one or two depositors who may be invested in the markets, rather than anything which I think suggests that businesses were drawing down on their money and all other deposits. It’s more like high-net-worth individuals, who invest in markets versus being invested in cash, and that might have an impact on the deposits more than businesses relying on their own cash at this point.
NOMPU SIZIBA: So, but for the wealth business, do you think that the numbers would have been far worse?
MICHAEL SASSOON: They would be worse – the wealth business of the group’s growth in earnings. But in the banking business income did drop about a percent or so across the group. That’s not too concerning. Given the drop in loans, we may have expected there to be more, but we have enhanced our margins somewhat and are growing some of our non-interest revenue lines – in particular in our digital business-banking area. The costs were well controlled, and that’s something. Where we had a drop in cost, our cost-to-income ratio improved.
So I think that the real question will be what happens to the credit environment in the future? Had we had a through-the-cycle credit-loss ratio, the banking performance would have been pretty good.
NOMPU SIZIBA: You talk about investment in digital. To what extent did you see that area increase in activity, obviously given the Covid situation?
MICHAEL SASSOON: Our digital banking income grew by about 14%, which we were quite happy with, even though some of the income in that is dependent on interest rates, and interest rates have come down. That has caused a little bit of lower income. Had it not been for that, income would have been even higher. And fortunately the big investment in digital we’ve made over the last couple of years enabled us to remove to remote-working capability pretty seamlessly, and be able to onboard services and engage with our clients throughout this period without there being any disruption at all, really.
NOMPU SIZIBA: I see that you’ve got an asset-finance business. You refer to your specialised equipment-finance business, which now accounts for 22% of your total asset-finance book. That’s up from 19% in the year prior. What does that segment cover?
MICHAEL SASSOON: There are various elements. We do some yellow-metal mining-related equipment. We also finance software, not equipment per se, but assets. We are growing some capabilities into the solar sector. So our traditional or historical business is very much office automation and kind of your more traditional ICT equipment. We are now moving into a slightly wider asset range that we finance.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Tell us about B\\YOND business banking. You do talk about having improved your operating loss there to R15 million. Just tell us about that business and how it’s different from the basic business.
MICHAEL SASSOON: This is our digital business-banking area, in which we’ve invested quite a bit. Off the back of our digital-banking platform clients can obtain banking, foreign exchange and credit. You can onboard yourself as a small business or medium business, yourself, and some ancillary services like payroll accounting integrated into Xero. So it’s quite a comprehensive integrated business-banking model which we’ve been investing in for some time. Those losses that you refer to are very much part of the investment that we make into the business, because we don’t capitalise that investment. And with the reduction in the losses to some degree now that we integrate our foreign exchange in there, we are seeing some synergies, given some of that growth in the digital banking revenue. But we are at the early stages of this journey to some degree.
Last year you may recall we obtained a loan guarantee from the ECB, European Central Bank, courtesy of the Dutch Development Bank FMO, which we are busy rolling out to smaller businesses that we would normally finance. We are building some capabilities, some automation in credit-score carding, to ensure that we can get to those clients and approve credit appropriately. That we think will further enhance our digital business-banking offering, which is so important for this country to really try and enable these small businesses to access financial services – which we know has been such a struggle in the past.
NOMPU SIZIBA: But how do you strike the balance? On the one hand it’s a great service to be able to extend financial assistance and more to SMEs, but we’re also in a very tricky time where the future is uncertain, and you also have to take care of shareholders and all the rest of it. So how do you get that balance right in terms of the risk mitigation and obviously fuelling SMEs that can help to grow the economy?
MICHAEL SASSOON: If there was an easy answer it would be great for the country, be great for business lenders. I think that a greater use of data and various data points to understand the credit risk beyond just the quarter historically of a bank, looking at management accounts or financial statements. I think there are other data points which can be understood better in granting credit. Historically we’ve always been very well secured by stock or debtors or equipment, and for these smaller businesses you might not be able to rely on that same level of security if they haven’t built up any meaningful assets. So understanding the individuals, understanding the various data points, I think will be important. And if we do that well I think there will be an opportunity to extend credit to segments of the economy which have struggled to obtain credit. And this is very much the concept of Naseera.
The FMO and the European Central Bank understand this challenge, and that’s why they’ve provided this loan guarantee, which means that we are able to kind of grow a little bit faster than we would have done without it, and understand and learn some of the credit elements of this market, while protecting shareholder value because of the nature of the guarantee.
But for it to be a sustainable long-term business for ourselves and for our clients, we need to make sure that we can recover the credit that we grant by and large.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. Look, this is separate from anything to do with Sasfin, but you must have a view, given your experience. Why do you think the credit-guarantee scheme that was offered by the government through the banks just hasn’t worked? Why is it that only R18 billion of the R200 billion that’s been made available has been tapped by SMEs?
MICHAEL SASSOON: That’s a very good question. … the large banks, to their credit, did give a lot of payment relief and a lot of support, restructured loans, at the height of Covid and the lockdown. The experience I think was that there wasn’t significant demand. That being said, why wasn’t there such a large demand?
My sense is that if you were a business client of a bank, and you were a good credit risk, the bank would have lent you money in its ordinary course. If you were a very bad credit risk, I think that a bank would have been irresponsible to lend taxpayer money if it didn’t believe that it was recoverable. And therefore it actually only really catered towards the smallish segment of the business sector.
We also have participated in terms of the government’s loan-guarantee scheme, and to a small degree we’ve almost lent out our allocations, as it stands. But I think that in part there were many SMEs who aren’t really in the banking system, or don’t have credits on the banking system, who maybe could have benefited from the loan-guarantee scheme – which didn’t really apply because they weren’t already entrenched inside a banking system.
NOMPU SIZIBA: That was Michael Sassoon. He’s the CEO at Sasfin.