- Dmitry Isaakovich, what is your assessment of the current state of the Russian economy? Is the banking sector feeling the stagnation announced by certain analysts?
- Dmitry Leus: To give assessments and predictions is an ungrateful task. The Russian and worldwide economy are such that no one can hope to grasp the full picture and make plausible forecasts. Today, even senior analysts equipped with the most refined methods of forecasting struggle at making straightforward statements. I will therefore not engage in forecasts and complex theories. However, I am prepared to share some simple thoughts on the current market situation.
In my view, at the present moment, both a crisis and a sudden breakdown are equally unlikely. I rather expect a situation of slow stagnation requiring some time for adaptation. The banking sector, the regulator, and private enterprises will need to renew their focus on their core activities. In such circumstances, it is necessary for market participants to adjust their behavior in order to work effectively and survive.
We must keep in mind that the popularity of any bank’s core products is in many ways a function of the general market situation. How to explain otherwise the fact that in the recent years almost all financial institutions rushed into consumer credits? Banks are only prepared to take risks if they are rewarded by profits. If, however, costs of funds are high, banks need to play by different rules in order to develop in a sustainable way.
Thus, as long as costs of funds were low, actively increased its mortgage loan portfolio. At the same time, we heavily invested into our IT infrastructure, created a professional management team, and opened up new branches in strategic location_s. However, we were obliged to adjust our expansion plans in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. For a short while, we had recourse to various refinancing options, but quickly realized that our profit margin in this particular segment was too small. Like many other financial market players, we finally had to adapt our strategy to the new environment. Hence, our attention switched to new lending products with smaller margins but higher volumes, and to repayment schedules ranging between 2 and 3 years.
Currently, we plan to slowly return to mortgage lending, albeit on a much smaller scale than before.
- Could we say that Bank, like most of its competitors, is currently mainly active in the segment of consumer loans?
- Dmitry Leus: This is correct, but we are not inactive elsewhere, and plan to expand our presence in other sectors too. Consumer loans constitute a significant part of our current portfolio, but we also plan to address the capital needs of small and mid-size businesses (SMB) and to provide corporate loans.
As you may know, we have recently signed our first contract with SME Bank (The Russian Bank for Small and Medium Enterprises Support) – a subsidiary of Vnesheconombank (VEB). Funds will be used for corporate lending, mainly through our regional offices. This will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the development of Russia’s regional economy. Bank has the intention of continuing its co-operation with SME Bank and signing additional contracts over RUB 3bn.
Overall, we have been providing loans to SME Bank for quite some time. For example, in the past we offered a product called “The Millionaire”, whereby individual entrepreneurs were eligible to receive credits amounting to RUB 1 million if they met certain criteria. Accordingly, we have accumulated experience in valuing small businesses and have even developed our own approach when lending to entrepreneurs. This is a practice we can always return to, even when times are difficult.
It is my deep conviction that banks need to be diversified, even if some of my Russian colleagues may disagree. In today’s market environment, only effective diversification is able to successfully mitigate certain regulatory risks. However, as long as there is a popular consensus that higher than normal profit margins can only be reached at the price of higher risks, even a profitable bank may face the risk of a regulatory crackdown if it concentrates its assets in high-margin product lines.
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