UBS reports a 137% jump in profit, but has concerns over economic recovery

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The logo of Swiss banking giant UBS engraved on the wall is seen on its headquarters on May 8, 2019 in Zurich.

Fabrice Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON — UBS, the world’s largest wealth manager, has reported net income of $1.71 billion for the fourth quarter of 2020, a 137% jump on the year before.

Analysts had expected income to come in at $967 million for the three-month period, according to Refinitiv. It comes after the Swiss bank reported net income of $2.1 billion for the third quarter of last year.

Double-digit profit growth in UBS’ wealth management and asset management divisions contributed to the quarterly performance.

The bank also revealed that it would restart buying back its shares. It announced a new three-year program in which it plans to purchase up to 4 billion Swiss francs ($4.5 billion) of shares, $1 billion of which will be purchased during the first quarter of 2021. Buybacks offer a way for firms to return cash to shareholders — along with dividends — and usually coincide with a company’s stock pushing higher as shares get scarcer.

At a time when banks have been discouraged from paying dividends, UBS also announced it will propose a 2020 dividend of $0.37 per share.

The results are the first under the leadership of Ralph Hamers, who took over as the new chief executive officer on Nov. 1.

Speaking to CNBC on Tuesday, Hamers highlighted a “record number in invested assets of more than 1 trillion (dollars) in the asset manager and more than 3 trillion (dollars) in the wealth manager.”

“And basically that shows you the success of UBS, which is (a) very strong asset manager, very strong wealth manager, (and) if the markets are repositioning, you see that Investment Banking does really well,” he told CNBC’s Joumanna Bercetche.

Economic uncertainty on the back of Covid-19

Despite beating analyst expectations with its results, UBS was cautious on the economic outlook.

“On the one side clearly there is some light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccination programs,” Hamers said.

But he added: “On the other side we are in heavy lockdowns, certainly also here in Europe, so you don’t know what the real impact on the economy is and how the economy will actually get out of this pandemic.”

The start of 2021 has been clouded by tighter social restrictions, mainly in Europe, where governments have also been criticized for a slow roll out of Covid-19 vaccines. There are also concerns over new variants of coronavirus which are more transmissible and leading to higher infections levels.

“Recent developments, including economic and political situations in some large economies and geopolitical tensions, have again raised questions around the shape and pace of the recovery,” the bank said in its result statement.

Here are some other key metrics from the results:

  • Operating income came in at $8.1 billion, versus $8.9 billion at the end of the third quarter.
  • Common equity tier 1 capital ratio (CET1) — a metric of bank solvency — was 13.8% versus 13.5% in the previous quarter.
  • Return on tangible equity — a metric of profitability — hit 12.9%, compared with 16.2% in the previous quarter.

UBS shares are up around 3% since the start of the year.

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