By Nichola Saminather
TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's top banks warned of a challenging year ahead with uneven economic recovery and a slowing housing market seen weighing on loan growth, as they wrapped up 2020 with a surprise quarterly profit beat due to lower-than-expected bad debt provisions.
Canada's six biggest banks set aside more than C$20 billion ($16 billion) over the past three quarters to cover the expected increases next year in loan impairments, which have so far remained near pre-pandemic levels, thanks to payment deferrals and a raft of government assistance programs.
While most banks are confident that the record provisions they have taken are adequate to absorb any spike in bad debts, the bigger worry for investors is stimulating credit demand in an economy slowly recovering from the pandemic-induced slump.
"Into next year, they will go back to normal in terms of credit losses," said Steve Bélisle, senior portfolio manager at Manulife Investment Management. "The focus will shift to the revenue side ... There's positive outlook on credit. On revenue, not so much."
Royal Bank of Canada, National Bank of Canada and Toronto-Dominion Bank warned significant uncertainties, including elevated unemployment levels and slowing of the country's surprisingly strong housing market, could pose challenges, particularly in the first half of 2021.
The banks said economic deterioration beyond what is factored in could necessitate further boosts to provisions.
"We made our pessimistic scenario even more pessimistic and increased the weight of that scenario," William Bonnell, chief risk officer at National Bank said on an analyst call on Wednesday. "We think that the pessimistic scenario account(s) for the dark potential path of the recovery."
Royal Bank on Wednesday warned of slower mortgage growth, in the mid-single-digits, and moderation in trading and underwriting from fiscal 2020's strong levels alongside increasing loan delinquences and impairments in 2021.
The Canadian housing market has experienced surprising strength since June - year-on-year sales jumped 32% in October, while the average price rose 15.2% - even as the economy slowed and unemployment spiked, driven by pent-up demand and record-low mortgage rates.
"It's very much a K-shaped economic recovery right now," Chief Financial Officer Rod Bolger told Reuters on Wednesday.
But Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Canada's No. 5 lender, sounded optimistic.
"We think (2021) will be a better year for us than this year was," with its loan book expanding faster and positive net interest income growth, CIBC's Chief Financial Officer Hratch Panossian said.
The Canadian banks index has risen 1.9% since Monday, before the lenders began reporting results, outpacing a 1.2% gain in the Toronto stocks benchmark.
($1 = 1.2874 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Nichola Saminather; Editing by Denny Thomas and Stephen Coates)