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Canadian banks' limited office loans offer investors some comfort

FILE PHOTO: Manhattan skyline is seen during sunset in New York City

By Nivedita Balu

TORONTO (Reuters) - Limited exposure to U.S. commercial real estate (CRE) is giving shareholders hope that Canada's big banks can weather the storm that has rocked rivals in the United States and Europe.

However, investors will be on alert for signs of stress when Canada's top six banks next week post first quarter earnings, that will continue to be pressured by high bad loan provisions.

The beleaguered U.S. CRE sector has taken a toll on banks in Europe and Asia, with borrowers at the risk of defaulting on loans as high interest rates and low occupancies hit valuations.

The recent sell-off of New York Community Bancorp has soured sentiment and dragged down U.S. peers, reviving fears of a global contagion stemming from the sector.

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"While the space is undoubtedly challenged ... it will be largely unimpactful to the Big-6 Canadian banks given their diverse loan books," Canaccord Genuity analyst Matthew Lee said.

Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, the country's fifth largest lender, has the biggest CRE exposure at 11% of its loan book, quarterly filings show.

Around 10% of total loans at the top three Canadian banks involved CRE, while National Bank of Canada's exposure was 8%, the banks said at the end of fiscal 2023.

Of the country's six biggest banks, National Bank of Canada has no exposure to office real estate in the U.S., while Bank of Nova Scotia's lending is minimal, filings showed.

The others have said their portfolios are largely diversified, with U.S. office accounting for less than 1% to 2% of overall lending books, with many holding back on new loans.

Big U.S. banks have a relatively small exposure compared to some regional lenders, which face many challenges including unanticipated losses in office and multi-family properties.

Earnings from Canada's top six banks are expected to fall between 3.8% and nearly 16%, LSEG data shows, largely due to them setting aside large provisions for bad loans and a slower pace of lending.

"If you look at their (Canada banks) results, the one big change that we see is they're not lending as much commercial and personal. That's really it," said Shilpa Mishra, managing director in BDO's capital advisory services.

Canadian insurer Sun Life Financial Inc cut the value of its U.S. office property portfolio by 26% in its latest quarter, underscoring the risk to banks.

BRIGHT SPOT

Canada's top banks have expanded in the U.S. due to limited options in a highly regulated and competitive home market.

But hurdles, including the U.S. Justice Department's probe in TD's anti-money laundering lapses and Royal Bank of Canada's capital injection to rescue its U.S. unit City National, have made some investors wary.

"The challenge in the U.S. is that it's just not as profitable ... So, the question is, you're deploying capital, what is your expected return on that?," Colin White, CEO and portfolio manager at Verecan, said.

"You just can't see the returns in the U.S. that they (Canadian banks) are able to see in Canada," White added.

Capital markets revenues are expected to rebound, however, as deal activity resumes after a long lull. Earnings from the segment are expected to grow 16% from the prior quarter in total for the large Canadian banks, RBC Capital Markets said.

"There's a backlog of businesses in Canada that needs to transition and many business owners have held off going to market over the last year. This has resulted in pent up activity in the deal making space," BDO's Mishra said.

(Reporting by Nivedita Balu in Toronto; Editing by Denny Thomas and Alexander Smith)