South African banks avoid job cuts

Standard Bank Group Ltd. and Absa Group Ltd. are among South African banks holding off on any further layoffs as they prepare to help the shrinking economy survive a potential jobs bloodbath.

Local lenders join global institutions from New York, Paris, London and Frankfurt that have pledged to preserve jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. Most South African lenders have already trimmed staff as they moved to digital services and dealt with an economy struggling with a series of recessions and a 29.1% unemployment rate — even before a lockdown to contain Covid-19 brought businesses to a halt.

“At present, the bank is in a strong financial position and we do not anticipate or see the need for retrenchments as a response to the pandemic,” Johannesburg-based Standard Bank, Africa’s largest lender, said in an email. “However, we cannot offer unconditional or permanent job stability should the economic situation deteriorate.”

Absa said it has a freeze on new hires, while FirstRand Ltd.’s First National Bank, Nedbank Group Ltd. and Capitec Bank Holdings Ltd. aren’t looking to make any cutbacks. The nation’s finance industry, which includes real estate and insurance, is the third-largest employer, while the six largest lenders, including London and Johannesburg-based Investec Group, have almost 186,000 workers across their operations.

“The large banks have got enough capital so I don’t fear for them,” said Jan Meintjes, a portfolio manager at Cape Town-based Denker Capital in Cape Town. “They’re probably in a good position to hold onto staff.”

The banks are at the center of the government’s plan to help shore up an economy the National Treasury estimates could contract 16.1% this year in a worst-case scenario. That would wipe out about 40% of the jobs in Africa’s most-industrialized country.

The Treasury plans to use lenders to disburse 200 billion rand ($11 billion) of guaranteed loans, mainly to small- and medium-sized enterprises.

No Fat

After lowering their staff numbers by not filling positions left vacant by resignations or retirements as they digitized their operations and services, the banks don’t have much fat left to trim, said Nolwandle Mthombeni, an analyst at Mergence Investment Managers.

“They’re very profitable as it is, so the banks can actually withstand keeping the costs on for the next year,” she said. “They are not in a position where they need to do aggressive retrenchment.”

Only FirstRand, the largest of the lenders by market value, and Capitec added jobs in their most recent financial periods. Nedbank, Standard Bank and Absa together shed 6,680 employees across their operations last year.

Absa isn’t considering retrenchments, it said in an email. Nedbank will continue to explore alternative roles for staff affected by digitization and will seek to review its cost base in ways that do not affect its workforce, it said, adding that “retrenchments will always be an option of last resort.”

First National Bank is encouraging internal moves to fill existing vacancies and not considering a restructure of its workforce because it is too early to evaluate the impact of Covid-19, the Johannesburg-based lender said in an email. Capitec Bank, which has grown its network while others have scaled back, is limiting recruitment to essential areas that will support its growth plans, the Stellenbosch-based company said.

There’s no way of knowing what a deeper slump in South Africa’s economy could spell for bad debts, earnings or the balance sheets of lenders, said Meintjes. Lenders agree, with most having withdrawn financial guidance for 2020. The five-member banking index has dropped 42% this year, almost in line with the 40% decline in the Bloomberg Europe Banks and Financial Services Index.

“I don’t think any of them will fall over,” he said. “But I think the next year is going to be painful for them.”

Now read: How banks are helping South Africans cope with the coronavirus lockdown

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South African banks avoid job cuts