Building on your positive feedback from last year, our shareholder letter this year again answers a series of questions that we are regularly asked by different stakeholders of the bank.
What was the market context in 2018?
The year started off positively, but nervousness set in by the end of the first half. Markets started fearing a downturn well ahead of any real economy indicators. Our private clients became less active, and from the fourth quarter onward, markets sold off as well. The most striking example to illustrate what developed over the course of 2018 is the fact that about 90% of asset classes were down on a year-over-year basis. That’s quite extraordinary. And when you look at what happened in December 2018, it was one of the worst months since the Great Depression in terms of market performance. The coexistence of macroeconomic and geopolitical issues caused even more concerns with investors. For example, according to our fourth quarter client survey, cash balances with our US wealth management clients reached a record-high level of 24%.
How do you assess the financial performance of the Group in 2018?
We had a very successful 2018, despite the market conditions just described. Against this backdrop, we increased net profit1 by USD 0.6 billion or 16% to USD 4.5 billion, and achieved a strong adjusted return on tangible equity excluding deferred tax expense / benefit and DTAs2 of 12.9%. Reported return on CET1 capital was 13.1%, markedly above most of our European peers and in line with American banks. We also generated USD 4.0 billion of additional capital in 2018 and our total loss-absorbing capacity increased to USD 84 billion.
How did 2018 reflect your capital returns policy?
Consistent with our capital returns policy, we accrued for a higher dividend and exceeded our share buyback goal of CHF 550 million by CHF 200 million. The Board of Directors intends to propose an 8% increase in our dividend to CHF 0.70 per share for the financial year 2018. Combined with the share buyback of CHF 750 million last year, our total payout ratio3 for 2018 will be 76%. To sum up, we continue to deliver attractive shareholder returns, while maintaining a strong capital position and investing for further growth.
Why has the UBS share price lost so much ground despite these achievements?
In our view, the current share price doesn’t reflect the long-run value of our franchise. The entire banking sector saw significant share price corrections in 2018. One needs to look at both absolute and relative performance. Investors’ profitability expectations for the industry reflect the fear of a global economic slowdown, more challenging market conditions or a combination of both. Nevertheless, we are among the highestvalued banks in Europe and compare well to a number of US peers. In terms of total shareholder return, we also outperformed our main European peers. Our focus is on sustainable performance, which is at the core of our strategy and should drive valuation growth over the cycle.
Why do you believe UBS still has the right strategy – how does it set you apart from others?
Secular trends such as global wealth creation, including the increased need for pension products, and the opening up of China’s financial markets will continue to drive the unique value of our franchise. We are the preeminent global wealth manager to high net worth and ultra high net worth clients as well as the number one Swiss bank, enhanced by an investment bank that is strong in the areas where we choose to compete, and a successful asset manager. The strength of our business model and our strategic focus have generated more than USD 19 billion in net profits over the last five years. More than half of our profits come from asset-gathering businesses, and our Swiss business further contributes to the stability of our earnings. We are diversified geographically, and well positioned in the world’s largest and fastest growing markets. Of course we review and recalibrate our strategy each year, as we constantly evolve in response to new challenges, but we have strategic clarity and consistency.
Are you satisfied with your combined wealth management division’s performance – where can you improve?
We’ve made good progress in exploiting the combined scale and capabilities of the businesses. Global Wealth Management achieved a decade-high pre-tax profit of USD 3.6 billion in 2018. Working as an integrated business creates new opportunities for revenue growth and improves our ability to execute existing opportunities, which we expect to enable us to achieve our 10−15% profit growth target. We also expect to generate cost synergies of USD 600 million over the next three years that will help fund our investments for growth and efficiency. We intend to make strategic investments totaling more than USD 1 billion through 2021 to further improve client and advisor experience. We remain confident in our growth plans even though net new money was not what we wanted it to be in 2018. Therefore, we will be intensifying our efforts to attract and retain a higher proportion of our current and prospective clients’ assets.
Your adjusted cost / income ratio is currently 79.5%. How do you intend to reach your 2021 ambition of around 72%?
First, when measuring efficiency, it’s important to include riskadjusted capital returns and not look at the cost / income ratio in isolation. Our goal is to balance revenue growth with both cost and capital efficiency. We delivered 3% positive operating leverage in 2018, as we increased revenues while reducing expenses. Our aim is to keep costs, excluding performance-based compensation, broadly flat over the next three years. And we have a range of tactical measures to address market headwinds. For example, while we cannot and do not want to halt our investments, we can adjust the pace and relative priority. And we will be focusing our hiring plans on the most important strategic growth areas.
Where and how do you expect to grow going forward?
We believe we can grow our revenues at more than the rate of global economic expansion over the cycle. From a geographic standpoint, the greatest growth is expected to come from gaining market share in the US and Asia Pacific. In the US, we have a sizeable opportunity with ultra high net worth clients. And we want to build our share of wallet with US persons outside the US. Also, further globalizing our Global Family Office capabilities is another part of our growth initiatives. In China, we became the first foreign bank to increase its stake to a majority of 51% in a securities joint venture, giving us a great foothold for future expansion. And in Switzerland, net new business volume growth in Personal & Corporate Banking was double GDP growth last year. Our aim is to further solidify this leadership position by, for example, expanding our digital lead. These are just some of the opportunities we are focused on, there are plenty of others, many of which are discussed in the pages of our annual report.
You want to be the bank for US, Asian and European entrepreneurs and corporates for their local and global needs – why should they choose UBS?
Because we are a truly global bank. Our clients globally require advice and solutions for both their own wealth and their businesses. They expect us to deliver the whole of UBS to them, with global wealth management and investment bank capabilities under one roof, from M&A all the way to succession planning, as well as the best teams when it comes to research and execution. We have the breadth and the expertise to bridge between both their corporate and their personal financial needs. This makes UBS an obvious choice, given our leading position in those fields that matter most to our clients.
Sustainability is a key part of your strategy, how is that reflected in your client offering?
We provide a broad range of products and solutions to both private and institutional clients, including sustainable and impact investing opportunities. For example, Asset Management followed its successful UK Climate Aware rules-based fund with a similar fund available for international investors. The portfolio is oriented toward companies that are better prepared for a low-carbon future while reducing exposure to, rather than excluding, companies with higher carbon risk, in order to pursue strategic engagement with these companies. Also in 2018, Global Wealth Management launched the world’s first fully sustainable investing (SI) cross-asset mandate portfolio for private clients. As of 31 December 2018, clients had invested USD 2.8 billion assets under management in this innovative solution.
What are you doing to prepare UBS for the digital future of banking?
We’re not just preparing for the future, we’re actively shaping it. Technology is changing the way banks, including UBS, operate. That’s why we are investing more than 10% of revenues, more than USD 3 billion each year, into technology. For example, we’ve accelerated our journey into the cloud space, thereby reducing the number of costly traditional data centers. We also increased the number of robots performing routine tasks from roughly 700 to 1,000 last year. We will more broadly leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence-powered engines to automate more complex tasks and allow for better and faster decision-making, for example in risk management or anti-money laundering. But the big focus is on front-to-back digitalization ultimately driving a better client experience, so technology is about much more than just cost savings.
You put several legacy issues behind you in 2018, but just received an adverse verdict in France. Can you comment on this matter?
We continued to make significant progress last year on legacy litigation, including resolution of two RMBS-related cases. In the two most prominent open matters, the FIRREA litigation and the French cross-border case, UBS has chosen to defend the bank in court with the best interests of shareholders in mind. We are confident in our legal position, and contesting these cases has also allowed us to present our arguments to stakeholders publicly. We strongly disagree with the verdict in France. UBS respected and followed its obligations under Swiss and French law as well as the European Savings Tax Directive. The judgment is not supported by the facts. For example, no evidence was provided that any French client was solicited on French soil by a UBS AG client advisor to open an account in Switzerland. This is acknowledged by the decision itself. Even assuming liability - which we contest - the calculation of the fine and the damages are, in our view, inconsistent and not in line with applicable law. We have appealed the French court’s decision to the Court of Appeal, which will retry the case in its entirety. The Court of Appeal operates under the supervision of the French Supreme Court and is required to address our arguments in its decision. Based on the law and the facts, we believe the verdict should be reversed.
What provisions have you taken for the France case?
Notwithstanding the strength of our legal arguments and the lack of evidence to support the charges, we have increased the provision for this matter to a total of EUR 450 million (USD 516 million). Under the accounting standard, we are required to judge if an outflow is probable and to estimate the extent of such an outflow considering a wide range of outcomes. In light of the first judgment and considering the full range of potential final decisions, the provision on our balance sheet reflects our best estimate of possible financial implications. That said, we still believe the verdict should be reversed, at which time we would release the provision.
Looking back at the Investor Update in October last year, how was the start into 2019?
Given the market developments since last October, our starting point for the year is different than we had planned, making this year’s journey toward our targets steeper. Also, despite some rebound in equity markets, clients so far have remained cautious in the first quarter of 2019. Nevertheless, we will have to see how the rest of the year develops. One of our goals at the 2018 Investor Update was to be transparent about the factors that we can and cannot control. We do not control the external environment, nor equity markets and interest rates. But of course this doesn’t mean we are passively waiting for markets to improve. It’s up to us to continue executing our plans with energy and commitment, with a focus on sustainable, long-term value creation.
What are the biggest opportunities medium to long term?
Over the last ten years, we have reconfigured UBS, while delivering strong results, and we are excited about the potential for the next decade. We had to deal with many challenges and that also taught us a lot, which will allow us to execute even better going forward. To achieve that, we need to take partnership within UBS to the next level. Because we know it leads to better results for clients, which in turn leads to more capital generation and even better returns for shareholders. We expect to generate almost as much capital in the next three years as we did in the previous six. And to tie in with our global growth ambitions mentioned earlier, our global infrastructure has the capacity to accommodate far more assets at marginal cost – so more scale is a significant opportunity. From a client perspective, we’ve seen that those who have navigated this environment most successfully are those who develop a clear long-term plan to allow for a sustainable legacy. With that in place, clients will be well positioned to seek opportunities amid the short-term noise. That’s exactly what we at UBS are doing ourselves.
Thank you for your ongoing support. We look forward to your feedback and also to welcoming you at our AGM on 2 May 2019 in Basel.
1 Net profit attributable to shareholders, excluding the USD 2,939 million net write-down of deferred tax assets (DTAs) following the enactment of the US Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in the fourth quarter of 2017.
2 Adjusted return on tangible equity excluding deferred tax expense / benefit and DTAs; calculated as adjusted net profit / loss attributable to shareholders excluding amortization and impairment of goodwill and intangible assets and deferred tax expense / benefit, divided by average tangible equity attributable to shareholders excluding any DTAs that do not qualify as CET1 capital.
3 Calculated as accruals for proposed dividends to shareholders plus the share buyback in 2018 divided by net profit attributable to shareholders.