Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Mar 21, 2024

European Financials: Why Confidence Has Returned

With Bruce Hamilton and Alvaro Serrano


Bruce Hamilton: Welcome to thoughts on the Market. I'm Bruce Hamilton, head of European Diversified Financials Research.

Alvaro Serrano: And I'm Alvaro Serrano, head of European Banks Research.

Bruce Hamilton: And on this episode of the podcast, we'll discuss some of the key takeaways from Morgan Stanley's just concluded 20th European Financials Conference. It's Thursday, March 21st at 3 pm in London.

Alvaro, we were both at the European Financials Conference in London. More than 100 companies attended the event. 95 percent of the attendees were from CE level management. There was a lot to take in.

Investor sentiment heading into the conference seemed noticeably more upbeat than last year's, thanks in part to stronger-for-longer net interest income (NII), an M&A cycle that is heating up, attractive capital returns, and increasing activity in private markets.

Now you were the conference chair, Alvaro. And you have a unique overview of this event. What's, in your view, the single most important takeaway?

Alvaro Serrano: Thanks, Bruce. Look, I think for me that if I had to summarize in two words is ‘risk on.’ I think the tone of the conference has been positive almost across the board. The lower rate outlook has increased market confidence. And corporates were pointing that out. They've seen stronger activity, so far this year, in many product lines. They've called out loan demand being stronger. They've called out debt capital market activity being stronger. They've announced M&A -- we know is up strongly and asset management inflows are up strong as well. So yes, a strong start to the year - confidence is back, and I would summarize it as risk on.

Bruce Hamilton: Got it. And in terms of the other key themes and debates that emerged from company presentations at the conference.

Alvaro Serrano: Yeah, look, I think the main themes following up from what I was saying earlier are: First of all, I would say leadership change. Within the sector, we've been calling for leadership change in our outlook. And I think what we heard at the conference supports this. So, given market activities coming back, I think a lot of investors were more keen to look for more resilient revenue models; maybe less peripheral banks, less NII retail-centric banks. And looking for more fee growth that could benefit from that market recovery.

The second point I would point out is UK. There’s definitely a change in sentiment around the UK in the polling questions. It came out as a preferred region, and I think what's behind that preference is that we're seeing an inflection point in NII.

And I think the third and final theme for me is investment banking and wealth recovery. Look, wealth may not recover already in Q1. But as this confidence builds up, we definitely expect inflows to pick up in the second half, both in quantity and margin.

Bruce Hamilton: So, based on your own work and what you heard at the conference, what's your overall view on the financial sector and what drives that from here? 

Alvaro Serrano: We continue positive the sector. Look, the valuation is depressed. The multiples, the PE multiples on six times. Historically, it's been much closer to double digit. We think, recovering PMIs should help rerate that multiple. And while we do wait for those PMIs to recover, you're being paid 11 percent yield between dividends and buybacks.

I think the confidence build up that we're seeing in the tone of the conference, suggests, is an early indicator of those PMIs recovering, if you ask me. And then in the panels, we've had plenty of discussions around asset quality. Obviously, commercial real estate exposure is a big theme. But we think it's a manageable problem. It's less than 5 per cent of the loan books, within that office is less than a third. And within that US office spaces is a fraction. So overall, we think it's a manageable problem and our highest single conviction in the sectors that the yields are sustainable and resilient.

So, with a strong valuation underpin, we continue, positive of the sector. 

Bruce, why don't I turn it over to you? Given your focus on private markets, exchanges, and asset management subsectors within diversified financials, can you talk us through private markets and deal activity space?

Bruce Hamilton: Yeah, our fireside chats with panels, and with private market management teams, saw more optimistic commentary on capital markets activity. And similarly fundraising improvements are expected to be closely linked to cash flows from exit activity flowing back to institutional clients, who can then reallocate to new funds.

[00:06:00] So there's a little delay. But overall, the direction of travel clearly feels positive and pointed to a reacceleration in the private markets’ flywheel in due course, which has been, of course, the rationale behind the more positive view we have taken on this subsector since our outlook piece in November last year.

Alvaro Serrano: AI is obviously a dominant theme across sectors and industries globally. Also, by the way, a frequent topic in the discussion of this podcast. Can you give us an update on AI and its implications for wealth and asset management?

Bruce Hamilton: Sure. I mean, our discussions with asset management CEOs highlighted the transformative potential of AI, as they see it as a source of significant efficiency potential across the value chain. From sales and marketing, through investments and research, to middle and back office -- in areas such as report writing, research synthesis and client servicing. The benefits of starting early, with leaders having been working on this for 12 months or more, seems clear [00:07:00] given the need to manage risks, for example, ensuring data quality to avoid hallucinations.

One asset management CEO indicated that his firm had identified 85 use cases, with 35 already in production. The initial opportunities for asset managers were seen as principally in driving cost efficiencies; though in wealth management a greater revenue potential we think exists given the scope to improve the effectiveness of wealth advisors in targeting and servicing clients.

Exchanges also noted scope for AI to both support revenue momentum. For example, via chatbots, assisting clients in accessing data more effectively. And in driving efficiency in report writing, as well as in costs. So, think about scope to drive efficiencies in areas such as client servicing and data ingestion and organization where large language models (LLMs) are already driving efficiency gains for employees.

Alvaro Serrano: Finally, let's talk about private credit, another big theme. What did you hear, at the conference around the growth of private credit? And what's your outlook from here?

Bruce Hamilton: Sure. So, the players were positive on the potential for growth in private credit from here. In the near-term deployment opportunities probably look stronger in the private credit space relative to private equity, where some differences in buyer-seller expectations is still acting as a bit of a constraint. There are opportunities given bank retrenchments, even if the Basel III endgame is expected to be less negative than initial draft proposals. And the appetite from insurance -- institutional, as well as retail clients for the diversification benefits and attractive yields on offer -- remains pretty significant.

Both private market specialists and traditional asset managers continue to explore ways to extend their capabilities in the space, with some adopting an organic approach and others looking to accelerate scaling via M&A.

We expect that as we look forward, that some recovery in the bank's syndicated lending markets is likely to reduce the record market share enjoyed by private credit in private equity deals last year. However, we think a more vibrant overall deal environment is likely to drive opportunities for both bank syndicated and private credit looking forward.

The democratization theme with wealth clients increasing allocations to private markets remains an additional powerful growth theme as we look forward; both for private credit providers, as well as players active in private equity infrastructure and real estate.

I'm sure there'll be lots more to unpack from the conference in the near future. Let's wrap it up for this episode. Alvaro, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk.

Alvaro Serrano: Great speaking with you, Bruce.

Bruce Hamilton: And thanks for listening. If you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please leave us a review wherever you listen and share the podcast with a friend or colleague today.

The perspective from our recent European Financials Conference looked positive for UK markets, loan demand and M&A activity. Our European heads of Diversified Financials and Banks Research discuss.