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The hiring and firing at Swedbank and SEB

A third consecutive quarterly loss at Swedbank and greatly reduced profits at SEB wouldn’t normally be cause for bullish sentiment around Sweden’s two largest banks. However, there are signs things are looking up in the Baltics and that 2009 will be a very good year for some bankers.

Swedbank posted a worse than expected operating loss of SEK2.6bn yesterday, and SEB reported an operating profit of SEK338m – down from SEK2.5bn a year ago.

However, both banks expressed optimism that the non-performing loans in the Baltic region were decelerating and anticipated a more stable environment in the Nordic region – sentiments which have been well-received by the markets.

The first thing to note is the exceptional performance in the trading and capital markets divisions. Both banks reported strong fixed income profits (even if income slipped quarter on quarter) and Swedbank looks set to pay much bigger bonuses in its markets division in 2009.

To September 2009, Swedbank has earmarked SEK442m for profit-based staff costs (ie bonuses) in its markets division, which is a 58% increase year on year. At SEB, while staff costs are comparatively substantial within its merchant banking division – at SEK2.9bn – this represents just a 1% increase on 2008.

Overall, though, both banks have been reducing employee numbers. Swedbank has decreased headcount by 1,718 since January (1,382 of which were in the Baltics), while SEB has shrunk its staff base by 1,500 – 529 of which were in Sweden.

Neither bank has been hiring significantly (even in high-performing divisions), but Swedbank has quietly been bolstering its team in one particular area.

In its first quarter results, Swedbank revealed it would be hiring 200 people for a new Financial Restructuring and Recovery Unit in the Baltics. So far, it’s recruited 167 for this team to manage current and potential problems surrounding the soured loans, and is also in the process of taking people on to manage repossessed properties in the region.

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