National Bank won't face headwinds in Canada by looking abroad for growth: CEO

MONTREAL – Expected economic headwinds will not move regionally focused National Bank of Canada to seek acquisition opportunities outside of the country, the bank’s chief executive said Friday.

“We still feel that there’s plenty of places for us to grow both in Quebec and the rest of Canada and if we stick to what we know… I think shareholders will be well rewarded for that,” Louis Vachon said during a conference call to discuss the bank’s first-quarter results.

Quebec’s largest bank, which has a super-regional banking strategy, reported after markets closed on Thursday that its profits rose four per cent to $364 million, or $2.03 per share. Adjusting for one-time items, net income was $361 million or $2.02 per diluted share, beating analyst estimates by a penny.

Total revenue for the quarter, however, was $1.24 billion, mostly flat compared to the year earlier period and below analyst expectations of $1.29 billion.

“We continued to deliver excellent financial results in a competitive and slower growth environment thanks to our numerous initiatives to expand our position in the personal and commercial, and wealth management business units,” he told analysts.

Wealth management earnings increased 22 per cent to $56 million due to the contribution of acquisitions and more favourable market conditions.

Personal and commercial banking profits increased five per cent to $178 million while financial markets decreased five per cent to $115 million.

Vachon said the bank will maintain a tight control over expenses in face of expected moderate GDP growth in 2013 and will return excess capital to shareholders if it can’t find acquisitions.

But he said National (TSX:NA) has room to grow in Central Canada where the economy is expected to expand by 1.5 to two per cent annually over the next two to five years.

“I think we are growing below the long-term trend right now in Central Canada, so if we go back to trend that’s going to help us a little bit and we still feel that there’s plenty of places for us to grow both in Quebec and the rest of Canada.”

National could be especially vulnerable to the economic slowdown because it is among the banks that rely most on their domestic banking operations.

Barclays analyst John Aiken said the results were strong in isolation but were weaker relative to its peers.

“While National did come in ahead of consensus estimates, we believe that its earnings will not be viewed as strong as its peers, given the bar had likely be raised for expectations,” he wrote in a report.

On the Toronto Stock Exchange, the bank’s shares lost 21 cents at $78.35 in midday trading.