Retail banking chiefs anticipate tough times ahead in 2012 as the industry gets to grips with new regulations and steels itself for further restrictions on lending.
Banks facing hit from less consumer borrowing
Bankers have warned of a difficult year for personal lending as tighter regulations, consumer deleveraging and a stagnant mortgage market result in reduced opportunities for growth.
Retail lenders were expected to experience a "reduction on the revenue side", said Arup Mukhopadhyay, the head of consumer banking at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank.
"I don't think there's any fundamental difference in the way the market is, but it's a fact that the new regulations have taken the market size down," he said.
The Central Bank introduced new limits on personal lending last May, restricting fees on consumer loans and reducing the amount that banks could lend to individuals.
Credit cards and car loans were also regulated, with the latter generating an outcry from the UAE's network of car dealerships because of lost business.
A trend among consumers to focus on repaying loans and avoiding new debt continues to crimp banks' revenue growth.
Difficulties in the UAE's property sector also limited revenue growth. Mortgage transactions have dipped to about a tenth of their level before the financial crisis, Mr Mukhopadhyay said.
"It's going to be a very challenging year," said Mohammad Zaqout, the head of Al Hilal Bank's personal finance group.
"There's more Central Bank regulations that are being discussed, like capping rates - not only on credit cards, but there's also some talks about lending rates," he said. "These changes and the regulatory environment are leading us in the retail segment to face some serious challenges."
Despite the announcement of a Dh10 billion (US$2.72bn) government fund to pay off the debts of UAE nationals on low incomes, banks are expecting to be forced to diversify their customer bases away from these clients as a result of new lending caps, Mr Zaqout said.
The Central Bank has yet to finalise new regulations on the banking sector.
Personal lending grew by 2.6 per cent to Dh253.7bn between the end of 2010 and last November, Central Bank data shows.