“We will be launching completely new investment solutions”

Negative interest rate environment, customer asset fees, low returns on reinvestment, lending prohibition, account closures – in this interview, Head of PostFinance Hansruedi Köng explains how PostFinance is dealing with the current challenges.

PortraitHansruedi Köng Head of PostFinance

How was PostFinance’s result in the past financial year?

In 2019, we generated earnings before tax of 240 million francs. That’s 20 million francs or around 9 percent more than in financial year 2018.

Does that mean the worst is now over?

Our investment portfolio continues to include high-yield bonds from earlier investments that are now reaching maturity but which, in the current interest rate environment, we can only reinvest for very low returns. Margins therefore remain under pressure, and interest income will continue to fall, although we should see the decline slow down somewhat.

One effect of the low market rates is that many banks are charging their customers negative interest. What is PostFinance’s approach to this?

At present, interest rates on the financial markets are negative across the board, both in Swiss francs and in euros. And the market does not seem to be expecting interest rates to rise in the medium term. We can no longer absorb the negative market interest rates ourselves, and are therefore increasingly passing them on to our customers. Our approach is to look at the entire customer relationship: customers who use a wide range of our products and services receive a higher threshold than customers who only park their cash with us.

Will small savers soon also have to pay negative interest at PostFinance?

At the moment, I don’t expect that small savers will at some point have to pay a customer asset fee at PostFinance. But nobody knows what the world will look like two or three years from now.

The lifting of the lending prohibition requires the consent of Parliament.

In the current negative interest rate environment, savings accounts are hardly worth the effort. What alternatives does PostFinance offer?

We want to develop our savings customers into investment customers, and we are launching completely new solutions in the investment area, which will also be available digitally. For example, private customers will be able to invest in a digital asset management mandate from as little as 5,000 francs.

What is the current status regarding the lifting of the lending prohibition?

The lifting of the lending prohibition requires an amendment to the Postal Services Organization Act. The Federal Council mandated this at the beginning of September 2018. The Federal Administration is currently drafting a bill to be submitted for consultation and, based on the results of that consultation, the Federal Council will then send draft legislation with its dispatch to Parliament. I cannot comment on the exact timings. But what is clear is that partial privatization will be off the table if Parliament opposes the lifting of the lending prohibition. Because nobody will invest in a bank that is not allowed to issue loans.

Is this uncertainty paralyzing PostFinance’s strategic development?

We would of course like to have clarity as quickly as possible, because this decision is important for the future of PostFinance. However, we are focusing on work where we have matters firmly under control, which includes consistent implementation of our digitization strategy. In this area, we have closed gaps between us and our competitors in the past few months. And with the successful launch and positioning of the Valuu mortgage platform, we have demonstrated our pioneering spirit and innovative strength.

The current strategy period ends in 2020. Where do we go from 2021?

Working with the Board of Directors, the Executive Board is currently drawing up various scenarios for our strategic focus for PostFinance in the future. I can say no more at this point in time. However, I do assume that by summer 2020 we will have set our course for the strategy period from 2021, and we will of course then announce it.

No end to negative interest rates in sight

The negative interest rate, a monetary policy measure implemented by the central banks, has long since spilled over to the financial markets. Interest rates are not expected to rise in the medium to long term, as is shown by the negative yield on ten-year Swiss government bonds. In this market environment, PostFinance can no longer find profitable investments for the customer deposits entrusted to it, and is therefore increasingly obliged to pass on the negative market rates to its customers.