Why Scotiabank is cutting jobs while earning billions: Don Pittis

Scotiabank, Canada's third-biggest bank and 10th-biggest company, is cutting 1,500 jobs and scaling back on risk. Don Pittis says part of the reason is that it wants to be ready to cope with the uncertainties of the Canadian property market.

Bankers batten down the hatches, cutting jobs and risk to weather a threatening storm

Scotiabank is cutting 1,500 jobs and scaling back on risk. Don Pittis says part of the reason is that it wants to be ready to cope with the uncertainties of the Canadian property market. (ValeStoc/Shutterstock )

Why is Scotiabank cutting 1,000 Canadian jobs while earning billions in profits? It seems crazy.

But in the end, it all comes down to a conflict between risk and prudence.

On Tuesday, the Bank of Nova Scotia set aside nearly half a billion dollars to cover the cost of shutting down overseas branches and getting rid of 1,500 jobs, two-thirds of them here in Canada. 

It's not as if Canada hasn't been good to Scotiabank.

When the bank was in trouble from the international credit crunch, you, the taxpayers, were there for them. Canada's third-largest bank and 10th-biggest company transferred billions in risky loans to taxpayers, leaving it free to lend that money again. At a profit.

That's not all.

In the Canadian mortgage market, Scotiabank, like Canada's other big banks, has benefited hugely from a business that can't seem to lose.

The banks borrow money at low rates set by the central bank and lend it to homebuyers at higher rates, while taxpayers, in the form of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, insure them against any losses.

But while we have been good to Scotiabank, it has been good to us in its own way. 

Unlike so many other banks around the world, Scotiabank and Canada's other big banks have been very good at not going broke. And it is to the advantage of all Canadians to encourage that.

Some sympathy

Many Canadians find it galling to watch giant corporations earn billions of dollars while repeatedly cutting staff.

Since the 1800s, one of Scotiabank's specialties has been conquering new international banking markets. (Canadian Press)
​At the same time, we must have a certain sympathy for a giant corporation that suffers from what is effectively a split personality. Scotiabank is in a constant conflict between the profitibily of big risks and the security of prudence.

For a member of an industry that might have a motto of "No fuss, no muss, no rough stuff," Scotiabank has certainly had its little adventures.

Canadians may think of it as the homely consumer bank down at the corner. But since the 1800s, one of its specialties among Canadian banks has been conquering new international banking markets. 

It was the first of the Canadian banks to fly the flag in Jamaica, opening a branch in Kingston in 1889.

It opened in Cuba in 1906, (closed by the Cuban revolution in the 1950s). It expanded in Asia during the 1960 and '70s.

More recently, the bank has pushed into Latin America, serving a growing middle class and lending to business.

Each new adventure abroad has been backed by the security of the home economy.

That Asian expansion was built on the back of Canada's postwar boom, when banks were opening branches across our burgeoning suburbs.

More risk

The developing markets of the Caribbean, Asia and Latin America offered the kind of growth rarely seen in a mature economy.

But they also carry a larger quotient of risk.

Much has also been made of the new-broom effect as Scotiabank's incoming chief executive Brian Porter cleans house and puts his stamp on the bank's strategy. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)
Due to prudence, Scotiabank has been quick to pull back in times of uncertainty, especially if that uncertainty is in its final port of safety, its Canadian home market.

Living in Asia during the 1980s boom, I often wondered whether Scotiabank hadn't regretted a previous retrenchment, having shut down much of its Asian expansion only a few years before.

This week, once again prudence won out. 

It is right for the bank to be cautious about its stake in the Venezuelan economy, where falling oil prices are only exacerbating political chaos.

Much has also been made of the new-broom effect as incoming chief executive Brian Porter cleans house and puts his stamp on the bank's strategy.

But it seems to me there is something else happening, and Scotiabank is not the only bank thinking about it. 

Victims of their own success

Falling oil prices and the possibility of rising U.S. interest rates could soon have a serious effect on one of the banks' cash cows, the Canadian mortgage market.

It is telling that the benefits of the current cuts won't arrive till 2016, when some have predicted U.S. interest rate increases will start to bite. 

In a way, the Canadian banks have been victims of their own success.

With higher profits year after year, fear of a slump in earnings could drive shareholders away, slashing a bank's capital value and leading to a further negative effect on profits. A prudent CEO does not want that to happen on his watch.

The employees who will lose their jobs are unfortunate collateral damage. 

But what Scotiabank may be doing is getting risk off its books and battening down to make sure it will be in good shape to withstand a potential storm.

Maybe the storm won't come. But it's good to be ready. That's only prudent. 


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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