Japan's three biggest banks are expected to report solid first-quarter results this week, driven by bond trading profits and lower credit costs, but few will see it as a sign of full-fledged recovery as their core lending activities remain sluggish.

With households and businesses still cautious about spending amid economic uncertainty, the banks are seeing far more money sitting in savings accounts than they lend, prompting them to buy Japanese government bonds.

Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group <8306.T>, the No.1 bank by assets, and No.3 Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group <8316.T> are likely to post a sharp rise in earnings for April-June, while Mizuho Financial Group <8411.T> is seen returning to profit.

Usually, for the megabanks we should be happy if April-June earnings reach 20 percent of their full-year forecasts, but this quarter I expect them to be 25 percent or more, said Shinichi Tamura, a banking analyst at Barclays Capital Japan.

With bond prices up, the banks are likely to be making more profits from trading than they expected, and are likely to see smaller credit costs as there have not been big bankruptcies during the quarter, he said.

MUFG is expected to post a net profit of 140 billion yen ($1.6 billion) for the April-June first quarter, up 84 percent from a year earlier, with SMFG reporting 100 billion yen, up 37 percent, according to estimates by Citigroup Global Markets Japan banking analyst Hironari Nozaki.

No estimate was available for Mizuho.

The Nikkei business daily said Mizuho is likely to report a net profit of around 150 billion yen for the first quarter, MUFG a profit of more than 100 billion and SMFG a profit of 150-200 billion.

StarMine link for Japanese banks: http://r.reuters.com/xet29m


But a jump in first-quarter earnings is unlikely to impress many in the market, as the banks' lending business, which still accounts for the bulk of their profits, remains sluggish due to weak credit demand.

Outstanding loans held by Japanese banks continue to shrink, falling 2 percent in June from a year earlier, the same as May, which was the biggest annual decline in almost five years.

The business environment remains tough for banks. With strong revenue growth hard to expect anytime soon, net profit growth depends on cost control, said Chikako Horiuchi, an analyst at Fitch Ratings in Tokyo.

Pressure for growth has been building on the top three banks as they have to justify massive dilution of shares after raising more than $50 billion since December 2008 to prepare for tighter capital rules.

The banks have been stepping up their operations in Asia, hoping to tap the region's growing economies, and MUFG and SMFG have said they are also looking to expand businesses in the United States, including possible acquisitions of banks there.

The megabanks are seeking revenue sources abroad, but we have yet to see how much growth overseas businesses will deliver, Fitch's Horiuchi said.

(Editing by Michael Watson)