Is the subprime turmoil over? How do you see it evolving into the future and how does it affect Standard Chartered, which is largely an emerging markets’ bank?
You will continue to see turmoil in the global credit markets and global financial markets. There is a lot of pressure in the inter-bank markets. Certainly, it is an advantage not to be affected by the sub-prime market. So, we are well placed relative to what is going on. But we are not complacent at all, because nobody should be complacent about the powers of the forces that are sweeping the global financial markets. No market or player can be completely immune to such forces. We are extremely vigilant about potential effects. Most financial problems are hard to predict. We don’t pretend to know. Our direct exposure to the subprime issue is extremely limited. If anything, the turbulence creates for us as many opportunities as it does challenges.
What are the opportunities that you are seeing in the market?
If you are very well capitalised and very liquid, and we are both, then you are in a position to support clients. On the other hand, some of our competitors are constrained in their abilities to support clients. So, we are stepping in to help clients and complete transactions, finance themselves. Hence, there are opportunities.
So, any opportunities for acquisitions…
Oh! We have been busy on the acquisitions’ front. I don’t think there are too many banks which would have done the number of acquisitions that we have done in the past six months. I admit most of them have been quite small, but there is no doubt that the playing field for acquisitions is a little less crowded than it was before, mainly because many players in the world financial services sector aren’t exactly in a position to be writing cheques for acquisitions.
There is a new kind of acquirer on the global financial services scene with not just Chinese banks, but even sovereign wealth funds and private equity players acquiring a lot of muscle. How does all this affect the playing field?
|“The playing field for acquisitions is a little less crowded than before, mainly because many firms aren’t exactly in a position to be writing cheques for acquisitions”|
Standard Chartered itself has evoked a lot of interest about the acquisition of the Temasek stake (since the interview Temasek has increased its stake in thebank by 1 per cent to 19 per cent). Does StanChart remain a perennial acquisition target, especially in the context of the global shifts in capital?
As chief executive of Standard Chartered, you get used to these stories. It is hard for us to get terribly excited about it. But what it reflects is that we are quite a unique player. There is no one quite like us. We view Temasek’s investment as a vote of confidence in our management and our strategy. We welcome Temasek as a long-term investor.It’s not for me to say whether we’re a takeover target. Our focus is on delivering superior financial performance and return to our shareholders.
The cost of capital for the emerging market banks is extremely low. How does this affect a bank such as yours?
It is an interesting reversion of the old trend when the western institutions had lower cost of capital. It depends on how sustainable or longlasting it will be. The effective cost of capital for an Indian bank or a Chinese bank, given the P/E ratings, is quite low compared to that of a bank listed in London or New York. Then the question is will that last or will you find the sources of capital going to West, which they are doing. You’ve seen the deal with China Development Bank investing in Barclays. The other way around is for institutions such as ourselves to start raising capital in places like India and China, which is certainly a possibility.
So, how soon will you raise capital in this region? Growth in these markets, too, is quite rapid…
There is no timetable. We are not capital-constrained in any way. In the long run, as capital markets of Asia develop, I think we may well be looking at listings in other places.
We have done it before. We opened a second primary listing in Hong Kong in 2002. We were the first among western companies to do so. And I wouldn’t rule out other places, potentially Mumbai or Shanghai. Who knows? It is premature. We are looking at it.
Two India-related transactions—the acquisition of IFCI (in a consortium) and the sale of the AMC business—did not materialise in the last few weeks. How difficult does this make doing business in India, especially since both organic as well as inorganic growth for foreign banks is heavily regulated?
No doubt we want more branches in India, but I think the government and the regulators have done a commendable job opening up the financial sector in the way they have over the last few years. India presents huge opportunities, and I think because of our Indian heritage, product capabilities and relationships, we are well placed to take advantage of the opportunities. Our focus has been on organic growth and the numbers speak for themselves—our 2007 first-half India profits were more than the 2005 full-year profits. We (the consortium) decided to pull out of the IFCI bid after completing the due diligence—so we are not disappointed in any way. We had intended to sell the AMC last year, but the obligation was not on us to secure regulatory approvals. In hindsight, now is not a bad time to sell the business—the asset management company has performed very well over the last year and has substantially grown its AUM (assets under management) and equity portfolio.
How do you now chase similar opportunities (like IFCI) in India?
India is a priority market for us and we will look at every opportunity to grow here, organically as well as inorganically. Our options to grow through acquisitions are currently limited because of regulation, but we will be open to pursuing strategic opportunities such as UTI Securities.
What has been the cost of the deal with UBS falling through for StanChart? How soon do you expect to close the sale now with a new buyer, and how does this affect valuation of the business?
We expect to close the deal soon. I don’t think what happened with the earlier arrangement will have any negative fallout on the valuation. Now is not a bad time to divest the business—the AMC’s assets under management have risen almost 50 per cent since our decision to sell in 2006, several of its equity funds are now among the best-performing in the industry, and the size of the equity portfolio has jumped to 35 per cent of the overall AUM.
What is the value that the AmEx acquisition brings to StanChart in this region as well as in India?
|“We see India as absolutely critical, strategically central for Standard Chartered. It is a priority market for us. We will take advantage of whatever opportunity we can see”|
How do the regulatory issues affect the AmEx transaction in India?
You will appreciate that we’re in the midst of closing the deal and hence can’t comment. We are very excited about the opportunities that this transaction holds for us, particularly in India. American Express Bank provides Standard Chartered a unique opportunity to add capability and scale in two strategically important businesses—it significantly accelerates our financial institutions business and fast-tracks development of our nascent private bank. At the same time, it enhances our footprint in a number of key markets, like in India.
StanChart, though, has managed to wrap up the UTI Securities deal. How do you expect the benefits to accrue to the bank in the coming years?
UTI Securities is a strategic investment, and we have the option to increase our holding. The acquisition is in line with our strategy of seeking ‘capability’ targets: that is, businesses which expand our specialist or product offering as opposed to geographic reach. UTI Securities’ equity broking business gives us a significant transactional capability for our wealth management and private banking clients; and an initial public offer (IPO) management capability for our wholesale banking clients.
If the Indian market opens up in 2009, what sort of banks would StanChart be interested in?
It is quite difficult to know quite how 2009 would unfold at this point. We see India as absolutely critical, strategically central for Standard Chartered. So, we are very committed to building our business. And we will take advantage of whatever opportunity we can see. Our primary focus in India, as in the rest of the world, is actually organic growth. We think the most effective way and the most sure way for delivering shareholder value is to drive new products, capabilities, new services for customers. When we make acquisitions, we look at them as platforms for growth rather than just buying growth.
Do you see China letting go of its currency? And how do you see movements in the region? Do you see most currencies in this region strengthening relative to the dollar?
China will not let go of its currency, but over time, you will see the renminbi strengthening. Middle-Eastern currencies will also strengthen over time. The dollar has predominantly weakened against the euro. For macro-economic adjustments to go further, the dollar will have to weaken further against the Asian currencies.
Strengthening rupee, high oil prices… How much stress can the Indian economy take, strong as it may be?
The Indian economy has huge momentum. Every economy is subject to risks and challenges from macrovariables such as energy prices and currency. However, if India continues to work away at some of the internal constraints to growth… addressing issues such as skills shortages, infrastructure, accelerating agricultural growth and others. I would actually argue it probably makes more sense to get focus on those things and getting real traction on those things rather than spending too much time on things that you can’t control anyway.
(For the unabridged version of the interview click here)