CaiJin

A lion on the alert for fresh conquests

ICBC Singapore - the sole yuan clearing bank here - last year cleared 37.5 trillion yuan (S$8.4 trillion) in transactions. This was more than 14 times the 2.6 trillion yuan which it cleared the previous year when the service was launched.
ICBC Singapore - the sole yuan clearing bank here - last year cleared 37.5 trillion yuan (S$8.4 trillion) in transactions. This was more than 14 times the 2.6 trillion yuan which it cleared the previous year when the service was launched.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Rapid internationalisation of yuan is just one area which Singapore can capitalise on

Fifty years ago, it was impossible for even the most optimistic well-wisher of Singapore to envisage that the newly-independent nation would one day stride the global financial stage so impressively.

Who could have believed, back then, that the Republic would boast a bourse hosting companies with a total market value of almost

$1 trillion or a thriving wealth management hub that manages more than $1.4 trillion in assets?

But early on in its existence as an independent country, the seeds of Singapore's future prosperity were sown by the Government's efforts to grow home brands such as Singapore Airlines and DBS Bank.

These have since morphed into companies worth billions of dollars after they were listed on the local stock market.

The share of Chinese cross-border trades settled in yuan rose from almost nothing in 2009 to 22 per cent last year, according to the Economist. The yuan has also become the fifth-most-used currency for international trades.

Singapore's emergence as a global banking hub can be traced back to the establishment of the Asian dollar market in 1968 - three years after independence - when Bank of America was given the go-ahead to accept offshore

US dollar deposits and use them to finance corporate loans in Asia.

Since then, there has been no looking back. Singapore's financial centre has prospered as companies beat a path here to raise US-dollar funds to expand their business.

That, in turn, has spawned the development of the Republic as one of the world's largest foreign exchange trading centres, trailing only New York and London in terms of daily turnover.

It also paved the way for Singapore to become a centre for derivatives trading, and fast catching up with Switzerland as a thriving base for asset management and private banking.

Now as Singapore enters its second half-century, the big question for South-east Asia's miracle city-state - as the British weekly Economist describes it - is what else it needs to do in order to continue to flourish.

So far, no strategist has suggested a radical departure from the formula that has made Singapore's financial centre so successful. Instead, the suggestion is to build on past successes.

One theme is to grow our local household names into global champions that can compete with the best on the world stage. Such a move will put Singapore on a par with Switzerland which is home to global brand names such as Nestle, Swatch and UBS.

Investment bank Morgan Stanley noted in a recent report that one objective in Singapore's past development had been to create jobs by establishing several government-linked companies (GLCs) within the same sector to compete with one another.

But looking ahead, it argues that the objective should be about how to help Singapore firms grow into "globally competitive companies" to take advantage of the business opportunities thrown up by Asean, China and India as their economies develop further.

In this light, it sees recent mergers and acquisitions such as CapitaLand's acquisition of CapitaMalls Asia and Keppel Corp's privatisation of Keppel Land as precursors of more restructuring initiatives to come, as Singapore consolidates its GLCs to become a big corporate player globally.

Another theme identified by Morgan Stanley is the prospect of Temasek Holdings floating off more remaining GLCs in its fold on the local stock market. It would be an initiative that the local investment community would widely welcome.

After all, look at the great excitement stirred up by the listing of GLCs such as Singtel more than 20 years ago when its shares were sold at a discount to Singaporeans, turning them, including this columnist, into stock investors,

But Morgan Stanley observed that in recent years, the momentum of getting new GLCs listed in Singapore has faltered considerably, and this has coincided with a waning in investors' appetite for stocks.

"But it is interesting that of the 35 Singaporean companies that Temasek has held since its inception in 1974, 23 companies have been divested,'' it said. Companies remaining in its fold which stay private include PSA International, Singapore Power and Changi Airport Group.

Given the change in mindset which stresses that private enterprises - rather than the Government - should take the lead in exploiting fast-changing market trends and technologies,

Temasek may change its mind and step up its divestment efforts once again, Morgan Stanley added.

For this columnist, however,

the biggest development that is likely to benefit Singapore in the years ahead is the rapid internationalisation of the yuan

as it vies with the greenback for global pre-eminence.

Given the big part which the region plays in supplying raw material to China, this may give Singapore the same kind of pivotal role which it has enjoyed over the past 50 years as a US-dollar funding centre for regional companies, as appetite for the yuan grows.

Singapore has already got its foot in the door with the establishment of a yuan clearing hub here two years ago - making it the first major financial centre outside Greater China to be given such a privilege.

That move turned out to be a bonanza for ICBC Singapore - the sole yuan clearing bank here - which reported that for last year,

it cleared 37.5 trillion yuan

(S$8.4 trillion) in transactions. This was more than 14 times the 2.6 trillion yuan which it cleared the previous year when the service was launched.

For now, though, the yuan is still a bit player on the global stage.

But China's record in promoting the yuan's internationalisation is impressive. The share of Chinese cross-border trades settled in yuan rose from almost nothing in 2009 to 22 per cent last year, according to the Economist.

The yuan has also become the fifth- most-used currency for international trade.

And if the trajectory of the development in the Asian dollar market also holds true as the yuan clearing hub takes root here, Singapore stands to reap enormous benefits as the Chinese currency internationalises further.

It may spawn other spin-offs such as yuan-denominated listings, like the many US-dollar listings

that make their way to our stock market and grow our own dim sum bond market.

This will make the next 50 years as exciting for Singapore's financial centre as the past 50 years, if history is anything to go by. Happy 50th birthday, Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2015, with the headline 'A lion on the alert for fresh conquests'. Print Edition | Subscribe