Up to new chief to bring back SGX's lustre

Mr Loh Boon Chye has more than two decades of experience in international banking, including stints at Deutsche Bank and Bank of America. He is said to be able to have empathy and connect with others, as well as stay calm even in demanding situations
Mr Loh Boon Chye has more than two decades of experience in international banking, including stints at Deutsche Bank and Bank of America. He is said to be able to have empathy and connect with others, as well as stay calm even in demanding situations.PHOTO: SGX

He needs to boost share trading, raise investor sentiments and build on derivatives' success

When Mr Loh Boon Chye left the board of the Singapore Exchange (SGX) in 2012, equity trading volume on the bourse had been steadily dwindling for years.

Today, the veteran Singaporean banker returns to the exchange's recently renovated downtown offices as its new chief executive.

He will soon have to confront an issue that is more acute than ever - in the intervening period, the average daily value of equities traded kept dropping. Turnover on Singapore's bourse this year has been 95 per cent lower than in Hong Kong.

Mr Loh will need to summon management skills honed over more than two decades in international banking to revive the market and appease Singapore's brokers, who say SGX's top executives neglected domestic equity trading to focus on developing new derivative contracts.

"They have been pushing for the derivatives business because that's where the growth is," said Mr Jimmy Ho, president of the Society of Remisiers, which represents Singapore's commission-based stockbrokers. "They have forgotten about the stock market."

ONE-SIDED FOCUS

"They have been pushing for the derivatives business because that is where the growth is. They have forgotten about the stock market. ''

MR JIMMY HO, president of the Society of Remisiers, on SGX

Share trading in the city has stagnated largely due to the dearth of new offerings.

Only three companies have listed in Singapore so far this year, at a time when Shanghai and Hong Kong have seen a flood of initial public offerings.

Investor sentiment has also yet to recover from an unexplained US$6.9 billion (S$9.3 billion) plunge in the value of three commodity companies over three trading days in October 2013, which sapped confidence in the market.

Last month, SGX was reprimanded by the Monetary Authority of Singapore over two trading outages in 2014 that forced then CEO Magnus Bocker to make a public apology.

Those who know Mr Loh from his stints at Deutsche Bank and then Bank of America say he is well qualified to deal with the challenges he will face in his new job, even if the task of reviving local share trading is daunting.

"At SGX, he will have a lot of different constituents he will have to deal with, who have different needs and aspirations," said Mr Philip Lee, vice-chairman of South-east Asia at Deutsche Bank. "The ability to have empathy and connect with others will stand him in good stead. He is always very calm, he is never flustered, even in the most demanding situation, so he is therefore able to make rational decisions."

Mr Loh's success in building up Deutsche Bank's fixed income business when he was head of Asian global markets between 2002 and 2010 illustrated some of the skills he will bring to reviving the SGX business, said Mr Mark Leahy, who worked for Mr Loh as head of Asia debt syndication in that period.

"This was his first 'long ball' or taking a long-term perspective on the region's opportunities," Mr Leahy said. "Having this perspective is one thing but driving the essential internal consensus and support for the strategy during hard times is the real talent."

With Chinese markets now in turmoil, Mr Loh will need to decide whether to push ahead with attempts to attract more listings from mainland companies. SGX in February appointed one of its most senior executives, Mr Lawrence Wong, to lead initiatives to build its China business, which lags well behind the Hong Kong market.

"Our local bourse has lost some of its lustre in recent years, largely because IPO aspirants do not enjoy such favourable valuations in Singapore," said Ms Stefanie Yuen Thio, who handles IPOs and mergers and acquisitions at the Singapore-based legal firm TSMP Law Corp.

"With listings being increasingly regulated and post-listing compliance costs going up, the argument for listing in Singapore has become less compelling."

As well as attempting to revive trading in Singapore equities, Mr Loh will need to continue to build on the SGX's recent success in developing its new derivatives contracts, seen as one of the major achievements of his predecessor Bocker's 51/2 -year tenure.

The most successful contracts are Chinese and Japanese index futures, used by institutional investors to speculate or to hedge other positions. Derivatives trading accounted for 30 per cent of SGX's revenue in the year to June 2014, up from 26 per cent two years earlier.

The proportion of revenue from equities dropped to 33 per cent from 38 per cent over the same span. SGX is due to report its latest full-year results on July 29.

Even if Mr Loh manages to revive the IPO business in Singapore, he still needs to address the concerns over recent trading scandals, according to the Securities Investors Association of Singapore (SIAS). Those include the sudden drop in small commodities stocks in 2013 as well as debt defaults and accounting irregularities that saw a number of Chinese companies delisted or suspended from the SGX.

"Many Singaporeans do not invest in stocks anymore for fear of losing their money," Mr David Gerald, president of SIAS, said by phone. "They fear they would lose their savings so they're keeping it in bank deposits, even when interest rates are very low."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2015, with the headline 'Up to new chief to bring back SGX's lustre'. Print Edition | Subscribe