News analysis

The difficult task of repairing StanChart

HONG KONG • Without the sort of ambitious, large-scale loans that fuelled its business for more than a decade, where does Standard Chartered go?

That's the question investors will be asking as the emerging- markets lender tries to offload US$4.4 billion (S$6 billion) of stressed debt.

If chief executive officer Bill Winters gets rid of those loans, about half the US$8 billion of mostly non-performing advances the bank has said it wants to liquidate, he will have made concrete steps in clawing back some of the lender's bad debt problems. But it'll be hard to reward him for what will probably be a series of fire sales of loans made to highly leveraged Indonesian miners and troubled Indian infrastructure companies.

StanChart, which is listed in Hong Kong and London and focused on Asia, the Middle East and Africa, emerged from the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. However, an aggressive build-out under former CEO Peter Sands left it vulnerable to spiralling bad debt as core markets slowed and commodities tumbled.

The bank, whose biggest shareholder is Temasek Holdings, posted its first annual loss since 1989 for 2015, while its non-performing loans ratio rose to 4.8 per cent as of December from 2.7 per cent 12 months prior.

The bad debt up for sale comprises US$1.4 billion of loans to Indian companies, including GMR Infrastructure, which was identified by Credit Suisse as one of India's most highly leveraged corporates, and US$3 billion lent to firms in China, Indonesia and Malaysia. Some of the biggest advances to go awry include a US$1 billion line of credit to Indonesian mining tycoon Samin Tan, inked at the height of the commodities boom five years ago.


Standard Chartered in Hong Kong, an important market for StanChart. The city is weathering a significant drop in property prices and a groundswell of political unrest that, longer term, could threaten its status as a laissez-faire business hub. PHOTO: REUTERS

Private equity firms looking to invest in distressed debt in India may be one solution. 

Asia's third-largest economy now allows creditors to swap their debt into equity stakes and, pending bankruptcy reforms, may make long and drawn-out trials a thing of the past.

If chief executive officer Bill Winters gets rid of those loans, about half the US$8 billion of mostly non-performing advances the bank has said it wants to liquidate, he will have made concrete steps in clawing back some of the lender's bad debt problems. But it'll be hard to reward him for what will probably be a series of fire sales of loans made to highly leveraged Indonesian miners and troubled Indian infrastructure companies.

Should StanChart manage to offload the whole US$4.4 billion (only about a third of the some US$12.7 billion of total bad debt on its books), the bank would move closer towards the upper end of its common equity Tier 1 target ratio of 12 to 13 per cent, according to Fitch Ratings analyst Sabine Bauer. Its non-performing loan ratio would drop to about 3 per cent, she said.

But even if Mr Winters manages to get a decent price, key will be whether he has a viable business strategy that steers the bank away from the sort of commodity-heavy lending it indulged in for much of the last decade.

Mr Winters, a former JP Morgan banker, has said he plans to restructure or cut US$100 billion of the bank's US$315 billion in underperforming risk-weighted assets over the next three years to get "lean and focused".

This, of course, is easier said than done and it's also the same sort of strategy UBS, Credit Suisse and a slew of Singaporean banks are exploring.

Every financial institution worth its salt wants to be in the capital-lite, albeit highly competitive, area of wealth management, plus to be bulking up in China. StanChart also isn't alone in its wish to improve the technology that's becoming the backbone of retail banking.

Then there's the question of Hong Kong, which is an important market for StanChart. The city is weathering a significant drop in property prices and a groundswell of political unrest that, longer term, could threaten its status as a laissez-faire business hub.

Mr Winters certainly has his work cut out and, notwithstanding a jump in the bank's stock this week, convincing investors he can repair the venerable lender will be a difficult task. 

Merely hiving off problematic legacy assets won't be enough to ensure a successful future.

BLOOMBERG

•This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2016, with the headline 'The difficult task of repairing StanChart'. Print Edition | Subscribe