Global banks could learn from Singapore lenders

DBS has bounced back from financial crisis even as one-time giants shrink

HSBC's headquarters in Hong Kong. The bank has announced a plan to shed flabby assets and shrink its workforce worldwide by almost one-fifth as it ditched the proud motto, "the world's local bank".
HSBC's headquarters in Hong Kong. The bank has announced a plan to shed flabby assets and shrink its workforce worldwide by almost one-fifth as it ditched the proud motto, "the world's local bank".PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SIX years after the worst shockwaves of the global financial crisis subsided, the standing of some once-powerful global lenders appears to be greatly diminished.

Much hand-wringing in the Western financial media accompanied the recent move by Deutsche Bank to boot out its co-bosses.

And HSBC has announced a plan to shed flabby assets, get out of Brazil and Turkey, and shrink its workforce worldwide by almost one- fifth as it ditched the proud motto - "the world's local bank" - which it had touted for years.

This sort of self-doubt is a world away from the self-confidence that once characterised these large banks.

The last two decades of the 20th century saw the rise of the so-called global lenders which were supposed to be all things to all people. They aimed to provide multinationals and well-heeled individuals with a single platform to move cash and manage their finances around the world.

In fact, when former JP Morgan executive John Olds arrived at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1998 to take over the helm of DBS Group Holdings, he said that he aimed to turn the bank into the HSBC of Singapore.

HSBC was held up as a shining example in the way that it had escaped the narrow confines of Hong Kong to become a global lender through a series of major acquisitions such as buying Britain's Midlands Bank.

But what made sense on paper turned out to be a nightmare in practice. The costs of running global banks ballooned as regulators demanded that these too-big-to- fail behemoths set aside more cash from shareholders to fund their operations in order to lessen the risks of a bailout if another financial crisis erupts.

Worse, some global lenders were hit with huge fines as they were caught up in misdemeanours ranging from helping to facilitate money-laundering to breaking sanctions in recent years. This has led market pundits to wonder whether mixing retail banking with the more entrepreneurial and buccaneering business of an investment bank was the right thing to do in the first place.

Bolting both operations together might have yielded some advantages, but this has been more than offset by the costs to customers and taxpayers caused by mis-selling of financial products and conflicts of interest.

This column noted back in 2009 that it was ironic that Singapore's three local lenders should have become as valuable as some of the global banking behemoths they had once looked up to with awe. But this was not because the value of Singapore lenders had grown as their operations suddenly expanded in leaps and bounds. Rather, it was because these financial giants had become far smaller after being forced to shrink their balance sheets after the financial crisis.

However, this observation has to be tweaked. The three Singapore lenders have indeed grown and prospered since then, even as their global rivals continue to grope for direction as to how they want to define themselves.

Take DBS Bank for example. When its current boss, former Citibanker Piyush Gupta, arrived to take over the helm more than five years ago, it was still trying to recover from the bruising its image had taken from mis-selling Lehman-linked investment products to retail investors.

Since then, its financial numbers tell an impressive story of a remarkable transformation which has made the bank a force to be reckoned with across Asia.

Between 2010 when Mr Gupta first presided over the bank's full-year results briefing and February this year when it reported earnings for last year, DBS' profit had almost doubled from $2.04 billion to a record $4.05 billion, including one-time items. At the same time, its asset base has shot up from $258.64 billion to $440.67 billion.

Investors have also benefited significantly as DBS' share price has jumped from $13.72 upon Mr Gupta's arrival to $20.68 now.

The trappings of success were also evident in a $1,000 hongbao the bank gave each of its 18,000 employees, ranked vice-president and below, to celebrate SG50 and also for the bank reaching $50 billion in market capitalisation. This is in stark contrast to the sombre message handed out by some global lenders as they flag more pain with even more restructuring and downsizing of their operations.

Two years ago when he was three years into the job, Mr Gupta offered some insights into DBS' success. Demonstrating the grasp of a maestro, he transformed DBS from being run as a "sum of small entities" into a more efficient outfit by making it "centrally managed".

"The opportunities in Singapore were not exploited. We have now put our branches to work, and they are now a significant source of origination," he was quoted as saying, with the bank taking steps to arrest declining market share and finding ways to utilise its huge deposit base.

DBS was also able to exploit the window created by the retreat of European banks after the global financial crisis to build up its regional franchise and grow overseas contributions to its bottom line.

He may not have fulfilled Mr Olds' vision of turning DBS into a HSBC lookalike. But then, sprawling banking giants are most decidedly out of fashion. It may even be worthwhile for their bosses to turn their heads this way to see what they might learn from DBS.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline 'Global banks could learn from Singapore lenders'. Subscribe