UBS recovers from Swinegate with record China event turnout

Along with its global rivals, UBS is racing to prepare as China opens its US$45 trillion financial market this year to full foreign ownership.
Along with its global rivals, UBS is racing to prepare as China opens its US$45 trillion financial market this year to full foreign ownership. PHOTO: REUTERS

SHANGHAI (BLOOMBERG) - UBS Group is bouncing back in China seven months after facing a torrent of criticism for comments made by one of its top economists.

The 20th anniversary of its UBS Greater China Conference this week drew a record 3,400 registrants, including 2,000 institutional investors and more than 270 China-focused companies and funds. The turnout, about a fifth more than last year's, adds to encouraging signs on the business front. UBS ranks third for arranging Chinese offshore bond issues so far this year and, in October, it became the first foreign investment bank to underwrite an IPO on China's Nasdaq-style Star board.

Local support was in evidence at the conference, with Shanghai's government sending a senior official to deliver the opening address. Other Chinese speakers included Zhu Min, a former deputy governor of the People's Bank of China and Fu Ying, a previous vice minister of foreign affairs.

The renewed embrace couldn't come at a better time for the bank. Along with its global rivals, UBS is racing to prepare as China opens its US$45 trillion (S$60.6 trillion) financial market this year to full foreign ownership. The attendance underscores investors' interest and confidence in China, which despite a deep economic slowdown is still expanding at a 6 per cent pace and continuing its buildup of wealth.

UBS was criticized last year after a quip on China's swine flu epidemic by the chief economist at its wealth unit caused a social media uproar and cost at least one lost bond deal. UBS apologized for the comment, issued guidelines on how to tread carefully with language and sent a bevy of executives to China to appease Beijing.

In another spot of good news, the bank on Tuesday won an early reprieve from a one-year ban on handling initial public offerings in Hong Kong, a key hub for Chinese share sales.

The lender now hopes its head start in China on its rivals will serve it well. The increased competition that will come with the opening in China "doesn't really curb our opportunities," its Asia-Pacific president Edmund Koh said in an interview on Monday (Jan 13).

UBS played up its long presence in China at this year's conference, with a theme of "Twenty years of partnership: a vision for the future." Topics included the "new normal" for the global economy, the future of US-China economic relations, a cleaner future and the global 5G outlook.

Present in China longer than many of its peers, UBS was the first foreign business to win approval for a majority shareholding in a local securities venture under relaxed ownership rules in late 2018.


David Chin, UBS's Asia-Pacific investment bank head, said on Monday that its plan to double China investment banking headcount in three to five years is "achievable."

Chin was at the start of this year appointed responsible for developing and executing UBS's overall China strategy and liaising with regulators, the bank said on Tuesday. A UBS spokeswoman declined to comment further on Tuesday.

Revenue in China is still far below what it makes in its home country of Switzerland. UBS's onshore securities venture, in which it owns 5 per cent stake, made a profit of 10 million yuan (S$2 million) in 2018, according to its annual report. That compared with US$4.5 billion of profit for the group.

You have "to appreciate the domestic banks here will have to have their turn of growing first before it truly opens up to the foreign banks," said Koh.

The economist whose comments caused the ruckus, Paul Donovan, is also back in business. He has returned after being put on leave by the bank to let things cool down and he's commenting on China again, even on pork prices.