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Sector must reposition itself

Published on Friday, 17 Sep 2010
More mainland firms are coming to Hong Kong for loans.
Photo: Xinhua
Stanley Wong
Director and deputy general manager of ICBC (Asia)

Looking ahead to the panel discussion he will chair at the HKIB's second annual banking conference on Tuesday, Stanley Wong knows there will be no shortage of feedback and opinion. The director and deputy general manager of ICBC (Asia) is set to lead a session on the subject of "new role, new growth", which will consider factors driving expansion in Hong Kong's banking sector, plus the evolving competitive landscape for local and overseas banks on the mainland.

"For the first point, there are at least two dimensions," he says. "One concerns the growth opportunities in terms of customers; the other is in terms of products." He says the Hong Kong banking market is already seeing direct benefits from the tightening of credit policy and the loosening of other controls on the mainland.

This has led to more China residents choosing to transact their investment and banking business in Hong Kong. And, compared with 2009, this year has seen growth in loans, spurred in large measure by mainland corporations, restricted at home, coming to Hong Kong to borrow.

The mainland authorities' decision to allow Hong Kong banks to conduct more extensive yuan business is having a major impact. This includes taking yuan deposits for Hong Kong residents, trade finance, and investment in the inter-bank market, with all the signs pointing to this being just the start.

"I would anticipate a better variety of products in yuan to be transacted in Hong Kong," Wong says. "But it will take some time."

It is his view that the mainland authorities are moving in the right direction as they pave the way for full convertibility of the currency. Fallout from the global financial crisis interrupted the process of "internationalisation", but gradual moves towards openness and a higher valuation had to continue.

Stability will remain top of the agenda for mainland leaders. Therefore, they will look to avoid exchange rate volatility and not tie themselves too tightly to any timetable for future change. "Nothing is cast in stone but, as a target date, 2020 would be reasonable for the yuan to be fully convertible," Wong says. "That is not just for capital account conversion, but for other central banks to hold the currency as a reserve."

Considering the general competitive landscape, he is adamant that Hong Kong's banking sector must reposition itself. The chance to become the principal offshore centre for yuan business and proximity to the mainland's manufacturing industries provide obvious advantages. However, remaining an international financial centre requires constant evolution in products, know-how, technology and regulatory oversight.

"We cannot be too complacent," Wong says. "We must ensure staff are adequately trained and that all the financial infrastructure is there - the clearing systems, the rules and laws - to support a multidimensional linkage between Hong Kong and China."

Referring to expansion on the mainland, he notes that banks headquartered outside China will have to find their own niche. Some are clearly more aggressive in their approach to establishing branch networks.

For most, it is a question of selecting the right location and customer base. This could mean targeting Taiwanese companies manufacturing on the mainland, or focusing on individuals investing in the property market in Beijing or Shanghai.

"Selectivity is the key word," Wong says. "And in terms of share, remember that a little bit of the market is enough."

He expects international banks to have much more to consider than their own push into China. The past 12 months have seen a marked weakening of the position of a number of the bigger multinational operators in various rankings by capitalisation and profitability.

Mainland institutions are taking their place, and no great leap of the imagination is required to see some kind of mergers and acquisitions activity as a likely consequence.


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