Emerging markets have often been unkind to banks. Unstable governments, dubious corporate management practices and wild swings in investor confidence can make the developing world far less predictable than the more advanced economies of the West. But the current financial crisis has stood a lot of the conventional wisdom on its head. As the Wall Street subprime meltdown sent prominent banks in the U.S. and Europe tumbling, financial institutions doing most of their business in developing countries have come through the crisis looking healthier and smarter.
So it has been with Standard Chartered. Though headquartered in London, most of StanChart's operations are centered in the emerging markets of Asia, the Middle East and Africa and as a result, it has not only weathered the crisis but continued to prosper. Last year, during the height of the economic storm, the bank's pretax profits surged 19%, while assets increased 32% to $435 billion. This was no fluke: StanChart in early May said it achieved record profits in the first quarter of 2009, and its London-listed shares have doubled since March. Such a stellar performance during the worst recession in decades has placed StanChart in the enviable position of being able to gain market share and key talent at the expense of its competition. Standard Chartered CEO Peter Sands, 47, has a simple explanation: "We had a very clear strategy and we're very clear on sticking to it," Sands says.
That strategy is to stay focused on core banking operations. While bank chiefs in the U.S. and Europe gorged on high-risk subprime lending and complex mortgage-backed securities in a quest for fat returns, Sands avoided toxic assets that got its competitors into trouble. Sands became even more cautious as the U.S. housing bubble began unraveling in 2007. Some risky borrowers such as low-margin Asian exporters, which have been hit hard by the collapse of U.S. consumer spending were asked to cough up more collateral when renegotiating loans, while other marginal customers were denied further credit. To strengthen the bank's financial position even more, Sands raised $2.7 billion in capital through a December share sale, raising the bank's key "tier one" capital ratio to 10.1%. (An 8% ratio is considered healthy.) Jaspal Singh Bindra, StanChart's Hong Kong based CEO for Asia, says that previous downturns like the 1997 Asian crisis made management especially wary of financial-system turmoil. "We learned that when there is a market problem, it spreads from a problem to a crisis very quickly," Bindra says.
Although the bank's emerging-markets exposure in the past may have been something of a liability, it's turning out to be a strength today. StanChart derives 80% of its operating profits from Asia. While growth has plunged in some of the bank's most important regional markets, like Singapore, others have remained relatively buoyant, especially India, where StanChart has the largest branch network of any foreign bank. Its breadth across some of the region's fastest-growing economies gives it an enviable profile. StanChart "is one of the best-placed banks in the world," says Alex Potter, banking analyst at brokerage Collins Stewart in London. "It had high profits in its home markets and didn't need to chase high-risk products."
Still, as the recession drags on, the odds are increasing that more of StanChart's borrowers will struggle to pay back their loans. The bank's nonperforming loans were up 30% in 2008 compared with the previous year. Even though some Asian economies, chiefly China and India, appear to have passed through the worst of the downturn, analysts still doubt StanChart can repeat 2008's performance this year. Brokerage CLSA predicts pretax profit growth will slow to 4% in 2009. Reflecting the heightened risk, Standard & Poor's in late April revised its outlook for the bank to negative. "The biggest single worry is the economies in the region," says Nick Hill, bank credit analyst at Standard & Poor's in London. "We think they've taken measures to pull in their horns, but it is a bit of a stretch to say they're immune from the environment." StanChart executives insist that their carefully managed loan portfolio can withstand the recession better than some expect. Though they did see a spurt of losses from bad loans while the financial crisis was roaring, managers say the situation improved in early 2009. "There is no direct correlation with macro numbers and the individual bank," says Bindra.
Confidence in its financial position has allowed StanChart to take advantage of crisis-created opportunities. As competitors retrench to repair tattered balance sheets, the bank is expanding its market share in key areas such as trade finance. It has boosted lending to small enterprises in Asia at no risk by participating in loan-guarantee programs implemented by governments to free up credit markets. Sands has also continued making strategic acquisitions, including the purchases of Cazenove Asia, a regional stock brokerage, and a 75% stake in another broker in India. Just as important, Sands has been beefing up the management ranks by hiring experienced bankers from troubled competitors. Since August 2007, StanChart has brought in about 100 senior executives from the likes of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, UBS and others. "I think there are opportunities for us to significantly strengthen our franchise," says Sands. Analysts believe StanChart's nuts-and-bolts approach will continue to serve it well. "They are taking on less risk but making more money," says Daniel Tabbush, banking analyst with CLSA in Bangkok. Isn't that what banking is all about?