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The bank’s CFO discusses slowing growth in emerging markets and avoiding subprime fallout.
Tim Burke, CFO Europe Magazine
November 3, 2008
There's no fourth floor at the new London office of Standard Chartered. The number is unlucky in parts of Asia and, given the bank's focus on emerging markets, the architects did not want to run the risk of jinxing the building or the bank. With the financial services industry lurching from one crisis to the next, perhaps a little superstition can be allowed. But in his office on the building's ninth — or should that be eighth? — floor, group finance director Richard Meddings insists that in this industry, "you have to make your own luck." Standard Chartered seems to have done that. Thanks to its focus on Asia, Africa and the Middle East, it avoided any fallout from the subprime crisis and has posted rising results, while its global peers around the world watch their business grind to a halt.
That's not to suggest that Standard Chartered has stood aside while the banking crisis gathered pace. In mid-October, a UK newspaper revealed that Meddings and Standard Chartered CEO (and former CFO) Peter Sands were instrumental in helping the UK government structure a recapitalisation plan for domestic banks that was replicated across Europe and the US. Standard Chartered won't benefit from the plan directly — Meddings maintains that it is well-capitalised and doesn't plan to accept funds from the government — but rather he believes the rescue package is crucial to boost confidence in the UK's banking system.
Standard Chartered must now be concerned about a possible slowdown in Asian markets; Meddings spoke with CFO Europe the day after Japan's Nikkei index saw its biggest one-day fall since 1987. The finance chief argued that slowing growth in its target markets is still a better environment in which to operate than the West, where the possibility of a recession looms large. But at a time when today's assumptions are proved wrong tomorrow, it's still a major concern.
You've escaped the subprime fallout relatively unscathed. Was that genuine foresight?
We've been fortunate to an extent. We have no direct subprime exposure and we have very low exposure to the asset categories that are causing such mayhem at western banks, like leveraged loans, level-three assets and commercial real estate. We're clear about which customer segments we serve and we understand the products customers want. For us to stray over to the West and the world of subprime would have been a remarkable lapse in strategy, and in these times it's more important than ever to stick with your strategy.
What risk management lessons have you learned from events over the past year?
In a world that has suddenly become less benign, risks morph quickly, so you need a coherent and rounded view of any issue and how it might impact the business. A liquidity risk is instantly a credit risk. An operational-fitness risk can turn to a credit risk. A credit risk can cause a reputational risk. The financial system has been shaken and shocked to its core. The phrase Peter Sands uses here is "loose rivets" — when the machine is shaken around like this, the areas that are not reinforced will pop. You need systems that alert you to those areas quickly and then you need to understand how material the issue might be.
It's clear that many banks misunderstood liquidity. That's not true of Standard Chartered. For many years we've required each country business to stand up on its own in periods of stress in terms of their liquidity. When you combine each of those units, you get a strong group position. The ratios on which we've run our liquidity are no different now than in the past. Our liquidity ratio of 23% at the end of the first half and asset/deposit ratio of 85% mean we're liquid. Some people in the industry lost that.
Another lesson has been about the importance of pace — pace of decisions and action. Whether it’s the economy slowing or an industry coming under pressure, you have to make a decision about the issue. If the decision is wrong you make another one, but it’s worse not to make a decision at all. You have to move much quicker in this market than you had to two years ago. And everything about your information systems — the way management communicate with each other, the intensity of management communication — reflects that. We are a 24-hour business because we’re all over the world, and our teams are constantly in communication with each other.
Has your own risk management changed as you've seen other companies make mistakes?
If competitors get in trouble, we take the problem they had and run ourselves against that to see how we would have fared. So when Northern Rock went down, we looked at its liquidity flows as a real example to all of our businesses and asked whether we could have sustained that stress? The answer was yes. When Soc Gen had its trouble with market risk, we did a fundamental review of our market-risk activities in that sort of space and we were fine. We would tighten up some areas — you always do — but not in a material sense.
How do you see the group changing in the coming months, either strategically or in terms of capital?
We're well capitalised and we'll continue to raise capital to support our growth. And I think the strategic core is absolutely right. People are now more nervous about Asia's pace of growth. We see a moderation in Asia's economic growth, but not a collapse. On the other hand, we've said for some time that the UK, US and other western markets were heading for recession.
What are prospects like in other markets?
Africa in the main is still very strong. You may get fluctuations in the commodity price levels, and that will impact particular economies in relation to their attachment to those commodities, but fundamentally Africa is a key resources pivot for the world. In the Middle East markets remain very strong and while global pressures can cause occasional problems, the underlying wealth of that region is strong and therefore makes it much more resilient.
What is your acquisition strategy now, at a time when some western banks may be looking to sell assets in the regions you focus on?
There are clearly more opportunities available for strong banks like us. But the important thing is that we don’t lead with M&A — the focus of our strategy is organic growth. M&A plays a role, but a supportive role. We will make acquisitions where it enables us to get into a location or gain a capability faster than we could organically.
What other opportunities has the crisis offered you?
We’re hiring great people. If you think of the sheer dislocation that’s occurring in the sector, and the sophisticated skill set that finance people need in a bank, there are many good professionals out there and we are a bank that’s growing. So one of the most immediate benefits we’re getting — although I don’t want to prey on other people’s misfortune — is our ability to source good talent.
What are your biggest concerns?
We have to make the right judgements about the consequences of this financial sector dislocation and the global slowdown: how do we translate that to our own financial planning and budgeting? On the one hand, we don't want to say the world is stopping and then miss the fact that we have an opportunity to do more business with clients in emerging markets who still have ambitious, resilient businesses. But we also can't assume that the world will remain robust and fast-growing, as it clearly won't. Making sure we have enough ambition but stay measured is our biggest challenge.