Why HSBC, Ant Financial, Morgan Stanley stood out

The winners of our House Awards include big names in banking and hot fintech start-ups, as well as leading law firms, private equity funds and a national government.

Why HSBC, Ant Financial, Morgan Stanley stood out

Over the past few days, FinanceAsia has been setting out why we chose the winners of our various Achievement Awards.

We conclude today with perhaps the most keenly contested categories, the House Awards, which reflect consistent excellence through the awards period.

In addition to the usual categories, we honour for the first time an outstanding Belt and Road bank and, reflecting the disruption in the industry in recent years, the Best Digital Financial Services Firm.

You can also read about the region's best private banks, the outstanding deals by country, and the deal awards for the region as a whole.

BEST BANK: HSBC

HSBC’s position in China set it apart from its global peers.

Whether working on Belt and Road-related infrastructure projects, supporting the rapid growth of sustainable financing or connecting international issuers with Bond Connect, HSBC continued its pivot to Asia.

Its Asian franchise has benefitted from senior management’s support and the investment of the proceeds raised from selling assets elsewhere in the world. HSBC Holdings’ operations in Asia account for over a third of the group’s risk-weighted assets and for over two-thirds of its pre-tax profits during the last three years.

The shift towards Asia and its dependence on China has not been without risks. Credit growth in many markets across Asia has outpaced economic growth in recent years, increasing corporate and household indebtedness.

Management has acted to preserve profitability by generating higher fee and commission income from non-lending businesses and by lowering the risk profile of its Asian operations in the face of reduced economic activity and fiercer competition in Asia.

The result has been only modest loan impairment charges of $96 million and provisions as of the end of the third quarter, down from the same period last year.

HSBC is keeping abreast of the digital revolution in China, where consumers increasingly rely on smartphones for shopping, paying bills, and managing their finances. The lender joined China’s Internet Bank Payment System this year, a channel for small-value payments, and in December it became the first foreign bank in China to offer a service that operates across all digital channels, allowing retailers in China to collect payments from customers who use a variety of popular e-wallets such as Alipay, WeChat Pay, Apple Pay, and UnionPay.

The firm continued to knit together its major divisions – global banking and markets, retail banking and wealth management, commercial banking, and private banking – resulting in more opportunities and revenues.

The collaboration between its global banking and markets teams grew deeper during the year. Of its 29 high-yield debt capital markets transactions so far this year, 22 have been for HSBC commercial banking clients.

Working closely with other divisions also resulted in net new money flowing into HSBC’s global private banking business, which recorded a 23% increase year on year from intra-group referrals.

HSBC has positioned itself well for the future.

It is in the vanguard of banks able to help global issuers and investors access China’s vast domestic capital markets via a majority-controlled securities joint venture. In June HSBC won approval to set up its 51%-owned JV, HSBC Qianhai Securities, and on December 7, the lender said the JV was operational.

China’s equity markets are already Asia's largest by value and trading volumes offer substantial further growth potential given China's relatively low market capitalization-to-GDP ratio. HSBC set up a 15-person team of equity research analysts based in Shenzhen to offer investors insights into these markets.

BEST INVESTMENT BANK: Morgan Stanley

What sealed the award for the US bank was its strength across the main pillars of investment banking – M&A and both equity and debt capital markets – as well as its ability to create solutions across products and borders for its clients. 

Across the franchise, Morgan Stanley’s Asia-Pacific revenues  for the first nine months of the year hit $3.36 billion, up 11% on the same period a year earlier, according to an SEC filing.

In terms of publically announced core investment banking revenues for the awards period Morgan Stanley ranked third across Asia, behind CITIC Securities and China Securities. But given this is an award for the best performance across Asia, we took geographic diversity of revenues into account as well and here the New York firm came out top.  

During the year Morgan Stanley promoted from within, a good way of keeping and encouraging talent. Dieter Turowski became chairman of investment banking Asia Pacific outside of Japan after about four years as co-head of investment banking.

Moving into Turowski’s seat will be George Taylor. In turn, Taylor has relinquished his position as head of global capital markets, Asia Pacific, to Julien Begasse de Dhaem. In April, Crawford Jamieson became a vice-chairman of global capital markets.

Morgan Stanley also won our “Best M&A House” and “Best Equity House” [see below].  So here we will focus on its performance in debt.  

The firm’s DCM business this year centred on winning mandates for high-yield bonds, bringing debut issuers in emerging sectors to market as their sole adviser and matching issuers from outside of Asia with the region’s growing cohort of investors.

The cherry on the top is to selectively take risk by creating solutions for borrowers. The result was one of the bank’s most profitable years even in Asian DCM.

One example of Morgan Stanley taking calibrated risk was when it stepped in as Shimao Property was looking to raise $600 million in June. The Chinese real estate developer struggled to place the full amount with investors at the price it wanted after two huge bond issues by peers Kaisa and Evergrande. So Shimao cut the size of its issue to $450 million and sold bonds due 2022 with a 4.75% yield, which traded higher in the aftermarket, and sold the remainder to Morgan Stanley before its fundraising approval from China’s National Development and Reform Commission expired at the end of June. It reopened the deal for $150 million and a yield of 4.62%, a slightly more favourable rate for the issuer.

In another complex situation under time pressure, Morgan Stanley helped finance ChemChina’s $44 billion acquisition of Swiss agribusiness Syngenta.

ChemChina had arranged a fund structure that would invest into convertible preference shares, according to a May 18 SEC filing. Morgan Stanley, the only non-Chinese institution involved in this part of the funding, was able to bridge a hole by buying $2 billion-worth of convertible preferred shares, alongside one large sovereign wealth fund co-investor. The US bank then sold the balance onto international investors via private placements, according to people familiar with the fundraising.

Morgan Stanley is also focused on what it dubs the import business: bringing issuers from outside of Asia to the region’s Asian investors. In this respect, the US bank has been particularly active in the Formosa bond market: foreign-currency-denominated bonds sold in Taiwan. It has also arranged large private debt placements from US utilities to a handful of investors in Asia.

The firm has stated its intention to raise its stake in Chinese securities joint venture, Morgan Stanley Huaxin Securities, to 51%, thus ensuring a strong performance in China going forward too. 

BEST ASIAN INVESTMENT BANK: DBS

DBS has always been the go-to investment bank for Singaporean companies, but as the bank adopts a wider regional strategy it is now increasingly able to attract more non-Singaporean corporate clients.

One of the more eye-catching transactions DBS advised on for an offshore client was Paiton Energy’s $2 billion dual-tranche bond. The Indonesian energy company won FinanceAsia’s Best Investment-Grade Bond by pulling off the first Asian project bond in two decades.

DBS was also a joint coordinator of Postal Savings Bank of China’s $7.25 billion additional tier 1 perpetual offshore preference share sale, as well as the $1 billion high-yield bond by British mining group Vedanta Resources.

On the M&A front, DBS scored an impressive achievement by advising on China Mengniu Diary’s $1.1 billion acquisition of China Modern Diary – an all-China transaction that would otherwise have been advised by a Chinese investment bank.

DBS also assisted China Overseas Grand Oceans in the acquisition of China Overseas Land & Investment’s property portfolio for Rmb11.2 billion ($1.69 billion), including the provision of acquisition financing through its Hong Kong branch.

All these transactions show DBS is continuing its transformation into an Asian regional bank.

DBS’s overseas expansion did not impact its local business. The lender advised in almost all large transactions involving Singaporean companies this year, including the S$16.1 billion privatisation of Global Logistics Properties, the $1.7 billion IPO of NetLink NBN Trust, and the $981 million take-private of CWT by China’s HNA Group.

DBS has been a frequent winner of the Best Asian Investment Bank award. But it is now setting the bar much higher for its rivals to catch up.

BEST BELT AND ROAD BANK (new category): HSBC

HSBC’s is well positioned to help stimulate trade across the Belt and Road. Its network covers 90% of global trade and capital flows, including 44 Belt and Road markets.

The lender has also had a continuous and substantial presence in mainland China since 1865 and its operations there generated more than $1 billion of pre-tax profit in 2016.

The London-headquartered bank has 700 trade experts in Hong Kong, enabling it to structure and execute a full range of trade and receivables solutions for Chinese enterprises that use Hong Kong as a hub for their overseas operations.

Large infrastructure projects are a hallmark of the Belt and Road initiative and will require a multitude of financial services. HSBC can provide financial advice, financing, hedging solutions, cash and liquidity management and trade financing services to both Chinese firms and local or international partners or suppliers to Belt and Road projects.

It also has 20 China desks across Belt and Road countries, with a further four in the Americas, dedicated to supporting Chinese businesses as they grow overseas.

Support for the project is also apparent at the most senior level within the bank. HSBC’s chief executive Stuart Gulliver being the only head of an international bank to attend the inaugural Belt and Road Forum hosted by the Chinese government in May.

We were particularly impressed with a few of its case studies of work for clients along the Belt and Road. In particular we noted that HSBC was mandated as the principal bank for the $2 billion Gemas-Johor Bahru Double-Tracking Rail Project, part of the Kunming-Singapore Rail Link.  

BEST DIGITAL FINANCIAL SERVICES FIRM (new category): Ant Financial

Ant Financial, the private company behind China’s largest digital payment service provider, Alipay, has plans to shake up financial services globally by making them more accessible to the masses.

First developed as an online payment system for Alibaba’s internet marketplace, its Alipay mobile payment platform has expanded into the physical world, enabling users to make payments instantly by scanning QR codes on their smartphones.

It took that a step further on September 1 by deploying a facial recognition payment system, “Smile to Pay”, at a Yum China restaurant in its hometown of Hangzhou.

Ant leverages big data and the mobile internet to serve both small companies and individuals. It has used its technological edge to expand into other financial services products including wealth management, financing, and insurance.

Ant’s online money fund Yu’e Bao has grown so fast it is now more than twice the size of the next-largest money market fund. It has also collected and stored enough customer payment records to create a huge pool of information to enable more effective credit assessments.

Ant plans to serve two billion customers globally in a decade’s time, up from its current customer mix of 463 million in China, 12 million across the Asean region, and 180 million in India. And to that end it has been growing overseas via acquisitions, having bid $1.2 billion for Dallas-based money transfer service MoneyGram International, subject to an ongoing review by Cfius in the United States.

Investors are understandably excited about Ant’s prospects and its plans ahead of a widely expected public listing for the coming years. When it comes, the initial public offering has the potential to be the largest fundraising ever by a fintech innovator.

The company is already estimated to be worth more than $70.5 billion, according to equity analysts at Goldman Sachs; bigger than the current market capitalisation of Swiss bank UBS.

BEST PRIVATE EQUITY FIRM: Hillhouse Capital

Founded by Lei Zhang in 2005, Hillhouse Capital excited us with its mantra of investing for growth by injecting a layer of technology into companies facing disruption. Unlike the old tried-and-tested private equity models of buying companies with debt and then cutting costs, Hillhouse sees the people and networks of traditional industries as assets that can be enhanced with technology.

The firm can draw upon its own ecosystem of several hundred people as well as the relationships it has built up over the years. It’s early tech investments read like a who’s who of Chinese industry’s leaders: Tencent, Baidu and JD.com.

For this award we have tended in the past to focus more on exits because that allows us to assess both the work that the private equity firm has put in as well as the return to investors. However, this year Hillhouse has simply blown us away with the scale of its ambitious deals.

Hillhouse invested in the buyouts of Belle International, China’s biggest women’s footwear retailer and GLP, one of the biggest warehousing companies in China.

Hillhouse also doubled down on some investments, such as WuXi Biologics, a Chinese contract drug research and development company, which priced at the top of its marketed range when it was listed in Hong Kong.

Hillhouse also gained access to some hot early-stage investment opportunities this year, including a $550 million fundraising by the Southeast Asia-focused e-commerce startup Sea.

The firm can boast cross-border investments too – in one case bringing San Francisco-based Peet's Coffee, a craft chain rivaling Starbucks in its home market, to China, in another partnering with Britain’s Aviva and Tencent to develop a digital insurance company in Hong Kong.

Worth noting also, given our traditional emphasis on exits, is that Hillhouse has a pipeline of them building up. We Doctor Group, an online healthcare services firm, for example, is planning an IPO in Hong Kong in the second half of 2018.

BEST BORROWER: Government of Mongolia

The Government of Mongolia started 2017 facing the prospect of a default and debt restructuring that would have set its credit standing back years. It ended the year with two outstanding liability management exercises under its belt.

In the process, it effectively managed to halve its borrowing costs in the space of a year-and-a-half.

The first deal came in March after the country agreed an Extended Fund Facility with the IMF. It involved an exchange offering for Development Bank of Mongolia paper due 2017 into a new sovereign deal due 2024.

When the government first contemplated an exchange offering, no one and least of all, its paymaster the IMF, was sure whether a market driven deal was possible.  As a result, this was the deal we awarded Mongolian deal of the year to because we felt it faced greater challenges than the second transaction in October.

In some respects, the government got lucky as the commodities cycle was back on an upswing and investors were desperate for yield. But it also had to re-gain their trust. Its economic programme and the global roadshow it undertook to explain it did just that and the $125 million new money component attracted $3.3 billion in demand.

Later in the year it was back with another liability management exercise. This time it felt more confident to attempt a tender offering, successfully switching 2018 paper for new 2023 maturities. 

BEST M&A HOUSE: Morgan Stanley

Morgan Stanley continued to dominate cross-border M&A deals in the region and was particularly strong in the key market of China.

While it worked on about $116 billion worth of announced deals in Asia ex-Japan and Australia we were also impressed by its advice across sectors and countries.

It nailed a key theme of the year, working on sell-side mandates for multinationals rethinking their strategies in China. One standout example of this was Morgan Stanley’s role as exclusive financial adviser to McDonald’s on the sale of control of its China business to CITIC Group and Carlyle. McDonald’s will receive a royalty fee based on a percentage of sales and retain a 20% stake.

A distinct advantage over some of its closest competitors was Morgan Stanley’s ability to offer one-stop packaged solutions in conjunction with its partner, MUFG. In one case, Shanghai Pharmaceutical’s purchase of Cardinal Health’s China business for $1.2 billion will be financed with a bridge loan arranged by Morgan Stanley and MUFG. The financing’s keepwell structure increased deal certainty and competitive advantage for the client, helping it fend off fierce competition for the business. 

Morgan Stanley was a joint financial adviser to the winning consortium in our ‘Deal of the Year’, the $16.1 billion take-private of Global Logistic Properties.

The New York-headquartered firm was also sell side on our ‘Best China Deal’, CIC’s €12.25 billion acquisition of Logicor Europe.

And in India, Morgan Stanley acted as lead financial advisor to Vodafone on Vodafone India’s $24 billion merger with Idea Cellular.  

Another key trend in China that the US bank tapped into was the restructuring of state-owned enterprises. Morgan Stanley acted as joint financial advisor to China National Building Material’s (CNBM) on its $5.4 billion merger with Sinoma, which created the world’s largest cement producer.  The transaction represents a significant step in the reform of China’s supply side.

Illustrating its geographic diversity, Morgan Stanley advised Thai Beverage on its purchase of a majority stake in Myanmar’s largest spirits distributor.

It also got in on the Belt and Road theme by advising the Chinese sovereign wealth fund, the Silk Road Fund, on the acquisition of a 10% stake in Sibur, the largest gas processing and petrochemical group in Russia. 

BEST EQUITY HOUSE: Morgan Stanley

Morgan Stanley is FinanceAsia’s Best Equity House for the second year in a row after the US bank maintained its deal-making prowess even as business rebounded at its rivals after a disappointing 2016.

In what was a highly competitive year, Morgan Stanley retained top spot in the Asia ex-Japan equity capital markets league table among non-Chinese investment banks. The bank also showed signs of becoming pickier about its clients and syndicate role in ECM transactions.

Morgan Stanley continued developing its long-term relationships with clients and leveraging off its extensive distribution network across the international investment community.

Transactions for repeat clients in the review period include the $780 million selldown of WH Group on behalf of CDH Investments and ING Life Korea’s $1 billion initial public offering on behalf of MBK Partners. In November, Morgan Stanley advised ASM International on its $527 million stake sale in Hong Kong-listed subsidiary ASM Pacific, replicating a transaction that it did for the same client four years earlier.

Morgan Stanley advised on Alibaba’s mammoth $25 billion US IPO in 2014 and has since nurtured its relationship with the Chinese tech giant. As a result, it was never able to advise its big rival Tencent. But in a ground-breaking move, Morgan Stanley was picked as the lead left bookrunner for the IPO of China Literature, Tencent’s online publishing business. Such an achievement is impressive and underscores the bank’s excellent advisory capability that is recognised even by the biggest corporations.

In a market where advisory fees are gradually shrinking, Morgan Stanley is fine-tuning its strategy to select the transactions and roles that generate the largest share of investment banking revenue. Throughout the year Morgan Stanley took lead roles in most of the ECM transactions it was involved in, including high-profile IPOs such as Qudian, Wuxi Biologics, and HDFC Life Insurance.

After another solid year as Asian ECM has recovered, there is little doubt that Morgan Stanley is the best equity house of 2017.

BEST BOND HOUSE: HSBC

It has been a record-breaking year for Asian G3 bond markets and right at the heart of it is the machine that is HSBC. Well-oiled and manned by a hard-working team who appear to get very little sleep, the bank’s debt capital markets franchise just pumps out one deal after another.

HSBC is very hard to beat, despite increasing competition from Chinese securities firms, because of its depth across asset classes and breadth across the region.

In terms of sheer volume, the bank clearly dominated the Asia ex-Japan G3 league tables during our review period. According to Dealogic data, it underwrote $17.3 billion of bonds.

This gave it a 10% market share in a hotly contested market. It also represented a clear margin over major rivals including Citi and Bank of China, which had respective market shares of 7.4% and a 5.6%.

But volume is not the only metric. HSBC’s product diversity also stood out.

The bank led a number of innovative and sizable transactions. These included: Hong Kong insurer FWD’s zero-coupon perpetual bond in June; Postal Savings Bank’s $7.25 billion additional tier-1 bond in September, the largest corporate bond of the year and PT Paiton Energy’s groundbreaking $2 billion project bond. 

BEST M&A LAW FIRM: Davis Polk

Davis Polk won in this category thanks to its regional diversity and its work on a number of the landmark transactions that won FinanceAsia deal awards. Notably, it handled China’s largest ever-outbound acquisition and Asia’s largest private equity-led acquisition of the year.

The law firm acted as a target advisor on the mammoth $43 billion ChemChina-Syngenta acquisition, which closed in May and was awarded our Best M&A Deal.

The scale of the deal and exceptional regulatory complexity, involving multiple jurisdictions, challenged the legal advisors’ ability to tackle obstacles within a tight deadline. It had to deal with the Swiss and US takeover codes, as well as gain regulatory clearance from several anti-trust agencies as well as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, or Cfius .

The second standout deal was the S$16.1 billion ($11.6 billion) take-private of Global Logistic Properties. This was awarded FinanceAsia’s Deal of the Year and Best Leveraged Finance Deal. Davis Polk represented China Vanke, a member of the buyer consortium.

Other high-profile M&A deals this year involving Davis Polk include: I Squared Capital’s $1.9 billion acquisition of Hutchison Global Communications (our pick for Best Hong Kong Deal); ride-hailing service provider Grab’s $2.5 billion fundraising (Best Singapore Deal), and Millicom’s combination of its operations in Ghana with Bharti Airtel in India.

BEST CAPITAL MARKETS LAW FIRM: Clifford Chance 

This is a highly contested award category, partly thanks to the high equity and debt capital market volumes seen in 2017.  In selecting Clifford Chance, we noted its strength across both asset classes and its geographical spread right across the region.

Where ECM is concerned, it topped Bloomberg’s Asia ex-Japan IPO manager advisory league tables for the awards period by a considerable margin.

The deal list demonstrates its consistency and includes: China Literature’s $1.1 billion initial public offering (our Best IPO of the year); Netlink NBN Trust’s $1.68 billion IPO (Singapore’s biggest IPO in six years); Lotte Chemical Titan Holding’s $878 million IPO in Malaysia (the largest in the country since 2012); and BSE Ltd’s $184 million public flotation.

Clifford Chance also represented Credit Suisse as selling shareholder counsel for Vincom Retail IPO’s (our Best Private Equity Deal of the year).

The firm impressed on the bond side too, across sovereign, investment grade, high yield, bank capital, and liability management. Examples of deals in each category include: Republic of Indonesia’s inaugural Samurai bonds; Development Bank of Singapore’s $500 million debut offshore green bonds; WTT’s $670 million notes; Postal Savings Bank of China’s $7.25 billion AT1 issue; and PTTE&P’s tender offer. 

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