Asia's banks grow up

As corporate borrowers turn elsewhere for funds Asia''s banks will have to reinvent themselves says JPMorgan and East & Partners.

Asian banks used to have it easy. When companies needed cash they turned to one of the big local banks and asked for it. The banks obliged and, basically, by doing so funded economic growth - when the economy grew, so did corporate lending.

Today, things are more complicated. Asian economies are growing but most banks are still struggling to shift more business on to their corporate loan books. This is a long-term structural change, say banking analysts, mirroring the evolution that has taken place in developed markets, such as Australia, where banks focus their lending efforts on consumers and mid-size businesses rather than large corporations.

A recent survey of companies' lending intentions supports the theory. During August JPMorgan and East & Partners, a banking analyst group, asked 900 firms about their plans for capital spending and bank credit. The responses were broken down between north-east and south-east Asia - with the north being Greater China and South Korea, and the south everywhere else.

In both areas the survey "did not detect a significant pick-up in either capital expenditure or corporate credit growth over the next three to six months". In north Asia the vast majority of companies that do intend to take out loans are doing so to refinance existing commitments whereas south Asian companies indicated that they mainly intend to invest in new projects. But the overall trend, however, was weak.

While it is tempting to ascribe this weakness to the lingering effects of Sars, the survey suggests otherwise. The majority of companies say that the virus has not affected their investment spending plans.

Nevertheless, the results highlight an interesting aspect of the Sars effect: in north Asia, where the outbreak was concentrated, only 17.5% of companies cited Sars as a cause of reduced investment compared to 28.3% of south Asian companies.

The reason for this discrepancy, says Scott Christensen, head of financial research at JPM, is the south Asian dependence on tourism, which is yet to return to normal levels. Whether or not this is really because of Sars is debatable. The Europeans had other reasons to holiday closer to home this summer: a weak economy, terrorist fears and, most important, their hottest summer on record.

The survey does not identify where these companies will get their money from if not from banks, but the obvious conclusion is that they are either capable of funding themselves from their own reserves or will tap the capital markets. Bankers like to call this "disintermediation of corporate credit".

What they mean is that banks are no longer the only choice for companies that need to borrow money.

This is no bad thing. Depending on a relatively small number of very large borrowers (ie, big companies) is a much riskier strategy than lending to millions of small borrowers (ie, individuals). And chasing the consumer market can be much more profitable anyway, as Australia's banking industry ably demonstrates.

Aussie banks have the highest rate of loan growth in the region even though the volume of corporate lending is falling. It is no surprise therefore that Australia is the only country in the region willing to embrace the Basel II accord in its present form.

But for banks that have grown fat (and lazy) on the back of cozy relationships with corporate lenders the transformation into nimble retail banks will not be easy. However, it will be necessary.