celebrating excellence

FinanceAsia Country Awards 2020: why they won, part 1

The rationale for the winners in the following countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong and Hong Kong (Chinese financial institutions).

In May, we named the winners of our annual Country Awards. Today, we present the rationale for our decisions covering Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong and Hong Kong (Chinese financial institutions). 

The competition was as fierce as ever and took place against an unprecedented global backdrop thanks to COVID-19. As we went through the pitches, what stood out was all the firms' resilience and ability to adapt to fast-changing conditions. 

For the second year running, an editorial advisory board also aided the editors by providing a peer review across the region. So in addition to congratulating the winners, the editors would also like to thank the board members for their help and guidance on the banks, brokers, law firms and rating agencies that were shortlisted and selected. 

The members of the advisory board comprised: 

Terry Mahony - deputy chairman VinaCapital; former CIO emerging markets equities TCW and Indochina Capital, plus launch CIO of HSBC's GEM fund.

David Morton - advisor Helsinki Foundation Asia Pacific and chairman Yojee; former Asia Pacific head of corporate, financials and multinationals banking HSBC.

Susan Yuen - non-executive director Alliance Bank Malaysia; former regional CEO NBAD and CEO ANZ Hong Kong, plus head of corporate and institutional banking HSBC Malaysia and head of multinationals banking Maybank.

Sadly, due to the current global situation there will be no awards dinner this year. However, plaques will still be available and where possible, we would be more than happy to arrange individual ceremonies to present the awards.

You can find out more about our judging criteria for the domestic and international categories. 

 

BANGLADESH

BEST BANK: BRAC Bank

There was only ever going to be one winner this year and that was BRAC Bank. It was the sole Bangladeshi bank to hold onto the sovereign’s Ba3 rating when Moody’s downgraded the sector last November.

It is easy to see why. Bangladesh has been suffering an accelerating banking crisis, which the rating agencies, financial analysts and equity investors do not think the government is handling correctly or more fundamentally even getting to the root of. BRAC Bank’s unique heritage, born from its NGO origins, means that it has a different model to the rest of the sector.

Moody’s also cited this as the main reason in its ratings’ rationale. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) form the core component of BRAC Bank’s loan book. As of September 2019, they amounted to 45%, not shy of the bank’s internal target of surpassing 50% by the end of 2020.

As a result, BRAC does not suffer from same credit concentration issues and non-performing loans (NPLs) as its peers. The whole sector has lost almost half its value on the stock market over the past year and while BRAC Bank has not been immune, it still has the highest concentration of foreign investors of any listed stock (around 43%) and was the only bank trading above book value when the market was indefinitely shut because of COVID-19 in late March.

It was particularly well placed during the virus because its hugely successful online banking app, bKash, does not require customers to go into a branch for financial transactions. The bank also did its bit for the poorest members of society by waiving fees on small payments for groceries and medicine. 

One of the positive outcomes to the virus may be a kinder world with more emphasis on people rather than profits. It is a value system that BRAC Bank has always tried to adhere to through its motto: People, Planet, Profit. 

BEST INVESTMENT BANK: City Bank Capital

This year marks a decade since City Bank Capital was founded and in that time, City Bank’s investment banking arm has gone from strength to strength under the leadership of CEO, Ershad Hossain. He has successfully taken his financial markets experience working in Singapore to help build up a thriving business back home in a market where deal volumes above $10 million are still considered a benchmark.

City Bank Capital topped the award for two reasons. Firstly, we were impressed by the diversity of its business, which amounted to BT30 billion ($353 million) in face value over the course of the calendar year and secondly, by the innovative features it has introduced to the market. 

Perhaps most significant of all was the advisory work that City Bank Capital executed for emerging markets investor Actis. City Bank Capital represented the group in all its dealings with local regulators.

Its other strong suit lies in the domestic bond market, which is far more active than Bangladesh’s moribund IPO market. Tax incentives also mean that it is far more cost-effective for banks to raise capital through subordinated bonds rather than equity. During the awards period, City Bank Capital led a number of transactions including two for its parent bank, plus offerings for Agrani Bank and IPDC Finance.

It also broke new ground by introducing credit enhancement to the domestic bond market. This enabled Rangpur Metal Industries to raise BT1 billion ($11.8 million) from a five-year zero coupon bond. 

And then there is its preference share work. Its leading transaction in this space was a BT1.24 billion ($14.6 million) offering for Summit LNG, one of the country’s leading private sector power groups.

 

BEST INTERNATIONAL BANK, BEST INTERNATIONAL INVESTMENT BANK: Standard Chartered

These two awards are always Standard Chartered’s to lose. But every year, it further cements its status across retail, corporate and investment banking in the country.

Bangladesh is a very lucrative market for the bank: one where it enjoys high margins. It is also particularly well placed to provide end-to-end services for the four economic corridors the country has established with China, India, Japan and more recently South Korea.

During 2019, the rest of the Bangladeshi banking sector was suffering from rising NPLs and ratings downgrades. Standard Chartered continued to increase revenues and profits. It also reported declining impaired loan ratios after taking action to trim its SME exposure. 

Revenues rose from BT24.059 billion to BT27.99 billion ($290 million to $329 million). Net profit achieved a second year of double-digit growth, jumping from BT11.22 billion to BT12.83 billion ($132 million to $ 150.8 million) according to its financial accounts. 

The bank enjoys very high margins, reporting a 19.9% ROAE, 3.2% ROAA and 7% NIM during 2019. Both the ROAA and NIM increased from 2019.

NPLs, meanwhile fell from 2.4% in 2018 to 1.7% in 2019. 

Standard Chartered has not deviated from a strategy, which has served it very well over the years. Its businesses span the industry’s gamut, but its sharpest focus lies in areas where it feels it can make a difference. 

That generally means serving the country’s top clients and multinationals, facilitating inbound and outbound transactions and flows. For example, it estimates that it enjoys a 75% wallet share of banking business in the Japanese corridor where project execution rates are the highest of the four. 

Year-on-year income was up 95% in 2019. Its major project here is the $1.5 billion Terminal 3 Dhaka International Airport expansion, where it has won the mandates for both the joint venture and contractor accounts. 

The Chinese corridor has a higher number of announced projects and here the bank estimates it has built up a 50% wallet share. Its major 2019 project was the 225km Padma Rail Link, which is currently under construction. 

On the financing side, Standard Chartered executed two transactions that particularly stand out. One was a $13.5 million financing for Bangladesh’s first utility scale solar power plant. The bank arranged the foreign currency financing and a portion of the local financing as well as securing a risk guarantee from GuarantCo that allowed the structure to incorporate a 15-year maturity beyond the tenor that commercial banks are normally comfortable with. 

The other transaction was for United Mymensigh Power. The zero-coupon, non-convertible Islamic certificate was the first of its kind in Bangladesh and underscores the promise that Islamic finance holds to bridge the country’s infrastructure deficit.  

Islamic banking is one area the bank intends to focus its energies on more firmly in the future. It re-launched the business in 2019. It is one of the collection banks for Hajj payments, which retail customers can save up for through their Saadiq Savers Accounts.

Standard Chartered is also one of only five banks and the only foreign bank that is integrated with the country’s hugely popular bKash mobile payment service. The bank forged the link at the beginning of 2019 enabling its customers to make direct payments into the e-wallets of bKash’s 3.5 million customer base. 

 

CAMBODIA

BEST BANK: ACLEDA Bank

The Cambodian economy has enjoyed a very strong half-decade and the bank that has ridden that momentum the best is the country’s second largest by assets. At the end of FinanceAsia’s awards period, ACLEDA Bank should have also been celebrating another milestone: becoming the first entity to list on the Cambodia Securities Exchange with a market capitalisation above $1 billion.

Unfortunately the spread of COVID-19 meant that the initial public offering (IPO) had to be re-scheduled after it was launched, but not before attracting strong domestic demand. ACLEDA Bank is the one stock that both domestic and the country’s nascent international investors want to own. 

It is easy to see why. During the 2019 Financial Year, the bank continued to grow its assets and profitability. The former rose from $5.68 billion to $6.18 billion, while the latter increased from $119 million to $120.8 million, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data. 

ACLEDA Bank enjoys the kind of return on average equity (ROAE) ratios that banks in more developed markets can only dream of: 15.1% according to its audited financial accounts. This is underpinned by a very strong market share in deposits, which stood at 34% at the end of 2019. 

The bank was able to take advantage of the booming economy to improve all of its metrics. Its audited accounts report a net interest margin (NIM) of 5.75% compared to 5.5% in 2018 and a return on average assets (ROAA) ratio of 2.2% compared to 1.5% the year before. 

In many ways, ACLEDA Bank is a true representative of the transformation the Cambodian economy is undergoing. It started life as a microfinance institution. It is now a dominant commercial bank backed by a roster of leading international financial institutions (Sumitomo Mitsui Banking, Orix, COFIBRED and Triodos), which have invested in its equity over the previous decade and provided technical expertise.

BEST INVESTMENT BANK: Yuanta Securities

There was never any doubt about which institution would win FinanceAsia’s inaugural domestic investment banking award in Cambodia. 

We classify this award as one for local houses, or those owned by Asian-head quartered firms. And Taiwan’s Yuanta has made Cambodia its home-from-home for 13 years since it first opened its rep office in the country back in 2007. 

Yuanta now has 11 people on the ground in Phnom Penh and since it was appointed as the sole financial advisor to the Ministry of Economy and Finance in 2010, the team has helped to get Cambodia’s capital markets off the ground. 

There has only been a handful of bond offerings and IPOs over the past decade, but issuance is starting to pick up thanks to strong interest from Chinese and South Korean investors who have also been active in the country’s property market. During the awards period, Yuanta led the country’s two key capital markets transactions.

The first was a KHR80 billion ($20 million) foreign exchange-index bond offering for microfinance institution LOLC. The bonds marked another milestone for the market since they protected investors from currency risk. 

Cambodia is a dollarised economy so this structure appealed to the local institutions that purchased the offering, which was denominated in the riel but currency risk hedged. 

However, the stand out transaction of the year was ACLEDA Bank’s IPO, although its offering period has ended up being stretched out to work around the virus which disrupted the subscription period. Despite the fact that the order book was three times oversubscribed, the issuer and lead decided to postpone the official close until the country came out of lockdown so that investors who had not been able to get their applications to their bank branches in time could still participate. 

When the deal closes, it is also likely to be a standout for another reason: its punchy valuation. At the top end of the pricing range, it has been valued at 1.94 times 2019 price-to-book ratio (post IPO). 

 

CHINA

BEST BANK: ICBC

ICBC has had a strong lock on this award over the years. Even China’s other big commercial banks find it hard to dislodge this juggernaut, the world’s largest bank by assets.

It is not just large, but it is also a well-run institution, combining prudent standards and an eye for technological innovation. ICBC continues motoring in the right direction despite China’s slowing economy and lower credit growth, trends that are both being exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19.

In the 2019 financial year, it grew its assets from Rmb27.7 trillion ($3.92 trillion) to Rmb30.1 trillion ($40.26 trillion) according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data. Net profits also rose 4.9%, the upper end of the range it has achieved over the past five years, from Rmb298.7 billion ($42.3 billion) to Rmb313.4 billion ($44.38 billion). 

One of the ratios that ICBC’s management is most proud of is a declining NPL ratio. After hitting a high of 1.62% in the third quarter of 2016, it has come down consistently to 1.41% at the end of 2019 according to S&P data. 

It may well tick up this year, but financial analysts expect the rise to be minor. They do, however, believe there could be two consequences of impaired credit within the Chinese financial system.

Firstly, ICBC may not be able to continue building its coverage ratios as it had planned from their current and already strong 199.4% level the bank reported at the end of 2019. Secondly, it may end up having to bail out struggling smaller lenders for the government as it did for Bank of Jinzhou in July 2019.

At the end of the day, ICBC is one of investors’ favourite safe haven stocks. It still continues to trade at a premium to all of its peers among the big four commercial banks. And it also is an eager advocate for digital innovation, a trend that bank closures during the virus may accelerate further.

In December, it solidified its existing partnership with Ant Financial by signing a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement. This will enable merchants to collect payments via Alipay or the ICBC e-banking app without having to replace their existing payment collection QR codes.

BEST SUSTAINABLE BANK: Industrial Bank

This is the first year that FinanceAsia has included a sustainability award within the wider Country Awards in recognition of the huge strides that banks are making to improve their credentials in such an important area for the world economy.

When it comes to China, there are a number of banks that are well known for their sustainability initiatives including its largest by assets, ICBC. However, domestically, there is one bank, which is considered the sector’s pioneer and that is Industrial Bank. 

It was the first Chinese bank to sign up to the Equator Principles and offered its first green product as far back as 2006 when it decided to make green finance its core strategic pillar. In 2016, it pledged to hit an Rmb1 trillion ($141 billion) green financing balance by 2020, a target it hit one year early in 2019. 

At the end of the year, it had served 14,764 customers and 19,454 enterprises with a total of Rmb2.2 trillion ($311 billion) in green financing.

These efforts are not as familiar with international audiences as they are with domestic audiences yet. But that is something Industrial Bank is starting to change. 

It issued its first dollar-denominated green bond at the end of 2018 and it intends to issue more to build international brand awareness and raise foreign currency funding to aid its customers’ offshore green projects.

Another key plank of the bank’s future strategy is to push more into retail and one product it is considering are mortgages with preferential rates for customers who make their homes environmentally friendly.

The bank is also using its expertise to help raise standards across the industry. One key initiative is working alongside the China Clean Development Mechanism Fund (CDMFUND). Industrial Bank has been working with the government body for three years to help set up its loan disbursement programme. 

This started to kick into gear last year. Industrial Bank’s main role now will be to provide risk and cost benefit analysis, plus documentation. 

BEST INVESTMENT BANK, BEST ECM HOUSE: CICC

When it comes to this award, it is always a competition between CICC and Citic Securities. Both have strong ECM franchises and while Citic leads CICC in DCM, it was CICC’s M&A work, which tipped the overall scales in its favour.

The investment bank worked on three of China’s five largest combined onshore and cross-border M&A deals of the period, while Citic worked on one. Its largest deal also ranked as China’s largest ever non-performing asset disposal transaction: the Rmb98.1 billion ($14 billion) investment by a group of strategic investors in Hengfeng Bank. 

CICC also represented China Merchants Group in the country’s third largest deal: the Rmb65.7 billion ($9.5 billion) acquisition of a controlling stake in the Liaoning Port Group. 

Then there was the fifth largest deal of the period: Zhuhai Gree Group’s disposal of a 15% stake in Gree Electrical Appliances to Hillhouse Capital Management. CICC represented Gree. 

The past year shows that CICC has not lost its grip over China’s tier 1 clients and continues to forge ahead with innovative solutions to their needs.

That innovation was also on show in the domestic equity markets where one of the year’s key markers was the launch of Shanghai’s answer to the Nasdaq: the Science and Technology Innovation Board (STAR). CICC was the sole sponsor of the largest deal – the Rmb10.53 billion ($1.49 billion) domestic IPO of China Railway Signal & Communication Corp (CRSC).

Many STAR board IPOs have initially witnessed spectacular secondary market performance, only to trade dismally thereafter. CRSC has also come down from its highs, but crucially it is still above its IPO price, a testament to CICC’s skills pitching it at the right valuation in the first place.

Among the bank’s other notable bookrunner roles in 2019 was the A-share market’s largest IPO. A Rmb32.7 billion ($4.63 billion) deal for Postal Savings Bank incorporated the first A-share greenshoe option for nearly 10 years and notched up the largest strategic placement in the market since 2011.

CICC was also a bookrunner on the country’s largest equity linked deal during the awards period, an Rmb50 billion ($7.08 billion) convertible for Shanghai Pudong Development Bank. This was a record-breaking deal in a year when convertibles gained increasing popularity in China.

BEST DCM HOUSE: Bank of China

This is a hard award to judge given there is very little difference between the leading lights in China’s domestic bond market, principally Bank of China, Citic Securities and China Merchants Bank, followed by CICC and ICBC in short order.

Domestic bond issues tend to have a sizeable number of syndicate banks including all the main houses. In the end, the award came down to the bank that we felt had shown particular innovation.

One of the Bank of China’s strongest suits is its equally strong international debt capital markets (DCM) franchise. For many years this has helped the bank to differentiate itself from its competitors.

Indeed, one of the key trends during 2019 was an acceleration of foreign inflows into China after the country was included in the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Index. This picked up speed again during 2020 as China developed a safe haven status as COVID-19 spread around the world. 

Bank of China has also brought plenty of foreign issuers to the domestic bond, leading the Panda bond rankings for five consecutive years. In 2019, its landmark transaction was an Rmb2 billion ($283 million) deal for the Republic of Portugal, the market’s first offering by a Eurozone country. 

It also showed off its innovative skills with an Rmb2.5 billion ($354 million) asset-backed note (ABN) for Germany’s BMW. The deal was striking because of its ABN structure compared to the typical asset-backed securities (ABS) that have been deployed before. 

It paved the way for more auto-related ABN deals because the structure enabled the group to issue in the interbank rather than the exchange market. 

Bank of China was also extremely active among China’s tier 1 credits. Notable deals included Postal Savings Bank of China’s Rmb80 billion additional tier 1 (AT1) deal and a green note for Tianjin Energy Investment Group that achieved the lowest ever coupon for a local government state-owned enterprise (SOE).

BEST BROKER: Citic Securities

Citic is the leading force in China’s brokerage market. This time next year it may have put even more clear water between itself and its nearest competitors if rumours about a merger with CSC Financial are true.

One thing is sure, the Chinese government wants to create larger domestic securities houses after allowing foreign ones to own up to 100% of their onshore entities from April 1 this year. Late last year, it announced plans to create “carrier securities companies” and Citic stands in pole position.

A merger between the two brokerages would make Citic twice as large as its nearest competitor by size, Guotai Junan. And in 2019, it had a very strong year as average daily turnover across China’s stock exchanges started to tick up.

Net profit rose 30.2% year-on-year to Rmb12.2 billion ($1.73 billion), driven by net investment gains, which almost doubled. The first quarter of 2020 has proven more difficult thanks to the market’s virus-related declines, but Citic has still outperformed peers on the profitability stakes.

Where many leading brokerages saw profits crumble by up to a third, Citic was only down 4% to Rmb4.08 billion ($580 million). Revenues still climbed 24% to Rmb12.9 billion ($1.83 billion), this time driven by strong growth in brokerage commission income.

As Citic gets larger, it is also deepening its product breath, transitioning from pure brokerage towards broader wealth management and prioritising its international businesses. Just after the awards closed, Citic signed a wide-ranging strategic cooperation agreement with Singapore Exchange Ltd  (SGX), for example. 

The two plan to collaborate across multiple areas including fixed income, real estate investment trusts (REITS) and currencies and commodities. In addition to promoting SGX’s Reits and equities to Chinese investors, they will also educate and encourage Chinese companies to raise funds in Singapore. 

BEST PRIVATE BANK: CMB Private Banking

It is hard to dislodge China Merchants Bank from this award and its CMB Private Banking franchise continues to go from strength to strength even though the private bank’s longstanding head was poached by a foreign competitor earlier this year.

China Merchants Bank knows that it cannot afford to sit on its laurels in China. It may be the largest domestic private bank in the country, but it does not rank in the top 10 yet globally and it now has a lot of international banks suddenly able to compete on a more level playing field. 

But this has not deterred China Merchants whose assets under management (AUM) continue growing at a fast clip. During 2019, they rose by 6% to $328 million, of which $18.8 billion was net new money. 

Clients rose from 71,090 in 2018 to 81,674 in 2019 backed by 928 private banking advisors compared to 837 the year before. 

One key strand of China Merchants Bank’s strategy is to complement these advisors with best-in-class technology. As such it recently rolled out a global asset allocation system (FASS), which uses data mapping and algorithms to complement human judgement. 

The bank says that 2019 saw a deeper focus on enhancing client service. This included setting up a global hotline service to provide instant answers for tier 1 clients. 

Foreign investors are pouring into China, but China Merchants Bank is well aware that domestic ones want a more comprehensive global service. As such it is working closely with its sister bank in Hong Kong (the winner of our award in the offshore category) to promote greater interactivity. Another new service is a cross border platform for global investment transactions and products.

The bank has also been deepening its family trust business, exploring new models such as equity family trusts and staff incentive trusts. 

BEST LAW FIRM: Han Kun

This is a difficult award to judge as there are a number of tier 1 law firms in China with a roster of blue chip clients and work across some of the country’s leading capital markets and private equity deals.

In the end, we decided that Han Kun was a worthy winner because of its particular strength across two of the most important sectors, which drive financing activity: pre-IPO funding and the tech sector in the widest sense of the word.

This is not surprising since it has a strong hold over two of the country’s most active and well-known tech names, Tencent and JD.com. During the awards period, the law firm handled transactions for both. 

For Tencent, it handled its investment in T3 Mobility, which has a fund size of about Rmb10 billion ($1.41 billion). The transaction was far more than a simple equity investment. It involved a dozen different entities and negotiations with the T3 preparation committee.

For JD.com, Han Kun advised on the sale of a $1.6 billion portfolio of modern warehouse facilities to a newly established joint venture, JD Logistics Properties, which the e-commerce group has set up with Singapore’s GIC. It also advised JD.com on its $500 million strategic co-operation with Aihuishou.

Other work in the tech sector included: Guazi.com’s series D financing, which led to a $1.5 billion investment from Softbank, advising Vipshop on its Rmb2.9 billion ($410 million) acquisition of Shan Shan and the joint bookrunners on DouYu’s $775 million Nasdaq IPO.

However, the law firm is not wholly focused on tech. It also advised on a number of other significant transactions some cross-border. One of its clients is Heineken whose €3.5 billion ($3.79 billion) strategic investment with China Resources closed at the beginning of the awards period. 

It also worked with the China Structural Reform Fund on its participation in Citic Dicastal’s mixed ownership reform.

BEST DOMESTIC RATING AGENCY: China Chengxin

Concerns have lingered for a while about the objectivity of China’s credit ratings, with market commentators regularly speculating that more trust is required to excite foreign investors into China’s multi-trillion dollar onshore debt market. China Chengxin International Credit Rating Co. (CCXI) has made many positive moves in 2019 to address this anxiety.

Tested by a very difficult economic backdrop, driven in large part by Sino-US trade tensions, CCXI made the right decision to review its overarching rating methodology, acknowledging that a more robust scientific approach to them was required to ensure the stability of ratings their clients achieved. Improved education and training of staff, and tighter risk control mechanisms to prevent conflicts of interest have also been installed.

It has also upped its game in terms communication and transparency. As is extremely relevant now during the global pandemic, CCXI has improved engagement with clients, investors and the general public, making its analysts more easily available and producing more research material than ever in its past, thanks largely down to the recent opening of its official research department.  

Despite being a tough economic year for China, 2019 proved a good year financially for CCXI. Annual revenue increased 11.87% year-on-year, with profits moving up by a similar proportion (12.3%).

BEST INTERNATIONAL BANK: HSBC

Across all its major divisions in China, HSBC has achieved notable successes and forged exiting developments during our awards period. 

At the retail level, the bank opened its first branch in Shanghai dedicated to serving high-net worth customers both domestically and internationally.

More broadly it has worked on upgrading many aspects of its banking offerings; a highlight was the unveiling of an online unsecured lending platform in November last year.

In its global banking and markets division, the bank continued to lead key parts of the debt capital markets space. According to Wind data, HSBC was number one in Panda bond underwriting among all international banks both in terms of deal count and underwriting volume.  It also played a key role in the issue of numerous asset-back securitisations.

Specifically, in the area of sustainable finance, HSBC had a strong year. A standout deal being lead left for Beijing Capital Group’s $300 million three-year senior unsecured green bond.

In commercial banking, HSBC dedicated considerable efforts into developing its Greater Bay Area (GBA) credentials. In September last year, it helped complete the world’s first cross-border renminbi blockchain-based letter of credit transaction – a deal conducted in Shenzhen with companies located within the GBA region.  

In its global liquidity and cash management business, HSBC launched a treasury API and electronic commercial draft system API which enable host-to-host connection between the financial systems of corporate clients and the bank.

BEST OFFSHORE RATING AGENCY: Fitch Ratings

However you crunch the numbers, Fitch Ratings had a good year in China relative to its peer group.

Over the awards period, it could claim top spot in market share for first time cross-border China bond deals, cementing its position as the preferred agency for first time issuers over the last five years.

The ratings agency is also nicely positioned to capture market demand.

The China property and public finance sectors were the most sought after sectors by investors between April 2019 and March 2020, accounting for approximately half of all total rated issuance from the entire Chinese issuer universe. Fitch commands the largest market share by both issuance volume and deal number versus Moody’s and S&P.

At a development level, Fitch has also made great strides in ESG and green bond financing, widely considered as having the highest transparency and analytical processes. All Fitch-rated Chinese issuers and securitisation deals carry Fitch’s ESG integrated scoring.

In terms of business, Fitch yet again led the pack participating in the green bond transactions by Chinese companies compared to the international pack.

Landmark transactions for Fitch include ChemChina’s March 2020 and June 2019 Reg S issues totaling $2.5 billion.

BEST INTERNATIONAL INVESTMENT BANK: Goldman Sachs

Competition from the home-grown investment banks has increased, but Goldman Sachs still owns a very crucial corner of the market in China: cross-border M&A. 

The bank justly earns a reputation for providing excellent execution but also handling the most complex transactions.

Notable deals included: the sale of GLP's US logistics assets to Blackstone for $18.7 billion; the sale of Daimler’s 5% stake to Beijing Automotive Group for $2.8 billion; Amgen's acquisition of a 20.5% stake in BeiGene for $2.7 million. The list continues...

Active in the debt space, Goldman Sachs chalked up lead management roles on a handful of impressive transactions including: Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s $2.5 billion debut global senior notes issuance; ChemChina’s $2.3 billion multi-tranche offering; and Shimao’s $1 billion senior notes deal.

The bank’s long-term commitment to China is also very clear. In March this year, it received approval from the China Securities and Regulatory Commission to increase its ownership of Goldman Sachs Gai Hua Securities to 51%, and has an eye for pushing that to 100% as soon as it can.

In fact, Goldman Sachs Gao Hua acted as joint bookrunner on the CRSC Rmb10.5 billion ($1.4 billion) A-share STAR Market IPO, an event that broke a lot of records, including largest IPO on the SSE STAR Market. 

 

HONG KONG

BEST BANK, BEST SUSTAINABLE BANK, BEST INVESTMENT BANK, BEST ECM HOUSE, BEST DCM HOUSE, BEST BROKER, BEST PRIVATE BANK: HSBC

Another year, another step change for HSBC. And this time it has been a big one. 

Earlier this spring, the bank announced one of the most important strategic reviews in its century-and-a-half history. Under its new CEO, Noel Quinn, HSBC is embarking on a much bigger pivot to Asia where it makes the majority of its profits and towards wealth management, a direction that had already been established by Quinn’s predecessor, John Flint.

Its retail banking, wealth management and private banking divisions are being consolidated into one super division called wealth and personal banking (WPB). This has combined assets of $1.4 trillion, nearly half from Asia. 

Hong Kong, as ever, remains the lynchpin for the entire bank. During 2019, the Territory generated 54.5% of the group’s adjusted profit before tax, or $12.1 billion. The figure also rose 5% year-on-year despite a very trying backdrop marked by months of street protests. 

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the new divisional line up will be the private bank, which has won the private banking award for 12 years running. It still retains its separate branding, but can now offer its clients a seamless continuum for all their banking needs. It is another example of how HSBC is trying to make sure that each part of the bank complements and bolsters one another.

In 2019, the private bank set up an Asia connectivity team to leverage the bank’s global footprint and ensure that client referrals remain high – 60% of net new money during 2019. It continues to power ahead on all metrics. 

During the 2019 Financial Year, AUM was up 104% to $151 billion, equating to $14.5 billion in net new flows.  Hong Kong contributed 96% of the division’s profits in Asia Pacific, in part because it is a gateway for offshore Chinese money.  

Aside from China, a second future accelerator should flow from the huge investment the private bank is ploughing into technology upgrades and related initiatives. It spent $50 million in 2019 and is mid-way through investing a further $50 million in 2020. 

One of the first fruits of this endeavour is a debut iteration of Wealth View (investment portfolios), Global View (linking private banking and retail bank accounts) and secure Instant Messaging. 

HSBC is also well aware that with many first generation mainland entrepreneurs coming up for retirement, it needs to put a lot more focus on the second generation. As such, it re-launched this business line as Next Gen in 2019. 

A heavy emphasis is being placed on the kind of sustainable investments and initiatives this cohort tends to prefer. This focus has also been evident in the mainstream retail business where HSBC launched a Red Card to target millennials last year. 

The latter are eligible for rebates of up to 4% on various shopping items. It was one factor, which led to a 20% increase in the number of new-to-bank customers age 18 to 27 during 2019. 

Another was Flexi-invest, which provides low entry-level investment options suitable for career starters. About 40% of customers using the product are from the millennial age group.

When it comes to sustainability, the area is a growing focus for HSBC. The bank’s pioneering work in this field is most obvious in fixed income where it has long dominated the region’s G3 bond league tables and remains as determined as ever to remain at the top. 

One of the team’s 2019 highlights, for example, was its green structuring work on Hong Kong’s inaugural $1 billion green bond offering. Sustainable capital markets deal such as these are also complemented by the work of HSBC’s broking division, which has made ESG thematic research one of its key calling cards. The group is currently working with buy side clients to evaluate how to incorporate more ESG criteria into its standard company research reports. 

During 2019, the broking division recorded a big uptick in structured product issuance, up 47% year-on-year. In part, this was thanks to the launch on an online platform for retail investors, but also a desire for yield in a declining rates environment.

However, there has also been a growing take up of ESG-related structured products. HSBC has its own sustainability index, which it provides derivatives products on. 

The broking division has, in turn, been helped by the growing league table presence of HSBC’s equity capital markets platform. In recent years, the bank has done a sizeable number of placements, but been less active when it comes to benchmark IPOs.

That all changed in 2019, when it was mandated as joint global co-ordinator for two of the exchange’s most significant deals in years. These were Alibaba’s HK$101.2 billion ($12.9 billion) secondary listing in Hong Kong, which represents Asia ex-Japan’s largest flotation in nearly a decade and Budweiser Brewing APAC’s HK$45.075 billion ($5.7 billion) offering, which marks the region’s largest-ever consumer IPO.

It also had a stellar year in M&A. It was right on top of the trend for Hong Kong tycoons to take advantage of depressed equity valuations to take their companies private. It was the sole financial advisor on Wheelock’s $6.2 billion privatization and towards the end of the awards period won a similar mandate from Li & Fung.

But perhaps the deal, which highlights where the bank scores most highly is CK Hutchison Group Telecom’s restructuring, completed last August. Many different parts of the bank worked together across geographical divisions to restructure the assets, underwrite the bridge financing and then take those loans out in the bond market. 

Leveraging its global platform for Hong Kong’s top tier clients is what HSBC does best. It is also determined to stay on top of the flows emanating from Hong Kong’s integration within China’s Greater Bay area. 

In doing so, it faces fierce competition from Chinese banks. It is also being forced to walk across an increasingly precarious tightrope thanks to growing geopolitical tensions between China and parts of the West that have been accelerated by COVID-19. So far, it has been able to keep its balance.

On a more positive endnote, HSBC is making strong inroads into the renminbi payments market. One key initiative was the launch of real-time renminbi payments through Faster Payment Service (FPS). During the first 11 months of 2019, HSBC booked 5,500 transactions totalling Rmb7.7 billion ($1.09 billion) to gain a 10% market share. 

BEST LAW FIRM: King & Wood Mallesons

This is only the second year that FinanceAsia has assigned an award in this category, but it is clear that King & Wood Mallesons is very hard to beat. The firm has a unique genetic mix, which means that it straddles the world of both the PRC law firms and international ones.

As a result, it is everywhere: advising Chinese and foreign companies across inbound and outbound investments, as well as capital markets transactions across the world. It is also making a strong push into the Greater Bay Area (GBA), setting up a cross-jurisdictional communication lines from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hainan. 

The firm’s very strong franchise is particularly evident in ECM where it worked on half of the listings on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange by value. This equated to 25 companies out of the 168 that listed in total.

Its biggest role was as PRC counsel for the bookrunners on Budweiser Brewing APAC’s HK$39.19 billion ($5 billion) IPO. This also represented the world’s second largest flotation of the year after Uber in the US.

Other notable flotations included CSSC Hong Kong Shipping’s HK$2.06 billion ($262 million) IPO, Yancoal’s HK$1.4 billion ($180 million) secondary listing and Poly Property’s HK$4.68 billion ($600 million) IPO.

It was also active on the equity-linked side, notably for Zhejiang Geely. It acted as PRC counsel for its €400 million ($433 million) exchangeable bond into AB Volvo.

This was also not the only group company it worked for. It also acted as PRC and English counsel for the bookrunners handling Geely Auto’s $500 million senior preferred deal.

Indeed, King & Wood Mallesons was just as active across DCM as ECM. It is in this segment that it really showcased its diversity during 2019. 

This ranged from advising the Republic of Portugal on its inaugural Rmb2 billion ($280 million) Panda bond (this also represented the first from a Eurozone country) to Qingdao City Construction, which became the first local government financing vehicle (LGFV) to dual list a bond offering in Hong Kong and Macau. 

King & Wood Malleson’s bicultural practise was also represented in the M&A sector where it advised a mix of Chinese and international clients. These included CEIECS, which took TPV Technology private to Campbell Soup where it advised on Asian issues relating to the sale of certain assets to KKR.

BEST INTERNATIONAL BANK: Standard Chartered

2019 proved a year of headline milestones for the bank – giving it the attention it deserves as Hong Kong’s best international bank. 

In basic banking and digital account management, the bank launched what it called “Mobile Casa”, allowing individuals to open accounts within eight minutes.

It was also early to the QR code game, providing a cardless cash withdrawal service; usage has increased 38% since it went live. 

The bank also launched “SC Keyboard”, a service that allows payments to be sent in any application. It also launched the first-in-the-market API service which provides real-time mortgage pricing and application, effectively shortening principle approval time down to one day. 

In corporate and institutional banking, the bank also delivered positive highlights. In the debt capital markets space, the bank printed 143 deals in China and Hong Kong, up 20% year-on-year in terms of number of deals and was involved in a handful of notable firsts, including the CNH1.7 billion China Ministry of Finance deal – the first to settle, clear and list on Macau’s exchange.

Standard Chartered’s financials stood up to scrutiny also. Despite an uptick in provisioning, pre-tax profits rose 4%, total assets increased 16% and loans and deposits increased 7% and 5% respectively.

Notably, its private banking business returned to profitability also, with double digit income growth. Unsurprisingly, retail dominated the bank’s revenue in Hong Kong.

BEST INTERNATIONAL INVESTMENT BANK: Goldman Sachs

In what is a very competitive space, this bank never fails to deliver a solid performance, earning it the right to claim itself Hong Kong’s best international investment bank for another year running.

In terms of market share, Goldman Sachs has 22% of the equity and equity-linked offerings in Hong Kong and has led the most sole book deals in the Territory since 2010.

Another good metric of an investment bank’s calibre is its capacity to bring in repeat business. In this department Goldman Sachs excels.

During the awards period, the investment bank locked in significant work with the likes of CK Hutchison, Country Garden, Tencent, Sinopec, and Huarong.

Standout deals include Innocare’s $287 million IPO, which priced within the middle of a market sell off and was oversubscribed by 300 times. It is also notable for being Hong Kong’s first ever virtual IPO.

Through the successful execution of AIA Group’s $1 billion 10-year senior unsecured notes offering, the bank also played an important role re-opening the market after a three-week hiatus.

In M&A, it was a leading advisor on FWD’s $3 billion acquisition of SCB Life and the 15-year bancassurance agreement with SCB in Thailand, the completion of which led to the largest ever life insurance transaction in Southeast Asia.

 

HONG KONG (Chinese financial institutions)

BEST BANK: Bank of China (Hong Kong)

It may have been a difficult year for Hong Kong, but not for Bank of China (Hong Kong) or BOCHK, which continues along its impressive growth path as it eats into competitors’ market share across the board.

Therefore in a year when Hong Kong registered two successive quarters of negative growth, BOCHK recorded strong loan growth of 10.2% compared to a 6.7% system average. Its deposit growth was up 5.9% compared to a system average 2.9% over the same period.

Both factors helped net income to rise 7.2% during the 2019 Financial Year and 2.7% during the first quarter of 2020. BOCHK has not been fazed by COVID-19 and is continuing to maintain a loan growth target in the mid- to high-single digits, backed by 5.1% growth during the first quarter, up 2.8 percentage points quarter-on-quarter. 

It attributes its success to three key factors. Firstly it has a more diversified client base than its name suggests.

In addition to its Hong Kong client base, it is a powerhouse for cross-border activity and has also been successfully diversifying across South East Asia. Its loan book for South East Asia has been growing by a compound average growth rate (CAGR) of about 20% in recent years and now accounts for 20% of the total. 

Then there is its conservative capitalization, which stood at 22.9% at the end of 2019. This helps to support risk appetite for high quality loans. 

Finally, there is its well-deserved reputation for digital innovation. Its e-wallet, BoC Pay, was the first mobile app from a Hong Kong bank that enabled local and cross-border bill payments as well as interbank transfers. 

It supports UnionPay QR code payments to 15 million merchants in China: handy dealing with taxi drivers that no longer take cash. It has also recently added a virtual credit card to it as well.

BoC Pay is a core component of BOCHK’s Mobile-First strategy, which is built on an open banking ecosystem launched at the beginning of 2019. As a result, BOCHK is now working with 130 partners and opened up access to more than 90 APIs.

The next step will be to enhance user stickiness by making it more comprehensive and easier to navigate. In particular, BOCHK wants to make the app far more about supporting its customers’ lives and not just their transactional banking needs.

Another strong year is on the cards.

BEST INVESTMENT BANK, BEST ECM HOUSE: CICC

There are many Chinese securities companies active in Hong Kong, but it is very hard for any of them to dislodge CICC from its perch. Haitong International has done very well in recent years and is the most active IPO bookrunner by sheer number of deals.

But CICC still reigns supreme because it is generally the sponsor or the co-sponsor of deals that it participates on. During the awards period, it took a one or other role on 14 or 45% of the 31 Hong Kong IPOs it was involved with.

Crowning the lot was the HK$101.2 billion ($12.9 billion) Hong Kong listing of e-commerce giant, Alibaba in November 2019. CICC was the lead left sponsor with 32% of the deal’s economics.

At first glance, the equity offering might seem a fairly straightforward one given that the Chinese group had been listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) for five-years.

However, this was far from the case. CICC and co-sponsor Credit Suisse needed to find the right balance to ensure that existing investors were not overly diluted, whilst also creating a sizeable enough liquidity pool in Hong Kong to stop trading volumes being crushed by New York. 

CICC was also prominent on Hong Kong’s other major IPOs. It was, for example, a joint global co-ordinator for Budweiser Brewing APAC’s HK$45.075 billion ($5.749 billion), the second largest IPO of the year behind Alibaba.

In addition to Hong Kong, CICC has always been the most active Chinese bank handling US listings. During the awards period it was responsible for 12 deals. 

It also became more active in Singapore, leading IPOs for Prime US Reit and Elite Commercial Reit. 

According to Dealogic data, CICC ranked third overall for offshore China deals behind Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and second in Hong Kong behind Citi. 

CICC is also in a league of one among Chinese institutions with a sizeable M&A franchise. It has had it for a long time and shows no sign of giving up market share to some of its up-and-coming and more aggressive competitors.

It has a reputation for handling complex transactions. One that should have topped the list, but fell through after the awards period, was the $5.8 billion sale of 15 hotels by Anbang Insurance to a consortium led by Mirae Asset Global Investments.

Instead, its largest deal was its work for Baosteel as part of the Chinese government’s drive to rationalise the steel industry. This led to a mandatory offer to acquire the H-shares of Maanshan Iron & Steel in a HK$26.73 billion ($3.42 billion).

Then there was the privatisation of Hong Kong-listed TPV Technology. CICC acted for CEIEC a subsidiary of China Electronics Corp, which purchaser the electronics manufacturer and distributor for HK$9.75 billion ($1.25 billion) through a scheme of arrangement. 

BEST DCM HOUSE: BOCI

Once again, BOCI wins this award. The main reason is very simple: uniquely among Chinese institutions, it is the only one that is a true one-stop shop.

In 2019, its market dominance was demonstrated by the fact that it relegated HSBC to second place in the offshore China G3 league tables. It ended the year with a 6.41% market share through 198 deals and total underwriting credit of $14.955 billion according to Dealogic data. 

It is facing stronger competition from both Haitong International and ICBC. The two are good in different ways. Haitong is renowned for its high yield franchise and ICBC for its investment grade one thanks to its strong relationship with China’s SOEs.

But BOCI straddles both and also the world. It has a growing international presence thanks to its DCM desks in London and Singapore, in addition to Hong Kong and Beijing. 

BOCI’s longstanding franchise means that it now has a strong lock on some of China’s most active issuers particularly in the ubiquitous property sector. During 2019, it led nine deals for the single-B rated Kaisa group and five deals for double-B rated Greenland Holdings.

One particularly significant transaction was Yuzhou Properties $645 million deal in January 2020. The low double-B rated credit was exceptionally lucky in its timing, catching a frothy market that enabled it to achieve a large size ($645 million) and a longer-than-normal six year maturity with a four-year call option.

The deal enabled the group to re-finance debt before the market dropped off in March thanks to COVID-19. Investors, however, are probably less happy given the group has since been downgraded to the single-B bucket and the deal has traded wider.

On the investment grade side, BOCI is also a familiar name among SOEs with roles on some of the year’s benchmark offerings for Chem China and CNOOC. 

It also continues forging ahead in new territories and has become a regular fixture on dollar bonds issued by Sri Lanka. 

BEST BROKER: Haitong International

Haitong International has proven to be the savviest Chinese broker in Hong Kong in recent years. It has planted itself at the forefront of trends, which have helped it to build market share across the board. 

In particular, it is a leading light in the structured product space, which has taken off as Chinese clients become more sophisticated, more willing to use leverage and keen to hedge the downside risks of their cash notes.

As a result, there has been a tilt away from its historic dependence on retail brokerage commissions (following its acquisition of Tai Fook back in 2009). In 2019, retail accounted for 69% of commission income, down from 76% the year before.

Meanwhile its over-the-counter (OTC) trading volumes soared for another year running, with structured product volumes overtaking cash bonds for the first time. 

In 2019, it distributed HK$26.9 billion ($3.47 billion) of the former compared to HK$14.9 billion ($1.92 billion) of the latter. In 2018, the figures were the other way round: HK$14.73 billion ($1.9 billion) in structured notes and HK$18.6 billion ($2.4 billion) in bonds. 

It also continued to break records in cash equities. It holds the distinction of distributing the most IPOs in one year: 196 in 2018 and 177 in 2019.

Haitong’s increasing emphasis on high net worth (HNW) investors, means that it has been investing in digital to give its clients better research and trading applications. It had previously relied on external vendors, but in early 2019 it launched an in-house app carrying its own proprietary research.

This appears to have paid off spectacularly. Over the course of the year, the number of trading clients using the app jumped 240%.

It also registered a 20% year-on-year growth in professional investors, which numbered 2,500 at the end of FinanceAsia’s awards period.

All this gives Haitong a 2.8% market share across the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong (HKEX).

BEST PRIVATE BANK: CMB Private Banking

Unsurprisingly, it is a double win for CMB Private Banking, which also wins best onshore private bank too. The bank’s three Hong Kong-based units (wholly-owned Wing Lung Bank, China Merchants Bank Hong Kong branch and China Merchants Bank International) are becoming increasingly important to the overall group.

This is also not that much of a surprise given that Chinese clients continue to go global with their investment aspirations. As a result, Hong Kong booked more of the AUM in 2019 than it did in 2018 (12% of the group’s $328 billion compared to 10% of its previous $289.6 billion AUM the year before).

All of CMB Private Banking’s onshore and offshore arms use the same 1+N model whereby a relationship manager works closely with a subject matter expert. They also all adopt a four-step approach with clients: listen with insight, advise and customise, execute with diligence, follow up with caution.

Last year saw CMB Private Banking continue to extend its product reach. It has now worked with 39 fund managers and issued 522 mutual funds, which yielded its clients an average return of 9% during 2019. 

It also added a further 11 hedge fund products, bringing the total to 53. Just over 60% of these are fixed income in line with its clients’ desire for steady investment returns. 

For those clients that are looking for higher risk products, CMB Private Banking also became the first Chinese financial institution to launch a Luxembourg Specialised Investment Fund (SIF) in 2019.  This multi-strategy fund covers both developed and emerging markets. 

Other new initiatives included introducing the flagship product of Hobo Investment Management, the Netherland’s largest asset management company and co-operating with Credit Suisse Asset Management to issue collateralised loan obligation (CLO) related products. 

BEST OFFSHORE RATING AGENCY: Lianhe Global

Having impressed the FinanceAsia judges last year, picking up the gong for Best Chinese Offshore Ratings Agency, Lianhe Global impressed yet again this year with a solid performance in trying times for the market overall.

From April 1 2019 through March 31 this year, the Chinese ratings agency published solicited ratings for 15 issuers in Hong Kong and the largest volume of issuance ($8.2 billion) among its peer group.

Lianhe Global also has decent coverage. Approximately 7000 Chinese offshore bond investors in Asia Pacific receive its ratings reports, commentaries and market updates. In fact, what is particularly convincing about Lianhe Global is the quality of the testimonials it has received from its investor base.  Here are just a couple:

“Lianhe Global has been developing very fast through 2018 and the first half of 2019. Much wider coverage than the other Chinese rating firms and deeper analysis than the international ratings agencies in [local government finance vehicles] and Chinese developer area,” a head of fixed income at a major Chinese securities house said.

An executive director of a major European investment bank DCM team had this to say: “Lianhe Global has the most professional and experienced team in international ratings business compared to other Chinese offshore ratings agencies.”

 

 

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