Scream when it hurts

Crunching fees, weeping bankers.

Much like a conversation about an illegitimate child in Victorian Britain, the subject of fees was not one investment bankers tended to talk about in days of yore.

They were coy about fees, perhaps because they were concerned lest large fee numbers cause a backlash in newspapers and boardrooms.

How times have changed. Nowadays, Asia's legions of investment bankers hardly talk of anything else.

This is what FinanceAsia Magazine's new cover story (Crunching fees, weeping bankers - May 15 issue) relates. The compression of investment banking fees is reaching painful levels. Asian CFOs are now able to dictate their terms, and thanks to inordinate competition among banks, they are likely to get their way.

And it is not just fees. It is expenses too. In the old days, clients would cover items such as printing prospectuses, roadshow costs and so forth. Now, whichever bank is most desperate to win business, will promise to swallow any number of expenses too.

This is great for CFOs and Asian corporates. However, for the investment banking divisions at all firms it has led to some deep soul-searching.

Bankers complain that rivals are so desperate not to get fired that they are building up pipelines of deals - with ever more ludicrous fees - just so they can show the people in head office they are busy.

Making matters worse is the client's preference for splitting even modest deals between two or three firms. That means a meager fee pool is made two or three times even less appealing still, because it is split.

Adding to the misery is the lack of deals too. In the first quarter, we calculate this dearth of activity (earning lower fees per deal) has led Asia's investment banking departments to lose an aggregate $100 million.

The loss is not hard to fathom. The fixed cost of running an investment banking division in Asia is enormous, as our story relates.

Something has to give, clearly. The prevailing view seems to be that fewer players and lower salaries are needed.

Indeed, if this downturn in investment banking business is prolonged, there are many at the universal banks (Citi, JPMorgan, Deutsche, UBS) who believe the pure bulge bracket model will come under more and more pressure, globally and especially in Asia.

As one head of investment banking puts it in the story: "In my opinion we have reached a crisis point in our industry."

As another says: "We're basically in a game of last man standing."

Meanwhile, the overcapacity in the industry suggests CFOs are the winners. They have never had it so good.

For more information on obtaining FinanceAsia Magazine, contact Naveet Singh on (852) 21225224 or [email protected]

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