World's Best Banks 2020: Asia-Pacific

It almost goes without saying that the “AC” era (after Covid-19) that beckons at some point in the coming months will be resoundingly different from the sudden and extreme economic slump now unfolding. But even last year, banks in the Asia-Pacific region were wrestling with a range of challenges, the biggest being the onslaught of fintech, backed by the “super apps” that have gained traction in Asia and the competition this transformation poses to the long-enjoyed hegemony of big, traditional incumbent banks.

Washington’s ongoing trade war with Beijing, meanwhile, helped drag China’s GDP growth to a 30-year low and raised the prospect of default and bank rescue over China’s financial system. The drama dampened regional economic activity more broadly as well; Singapore narrowly missed technical recession last year, clocking its lowest growth in a decade.

Against this challenging external environment, Asia-Pacific banks posted a steady performance rooted in ample capital buffers, a low cost of credit, funding largely by deposits rather than capital markets and a willingness to meet the challenges of digitization with innovation. This bodes well for the coming AC era, some close observers argue.

“Banks in APAC are well positioned, and we believe that after the crisis most highly rated banks in Asia will return to profitability and continue to merit high ratings,” says Graeme Knowd, managing director at Moody’s Financial Institutions Group in Hong Kong.

Singapore’s DBS navigated a steady course last year and takes the title as 2020’s Best Bank in Asia-Pacific and also Best Bank in Singapore. Based on shareholder returns and financial ratios, DBS unambiguously retains its elite status. Return on equity (ROE) was 13.2% last year, thanks to a 14% net profit increase of 6.39 billion Singapore dollars ($4.49 billion)—both record numbers for the bank—while it shaved 1% off its cost-income ratio, down to 43%, and increased its dividend to 2.5%.

DBS touts a transformational culture in respect to both digitization—it holds a need for innovation and experimentation as axiomatic—and environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. Use of the PayLah! mobile payment app surged in 2019; the bank launched a financing facility in China based on a logistics blockchain platform; and it introduced digiPortfolio, a hybrid human-robot investment solution. DBS continued to tick the ESG boxes with its ongoing focus on gender diversity, employee engagement and a responsible banking framework that directs capital flows toward projects that build sustainability.

Wealth management was also a standout for DBS last year, as assets under management rose to SG$245 billion, delivering a 16% rise in income and 21% of total returns for DBS Group. DBS’ institutional banking arm also thrived. Cash management income surged 14%, and the bank’s dominance in equity and capital markets continued. DBS led all the main-board initial public offerings in Singapore last year and enjoyed a 31% share of the Singapore-dollar primary fixed-income market.

China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan

China’s big three banks stood up to the brutal external headwinds in 2019, and none better than Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), this year’s Best Bank in China, which posted 5% growth in profits. ICBC enjoys a vast deposit base and derives around 75% of its operating profit from interest income; by comparison, its global peers among big, traditional banks ascribe some 50% of operating profit to that source. ICBC has also maintained relatively low exposure to risky corporate lending and in recent years has upped the weighting of its loan portfolio to relatively safe residential mortgages.

The bank conducted several successful rounds of additional tier-one capital raising last year via perpetual bond issuance, helping it achieve an enviable capital adequacy ratio of 16.8%, up 1.4% from 2018. Nonperforming loans (NPLs) were lower by 9 basis points to 1.4% in 2019, having dropped in each of the preceding 10 quarters; and the bank’s cost-to-income ratio remained stable at 25.8%.

A striking development for ICBC last year was an increase in its lending to micro-, small and midsize enterprises (MSMEs)—its loan balance with this group increasing by 130 billion renminbi ($18.37 billion), or 40%, from the start of the year, with loans to private enterprises rising 7.6% over the period. Within its lending framework, ICBC has also kept a sharp eye on corporate social responsibility and the interests of its stakeholders, developing inclusive finance, green finance and precision poverty alleviation, all with an emphasis on strong corporate governance. Its lending to inclusive finance grew by 50% in 2019, five times the average for all loans on its books.

Despite the economic fallout in Hong Kong from the trade war and months of social upheaval, Bank of East Asia (BEA) managed to book a 15% gain in net profits for 2019, an impressive achievement in its centenary year. Given the compression of margins inflicted by a low interest rate environment in Hong Kong, BEA has adopted a strategy of maximizing fee income and addressing risk management concerns head-on by accelerating loan downgrades and making provisions therein.

Across the Zhujiang River Estuary, ICBC Macau continued its recent run of success with a barnstorming 19% surge in profits against a somewhat minuscule 0.1% NPL ratio. The bank is accelerating development of specialized finance, including Sino-Portuguese asset platforms and wealth management.

Taiwan’s E.Sun Bank incorporates ESG into its business strategy and is the only financial institution on the island listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, where it is ranked first in Asia and third globally. E.Sun bested its peer group in 2019 with net profit of 15%, earnings per share of 2.17 Taiwan new dollars ($0.07), 12% ROE, 0.83% return on assets (ROA) and total fee income all hitting historic highs.

Australasia

Against a grim backdrop that has seen Australia’s banking industry’s suffer immense damage to its reputation in recent years, Commonwealth Bank (CBA) clawed back some kudos by delivering a better-than-expected cash profit for the second half of 2019 of 4.48 billion Australian dollars ($2.85 billion), earning it the title of Australia’s Best Bank for 2020. The market traded its stock at around 18.3 times earnings leading up to the results, the highest for any big bank in a developed economy.

CBA stood out by besting its rivals in home lending last year, growing loans to the sector by 4% in the first half compared with a 1.5% industry average: something of an achievement in the context of a weak Australian housing market and slowing economy.

Westpac New Zealand’s mission statement prioritizes using its financial and economic expertise to generate positive economic, social and environmental outcomes. In 2019, Westpac became the country’s first bank to issue green bonds and adopt the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures for running its operations. It has reached 1.6 billion New Zealand dollars ($957.61 million) of its target to lend NZ$2 billion to climate-change solutions.

Japan

SMBC Group is this year’s Best Bank in Japan, posting steady profit of ¥726 billion ($6.73 billion) for the 2018 financial year, and ROE marginally weaker at 8.2%; while common equity pushed up 1.9% to 16.4% of its tier-one capital. SMBC Group benefits from the combination of megabank SMBC and leading securities firm SMBC Nikko: the former has leading positions in credit card membership and consumer loans via 43 million customers, and the latter brings the advantage of being a securities underwriter with international reach.

The group has expanded its consolidated net profits in recent years via diversification; more than 50% of group profits now derive from the activities of its subsidiaries outside the SMBC banking business, many operating overseas. A key example is the group’s project-finance franchise, which is a world leader and delivers returns superior to those available in Japan’s yield-starved domestic markets.

SMBC Group aims to help meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in areas such as climate change and human rights protections, having proposed its own 10 goals within the SDGs and incorporated them into its business units’ initiatives. Underlining its ESG credentials is SMBC’s inclusion in numerous global ESG indexes.

The Subcontinent

This year’s Best Bank in India, State Bank of India (SBI), has a history going back to 1806. It is the oldest commercial bank in the subcontinent and also its largest bank, with a 22% share of deposits and blanket coverage of the country through more than 22,000 branches. SBI’s aim in recent years has been to enhance ROA and ROE, as expressed in its mission statement to be “the bank of choice for a transforming India.” It leads in the retail, agriculture and MSME sectors.

Presciently, SBI has fortified itself for future shocks: revamping its credit processes; reorganizing its risk assessment capability; working to resolve stressed assets, often through workouts; launching a business-to-customer platform and broadening its international footprint.

Diversity is a cornerstone of SBI’s long-term strategy; some 24% of the bank’s workforce are women. And it has joined the Asian migration to super apps with its Yono platform, which launched in 2017 and which serves as a digital bank, online marketplace and financial superstore.

Commercial Bank of Ceylon weathered the twin challenges of higher taxation and impairment charges in 2019, plus the adverse effects of last year’s April terrorist attacks, to deliver a solid 12% ROE off the highest gross income of any Sri Lankan bank. Deposits grew a solid 5% and interest income rose 11.2% to facilitate a 7.4% rise in total operating income.

Habib Bank is Pakistan’s largest commercial bank, serving over 20 million customers via 1,700 branches. It now regards itself as “a technology company with a banking license” and uses multiple digital channels to deliver innovative services to customers across all market segments. Habib operates Pakistan’s biggest treasury operations and is expanding its international footprint; it now offers renminbi transaction facilities, the first for a Pakistani bank. It has earned praise from the World Bank Group for its role in enhancing gender diversity; it currently serves more women than any other bank in Pakistan.

Prime Bank has made its mark in Bangladesh’s nascent infrastructure sector in recent years through the innovative solutions offered by its Structured Finance Division, which enable financing that goes beyond ordinary loans and with an eye on environmental sustainability. The bank sponsors the Prime Bank Foundation, a development initiative that implements social programs for the marginalized sectors of society.

Government-owned Rastriya Banijya Bank, recently deposed as Nepal’s largest commercial bank, has come to be regarded as an indispensable component of the Nepalese economy. The bank has been at the forefront of establishing branchless banking in Nepal, allowing access to low-cost financial services for unbanked communities.

Southeast Asia

CB Bank was the first bank in Myanmar to invest in digital infrastructure, launching mobile banking app and wallet CB Pay in 2018, stamping its mark on a reputation for prime mover status, having launched the country’s first credit cards the year before and the first ATMs in 2011. In 2019, the bank was the first in ASEAN to launch an innovation lab on the Apix platform, with the aim of fostering collaboration between banks and fintech. Deposits and loans grew last year at a solid 32% and 19%, respectively.

Indonesia’s Bank Mandiri, 60% owned by the government, impressed with 10% increases in net income and consolidated assets in 2019 while reducing gross NPLs by 40 basis points to 2.4%. The bank raised the biggest sum yet achieved by an Indonesian bank in offshore primary bond markets by pricing a $750 million global medium-term note last year and continues to pursue a fast-moving digitization program. The bank is exploiting synergies with its subsidiaries in areas such as Islamic banking, multifinance, insurance and niche banking.

In the Philippines, BDO Unibank impressively executed its long-term growth strategy in 2019, leveraging its strong business franchise, wide distribution network and solid capital base, while turning its attention to underserved and unbanked markets. BDO boasts an impressive share in its home market, with 22% of loans and 19% of deposits and a hefty 37% of trust assets. It also ticks the boxes in private and investment banking, remittances, credit cards and rural banking.

Thailand’s Bangkok Bank has a broad footprint both domestically and abroad, with an extensive distribution network of 1,148 domestic branches and 117 business centers as well as mobile and internet banking platforms under the Bualuang brand. Bangkok Bank has the biggest international network among the Thai banks, extending from Southeast Asia to China, the US and the UK. Late last year it reached agreement to acquire an 89% stake in Indonesia’s Bank Permata, giving it access to Asean’s largest economy.

Vietnam’s MSB enjoyed a hefty 13% leap in assets last year with solid deposit and loan growth, fueling 18% growth in earnings for a 1% increase in ROE to 7.3%. Corporate deposits rose 39%, reflecting Vietnam’s burgeoning economy, which has benefited from the US-China trade war. MSB opened 10 new branches to bring the domestic total to 280 and became the first bank in Vietnam to apply artificial intelligence to credit card issuance.

Once again, Cambodia’s ABA Bank had a blistering year, growing total assets 60% in 2019 thanks to strong gains in its deposit and loan portfolios. Growth was facilitated by a $120 million equity injection from National Bank of Canada, which owns 100% of ABA. The bank continues to execute its strategy of focusing on digital finance products while retaining a stringent risk management policy. Net profit grew an impressive 54% in 2019.

Hana Bank is the main distribution channel for the numerous business lines of South Korea’s Hana Financial Group, which range from credit and debit cards, life insurance, asset trusts, savings and alternative investment asset management. Considerable synergy exists between these ventures. Hana reported net interest margin steady at 1.5% and delinquent loans continued their declining trend along with the cost-to-income ratio, which dropped 10% in the second quarter of 2019.

Maybank is Malaysia’s largest financial services group, with a presence throughout ASEAN, Greater China and as far afield as the US and UK. The bank offers conventional and Islamic banking services across commercial and investment banking, and insurance, as well as in wealth management, mortgages, auto financing and credit cards. Maybank Group’s brokerage arm, Maybank Kim Eng, meanwhile, engages in equity and bond underwriting, mergers and acquisitions, project finance and syndicated lending. For the sixth successive year, Maybank was rated A by MSCI ESG Research. In 2018 and 2019, it was the only Malaysian organization to be included in the Bloomberg Gender Equality Index.

The Baiduri Bank in tiny Brunei operates with two wholly owned subsidiaries: Baiduri Finance, specializing in consumer financing; and Baiduri Capital, focusing on capital markets and trading. The bank has a strong international brand, thanks to collaborations with global and regional banks, and is recognized for innovation, dynamism and consistently strong metrics. Profit was once again impressive last year, growing 31%, while tier-one capital pushed up 5.4% from 2018.

Caucaucus and Central Asia

The International Bank of Azerbaijan (IBA) is the largest bank by assets in the South Caucasus, with a 34% market share. IBA successfully completed a debt restructuring in 2017 and has since strengthened its capital structure. It demonstrated a strong commitment to ESG with the establishment of the IBA Tech Academy, which offers free tuition to aspirants with their eye on an IT career. IBA reported 22.6% ROE growth last year, while tier-one capital rose 32% to 27%.

Kazakhstan’s ForteBank last year became a bank holding company, having completed the acquisition of Kassa Nova Bank and One Technologies, the latter deal demonstrating its commitment to fintech and digitization. Forte has launched some popular digital client services including ForteMarket, ForteKassa and VisaQR, focused on online retail, point of sale and QR code-validated payments. In 2019 the bank signed loan agreements with the Asian Development Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to facilitate an increase in its MSME lending.

Ghazanfar Bank, the financial services arm of the Ghazanfar Group, one of Afghanistan’s leading conglomerates, offers conventional and Islamic banking services, with branches throughout the country. Ghazanfar has earned recognition as a pioneer in shariah-compliant banking and for its commitment to corporate social responsibility, providing below-market-rate loans to women entrepreneurs and establishing social outreach programs.

Khan Bank became Mongolia’s first to hit a record 10 trillion Mongolian tughriks ($3.59 billion) in total assets in 2019 on 12% year-on-year growth, capturing 29% of banking system assets in the country. Strong metrics included 17.4% ROE and 22% capital adequacy ratio. Khan Bank has made a significant inroad into MSME lending: last year, 30% of its loan portfolio was devoted to the sector, up 8% from the previous year. The bank also started offering green loans to clients in 2019, in accordance with sustainability criteria.

In relatively well-banked Kyrgyzstan, Optima Bank leads the field by assets, with a 14.4% and 17% share of deposits and loans, respectively. A highlight last year was Optima’s signing, together with the EBRD, of a $20 million risk-sharing facility, running for four years, that will allow wider disbursement of loans to Kyrgyzstani MSMEs along with access to technical cooperation programs in such fields as financial management, IT development and production processes.

Asia Alliance Bank (AAB), which opened operations in Uzbekistan in 2009, is working to expand its operational scale and strengthen its financial stability, establishing cooperative partnerships with leading foreign banks and international financial institutions. Late last year, AAB signed a $10 million financing agreement with the private sector arm of the Islamic Development Bank to facilitate MSME lending, alongside an advisory agreement to launch an Islamic-financing window.


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