ALONG the breezy three-kilometre stretch of Mumbai’s Marine Drive you pass cricket pitches, destitute people, luxury hotels, plump joggers and advertisements for Indian multinational companies, but almost no bank branches or cash machines. That absence, suggests O.P. Bhatt, chairman of State Bank of India, the country’s biggest lender, gives the visitor a hint of the potential for the banking industry. Marine Drive has been underbanked since it was built in the 1930s. But now there is a palpable sense in India, as in most other emerging economies, that banking is thriving—just as it has fallen into disrepute in many Western countries.
The emerging world has a history of volatility and of bad-debt problems—indeed China is grappling with such a problem at the moment. But developing-country banks now have got things right on a number of fronts. Anti-poverty campaigners can admire their efforts to offer banking services to the illiterate. Technology gurus can see new mobile applications and low-cost IT platforms, and industrialists can count on banks that actually want to lend to their firms. Regulation buffs see an industry that is both armour-plated and wrapped in cotton wool after the crises of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In most emerging economies banks are viewed as engines of development rather than as rent-seeking parasites.
But it is by the hard stuff, money, that banks in the developing world now measure up. Not only are they well capitalised and well funded, they are really big—and are enjoying rapid growth. By profits, Tier-1 capital, dividends and market value they now account for a quarter to half of the global banking industry. China’s lenders head the list of banks by market value, and Brazilian and Russian banks are among the world’s top 25. At current growth rates India’s banks will catch up in a decade. The crisis in Western banking, still reverberating in southern Europe, seems to have accelerated the shift in banking muscle from rich countries to the developing world.
This special report will argue that most of that muscle will be needed at home. To support the fast credit growth their populations and politicians demand, and the bad debts it may cause, emerging-market banks will need more capital than they can generate from retained profits. They are the pre-eminent gatherers of savings in the world, a mirror image of Western banks that became huge borrowers. But they will struggle to use those excess deposits abroad without taking dangerous currency risks, so the job of recycling excess savings abroad will remain with central banks and sovereign-wealth funds. The managers of emerging-market banks have plenty to do as it is. Some of them already run organisations that are far bigger than the biggest Western banks. Most also expect to lose corporate customers to local bond markets and to have to build up their consumer- and investment-banking operations to compensate. Many, too, are finding innovative ways to offer banking services to poor people without losing money.
If the crisis has transformed the status of emerging-market banks, it has also transformed the role of the state in banking. In China, which had been relaxing its grip on the industry for a decade, the government directed the banks to continue lending during 2008 and 2009—the main reason why the economy continued to grow fast. In Brazil, India and Russia the state banks have seen a sharp improvement in their fortunes, gaining market share at the expense of private banks. Some Western banks operating in developing countries have lived up to their reputation as unreliable partners. That is likely to have long-term consequences. The banking system most emerging economies now want is a mix of entrepreneurial private firms and state banks, with a few well-run foreign ones to keep the locals honest.
That has big implications for the long list of Western firms desperate to gain more exposure to emerging economies. The crisis has underscored the attractions of two business models. The network banks, such as Citigroup or HSBC, have a presence in lots of countries to make life easier for their customers. The “gone native” ones, such as Santander, have big retail operations with large market shares in just a few countries where they act like, and by and large are treated as, local firms. Both these models involve gathering deposits and operating branches on a large scale. The big investment banks are also active in emerging economies but may find the going increasingly tough as local banks get better.
Both those models are almost impossible to replicate now. The network banks are the products of a century of expansion. They are sufficiently entrenched for Citigroup’s near-collapse in New York, for instance, to cause minimal damage to its emerging-market business. The “gone native” banks seized unique opportunities in the 1990s and early 2000s as Latin America sold off banks after bad-debt crises and eastern Europe privatised after communism’s fall. No such sell-off looks remotely likely soon in China, India or Russia. Even the traditional last-resort technique for banks that want to become more international—setting up a few branches overseas and borrowing from headquarters or wholesale markets to fund lending there—has become much harder as regulators are clamping down on it.
The difficulty is mutual
The only consolation for Western firms that cannot get in is that emerging-market banks are facing exactly the same set of problems as they try to expand abroad. For them the crisis came too soon. With another decade under their belt they might have had the size, excess capital and skills to seize the moment and buy big bombed-out banks at the peak of the crisis. As it is, most are having to embrace gradualist strategies. All are building “strings of pearls”—branches in big partner countries to help service customers at home. Some are also offering banking services to diaspora populations in rich countries.
The Western banks have found that establishing a light presence in lots of countries is a great way to lose money. The same is likely to be true for emerging-market banks, so the smarter firms are trying to develop a competitive advantage that they can export. For the Indians that may be low-cost technology; for the Brazilians, investment-banking savvy. Some of the biggest emerging-market banks are experimenting with small acquisitions in their “near abroad”. Going global requires the successful integration of lots of acquisitions, which Western banks have found hard to do.
This special report will show that the globalisation of banking, which has driven the industry for two decades, is in many ways on hold. If emerging economies are much more sceptical about unfettered finance and the role of foreign banks, Western societies are much more hostile to banks in general, let alone those run by foreigners or, worse still, foreign governments. Although emerging-market banks have far healthier business models than Western firms do, many of them will face a difficult trade-off. They will need access to foreign countries in order to build the sort of large-scale operations that make money. To get it, they may have to show that they are at arm’s length, or even entirely detached, from their governments. Yet the crisis has pushed most banks in the developing world the other way.
These banks have been pitched into the big league rather suddenly, helped by the woes of Western banks and the continued strong growth in their own economies. It seems inevitable that Mumbai’s Marine Drive will soon be decked with ATM machines, its joggers will be stabbing mobile-banking screens, the firms on the billboards will be going on buying sprees overseas and even the destitute will have some access to finance. Whether emerging-market banks will soon punch their weight in global banking, let alone dominate it, is another question.