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UBS bites the dust in India

Just like all the other big banks.

Photograph: Getty Images

"Another one bites the dust". UBS is the latest in line of big western banks to be exiting the Indian wealth management industry. UBS will also be winding down its foreign exchange business in India as part of its global strategy to conserve capital.

A UBS spokesperson told Private Banker International that, over a span of two years, the Swiss banking giant will shut its single branch in Mumbai and "concentrate on its core businesses" rather than on capital intensive businesses, even though it is keeping its corporate client service division (including M&A, equities and debt capital market services) intact in the country.

Quite recently, Morgan Stanley surrendered its wealth management unit in India by selling it to Standard Chartered. Previously, Goldman Sachs also exited India’s wealth management arena. 

What makes India such a difficult market to survive in for foreign players?

Like most countries across the globe – now more than ever – regulation is a key concern, one that is amplified when it comes to India. With high entry barriers and a wing-clipped approach to the product universe, the Reserve Bank of India only keeps tightening controls.

This year, in the annual monetary policy statement on May 3, the RBI proposed a new banking structure involving differentiated licencing regime for domestic and foreign banks instead of granting a universal banking licence.

Beyond regulation, however, a bigger factor may be the fact that nuances around how the wealth management business, particularly, works in India is actually quite local.

A market like India has a number of things going for it. According to the World Wealth Report 2013, released by Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management, India experienced 22.2 per cent growth in its HNIs population, second only to Hong Kong in the Asia Pacific region.

But the key to understanding and thriving in a market like India is to have a deep rooted view of the local sentiment and clients’ trust that local banks have.

Indian family offices have a bigger trump card having handled key rich families’ wealth over generations, but the trust factor that local private sector banks such as ICICI, HDFC, Axis Bank, Kotak Mahindra Bank, to name a few, have achieved is tough to compete with. And they are catching up with global best practices fast.

Another factor that gives local banks an edge, perhaps, is the fact that India is a completely onshore market, everything being rupee denominated, and the investment products on offer are still relatively basic, unlike Western mature markets.

When I spoke to Atul Singh, managing director and head of global wealth and investment management for Merrill Lynch in India, back in 2011 for a feature, he told me that foreign banks such as Merrill Lynch, Barclays, JP Morgan, Citibank, and Credit Suisse, being experienced players globally, have taken the lead in developing innovative products targeting the HNWI and UHNWI. But the challenge in India, as an industry, is "how to make money from assets" due to the product universe still being fairly vanilla.

It’s not just India that is difficult to deal with, though. Russia is even more notorious for western bank exits, with Barclays and HSBC quitting retail and commercial banking operations in the region over the last couple of years. Reason? Local banks’ dominance, with most of the market share taken by Russia’s largest lender by assets, Sberbank, followed by VTB.

French bank Societe Generale’s Russian subsidiary, Rosbank, has been in the limelight for the wrong reasons recently with its CEO, Vladimir Golubkov, being fired and acquitted on bribery charges. But SocGen, being one of the few foreign banks still holding its ground in the statedominated banking sector, has shown optimism with its chief executive, Frederic Oudea, saying the lender aims to deliver a "sustainable return on equity of over 15 per cent" in Russia by 2015. Let’s see.

As for India, it will be interesting to note how local banks up their ante with another Western lender exiting, mould themselves to further regulatory changes, and how the other remaining foreign banks make space for themselves and the global approach they offer. "Pressure on people - people on streets". Queen really has said it all.