UBS bites the dust in India

Just like all the other big banks.

"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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Meghna Mukerjee is a reporter at Retail Banker International

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear