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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.