Asia: Where American investment banking dreams go to die


Chinese banks are siphoning away Asia business from Western counterparts like Goldman Sachs

The rankings instead have been dominated by Chinese banks, which this year have pocketed a record 60% of fees from advising on mergers and raising capital in Asia, according to research firm Dealogic. No American or European bank sits higher than seventh in the rankings, which exclude activity in Japan and Australia.

Goldman’s slide is a high-profile example of how Western banks’ prospects have dimmed in a region they once viewed as a potential fee bonanza.

Wall Street has bet big on Asia for years, hoping to tap into the region’s fast-growing economies and the increasingly global ambitions of its companies. But tougher competition from local banks and a Chinese economic slowdown have eaten into profits, forcing some to pull back.

In the latest sign, Goldman plans to lay off about 75 of the 300 bankers it employs in Asia, according to people familiar with the matter. The cuts will be concentrated in Hong Kong among junior staffers and won’t include Goldman’s operations in Japan or Australia, the people said.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, Barclays shut down businesses and exited countries in Asia after snapping up expensive bankers from rivals. UBS has let certain positions go unfilled in recent months. Bank of America Merrill Lynch is making further cuts in Asian investment banking after a round of layoffs earlier this year, according to people familiar with the matter.

Chinese banks are increasingly siphoning away business from their Western counterparts, thanks in large part to their ability to lend huge sums of money for deals. China’s government has urged Chinese companies to work with domestic banks as it seeks to raise their profile abroad, advisers say.

Chinese banks had just an 8% share of investment banking revenue in Asia a decade ago, according to Dealogic data. While US banks have spent heavily to bulk up, their market share has actually declined since 2000, from 44% to just 13% so far this year.

At this time in 2014, the top five investment banks in Asia’s growth regions were ​big names on Wall Street: Goldman, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, Citigroup and JP Morgan. Goldman was in the top 10 every year going back to 1997 before slipping out in 2015, according to Dealogic. So far this year, the top players come from China, led by China Securities Co., which captured the lead through its strength in issuing debt and arranging share sales.​

Asia is a competitive market, and the annual bank rankings shift more dramatically in the region than they do in the US, where Goldman and a few others consistently dominate. ​

The biggest concern for global banks is the volume of activity this year coming from Chinese clients, which tend to choose Chinese banks to do deals, said Claudio Lago de Lanzós, a Singapore-based partner at consultancy Oliver Wyman. Chinese issuers account for 83% of equity capital markets volumes in the region so far this year, up from 72% a year ago, according to Dealogic. Some bankers say privately that Chinese banks are the main threat to their business in the region.

For its part, Goldman is staying focused on winning deal activity in China, and is unlikely to cut deeply there, people familiar with its strategy said. The bank is number four in the rankings for mergers and acquisitions revenue for Asia, excluding Japan, and Australia, according to Dealogic.

A strong first half last year raised hopes at US and European banks. Trading volumes skyrocketed as China’s stock market soared and the government made it more accessible to foreign investors.

But stocks cratered last summer. The decline, coupled with the slowing Chinese economy and depressed commodity prices that hit Southeast Asia hard, put many deals on hold and diminished what had been a lucrative business for Goldman and others in underwriting initial public offerings.

Fees for all banks from arranging IPOs and other share sales in Asia Pacific, excluding Japan and Australia, are down 15% so far this year from the same period a year earlier, according to Dealogic.

Overall, Asia-Pacific investment banking fees at the 12 biggest global banks by revenue fell 21% in the first half of this year from a year earlier, to $ 1.5 billion, according to research firm Coalition. None of the Chinese banks is included on Coalition’s list.

Investment banking, which includes advising companies on acquisitions and arranging share sales, accounts for only a small slice of Asia-Pacific revenue – about 8.5% – for the dozen banks. The bulk of revenue comes from the banks’ trading units that deal in everything from stocks to currencies and bonds. But winning lead roles on deals can often spawn​trading activity, and the two businesses tend to rise and fall together. ​​

Including trading, Goldman’s revenue in the region fell 52% in the first half of this year from a year earlier, to $ 1.71 billion. Morgan Stanley’s revenue in the region was down 28%, to $ 2 billion.

Profitability has taken a hit, too, because fixed costs are high. Credit Suisse, which is hiring hundreds of wealth managers in the Asia-Pacific region, reported that margins – the percentage of revenue it books as pre-tax income – there fell to 26% through the first six months of this year, from 39% last year. Goldman’s are down to 24% after several years in the mid-30s.

Those results include Japan and Australia, mature economies where banking businesses tend to be more profitable.​ Mainland China, where competition is stiffest, is often breakeven at best, bankers say. ​

China and other emerging market Asian economies are expensive places to do business. Language skills, relationships and knowledge of local regulations don’t transfer within Asia, meaning banks have to hire country specialists and can’t easily shift workers.

Headhunters say banks over-hired in Asia and are now assessing which businesses should be pruned.

“The only way to cut costs is to cut bodies,” said Russell Kopp, a partner in Hong Kong at recruiting firm Options Group.

Meanwhile, the perceived regulatory risks of doing business in Asia have risen. Goldman faces an investigation into its work for 1Malaysia Development Bhd., a Malaysian state-owned investment fund that is the focus of a global corruption probe. JP Morgan and other banks have been the subject of a probe into their Asian investment banking hiring practices. A person familiar with the matter said the layoffs at Goldman are unrelated to 1MDB, and Goldman has said it did nothing wrong.

Wall Street firms’ declines have been particularly steep in stock sales, which typically carry the highest fees. The world’s biggest IPO this year – the $ 7.4 billion offering from Postal Savings Bank of China Co – starts trading on September 28 in Hong Kong. But the expected fee is just 1.6% of the funds raised in the offering, far smaller than the 5% or more typical for US IPOs. It will be split among 26 banks.

Write to Julie Steinberg at and Liz Hoffman at

This article was published by The Wall Street Journal

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