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Japan's banks look southeast

Low interest rates and slim pickings at home entice behemoths into the region

| Japan
Japanese banks are aiming for a larger share of the growing Southeast Asian market.   © Reuters

Japan's manufacturing industries have been enjoying record profits thanks to a combination of stringent cost controls, growth in global trade and a weakening yen. Yet, the banking industry remains under a cloud, with the latest round of interim results -- announced this month -- producing a very mixed bag in terms of performance.

In the nonfinancial sector, interim profits are up around 35% year on year, with close to two-thirds of reporting companies beating analysts' consensus forecasts. For many Japanese banks, on the other hand, it has been another year of feeble revenue growth, net interest margin squeezes and an end to the loan loss reserve write-backs that have characterized bank results for the last several seasons, propping up reported earnings.

The landslide victory of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's coalition in Japan's recent Lower House elections suggests that Abenomics is here to stay for some years yet. Abe's success also makes it increasingly likely that Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda may be offered an unprecedented second term, if he so wishes, when his current term officially ends in April 2018. Even should he elect to step down, it is highly likely that his successor will be expected to continue Kuroda's highly unorthodox monetary policies. This would mean both short and long interest rates being maintained in a relatively tight band of zero to negative 10 basis points, even if U.S. interest rates were to rise further.

For the Japanese banks, this means further downward pressure on domestic margins overall, while the continuing hyper liquidity seen for the last few years -- not only in domestic financial markets but also in Japanese corporate balance sheets -- suggests that one of the few remaining domestic outlets for Japanese bank loans will likely be the property sector. Banks have been down that slippery path several times before, and have suffered the consequences of profligate lending.

It is by no means certain that they have fully learned the lessons of history, but as long as interest rates remain at ultra-low levels, everyone survives: the good, the bad and the terminally indebted. Only when interest rates start to rise will it become immediately apparent who can repay and who can not, and the rising tide of borrower insolvency is likely to take a heavy toll on banks' meager domestic earnings. But that is a future problem for Japan's domestic banking industry and not a current one.

Asia beckons

Meanwhile, internationally, new growth opportunities are limited for Japanese banks. The long shadow of Brexit looms over London's long-term future as the market's go-to choice for international financial transactions, while recurring security concerns -- not to mention taxation and accessibility issues -- will likely temper Japanese bank enthusiasm for further developing their European networks.

Even in America, the abrupt exit by the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, and President Donald Trump's overriding protectionist "America First" policy despite promising sweeping infrastructure programs and tax reforms, suggest that inward investment by Japanese banks, whether snapping up freight car leasing entities or taking stakes in local banks, may no longer be viewed favorably even if Abe really is Trump's new best friend.

All this leaves Asia as the de facto preferred choice for Japanese financial institutions, not just for reasons of geographical convenience but because of a vast, underbanked market of young Asians combined with the current explosive growth in mobile phone penetration, digital payment technology and the rise of Big Data. And within Asia, the biggest economies of China and India still impose tough restrictions on foreign banks, leaving Southeast Asia as the natural target for international expansion.  

Japanese banks have not been slow to grasp the importance to their future revenues of the opportunity that Asia provides, especially in countries such as Indonesia with a population of over 200 million but where only some 36% of people have bank accounts. The three Japanese megabank groups -- Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group and Mizuho Financial Group -- have been particularly active since the global financial crisis in 2008 in establishing beachheads across Asia, either through taking ever-larger stakes in local banking operations or setting up joint ventures with local financial institutions in such areas as leasing, payment systems and micro-finance.

Other Japanese city banks have tended to limit their Asian operations to branch banking and/or minority stakes in local banks and non-banks. Meanwhile, a whole slew of Japanese regional banks have been busy setting up representative offices in Singapore over the last five years with an eye on international "business matching," acting as go-betweens or matchmakers to introduce their export-import customers to ideal partners in other Asian countries in cooperation with local banks in the region. Even Japanese credit card companies such as Credit Saison and ATM specialist Seven Bank have been making inroads into the rapidly growing Indonesian, Vietnamese and Cambodian electronic payment and microfinance markets in cooperation with local partners.

To put this in some sort of perspective, total Japanese bank lending to Southeast Asia has grown 75% in just the last five years to around 22.4 trillion yen ($198 billion), according to the Bank of Japan. Of this, the three Japanese megabank groups have lent close to $172.7 billion, or just over 87% of the total. Yet this still does not exceed their total aggregate lending into North America, which came to some $176.5 billion as of March 31 this year. That may change if access to U.S.-dollar funding remains stable over the next year or two. Asia is likely to be the beneficiary of Japanese banks' appetite for high-yielding assets.

In the past Japanese banks have been rightly accused of being followers rather than leaders in opening up financial markets, coming too late to the party, missing low-hanging fruit, paying too much and having great difficulty integrating their acquisitions on a profitable basis. No more. The Japanese megabanks continue to be interested in taking strategic equity stakes in prominent financial institutions across Asia, but they are generally much more focused on long-term returns and the effective use of capital than they were in the 1980s during the so-called Bubble Era when an "open checkbook" policy prevailed over prudent banking.

Recent media reports in Japan suggest that Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, a subsidiary of MUFG, may be interested in acquiring a stake of up to 40% in Indonesia's eighth-largest bank by assets, Bank Danamon. While the banking group has yet to officially confirm the story, it is no secret that Japanese banks have both the war chest and the desire to acquire more strategic financial assets in Southeast Asia, in part a reflection of slowing economic growth in China, a previous priority target market for Japanese banks and manufacturers alike.

In 2013, MUFG spent some 170.6 billion baht ($5.15 billion) to acquire a 72% stake in Thailand's fifth-largest bank, Bank of Ayudhya, and last year acquired a 20% stake in Security Bank of the Philippines. Both are highly profitable operations. Japanese banks have a long history of active involvement in Indonesian financial markets; just last year Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp., part of SMFG, raised its stake in Bank Tabungan Pensiunan Nasional Tbk to 40% and announced a jointly developed mobile phone-based payment app known as Jenius as part of its long-term strategy to develop payment systems in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region.

MUFG, arguably the most globally diverse of the Japanese megabank groups, already derives around 40% of its net operating profit from its overseas businesses. Management has set a target to achieve a 50% ratio within the next three years. Acquiring a prized asset such as Bank Danamon would go a long way toward achieving that goal.

While speculation continues to swirl as to whether Bank Danamon is indeed up for sale to Japanese interests, one thing remains certain: While interest rates remain low, profitable opportunities in Japan remain limited, and access to offshore funding remains ample, Japan's major banks will continue to actively seek out and acquire high-yielding financial assets -- both in Asia and elsewhere overseas -- as long as those acquisitions remain an integral part of their long-term strategy to become dominant players in the global financial markets.

J. Brian Waterhouse is a senior bank analyst with Windamee Research, an independent Australia-based specialist provider of analysis of Japanese banks.

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