The reluctance of United Overseas Bank (UOB) to follow its local rivals in making huge bets on China looks to be paying off in the wake of the mainland’s economic slowdown

UOB’s cautious China policy paying off

Saturday, Jun 21, 2014

Rennie Whang

The Straits Times

SINGAPORE – The reluctance of United Overseas Bank (UOB) to follow its local rivals in making huge bets on China looks to be paying off in the wake of the mainland’s economic slowdown.

UOB took a cautious approach to the mainland despite the hype surrounding its rapid growth and opted instead to expand its presence in the fast-growing ASEAN region.

Investors have endorsed the strategy by driving up UOB shares. They hit a six-year intraday high of $22.82 last week and closed at $22.46 yesterday, 5.74 per cent ahead since Dec 31.

The contrast with local peers DBS and OCBC, which have both expanded aggressively into China, is striking. DBS shares closed at $17.06 yesterday, down 0.23 per cent for the year, while OCBC stocks ended at $9.70 yesterday, a fall of 4.9 per cent since Dec 31.

Analysts said the main reasons for UOB’s outperformance are its limited exposure to China while its niche foothold in booming South-east Asia is paying dividends.

Greater China contributed 35.6 per cent of pretax profits at DBS in the first quarter of this year, 11.9 per cent at OCBC and 11.4 per cent at UOB.

Ms Fiona Leong, bank analyst at RHB Research Institute, said many investors question the sustainability of DBS’ and OCBC’s trade loan business in China, given an apparent slowdown in the country.

“There are also concerns of asset quality due to talk of shadow banking,” she added.

Greater China loans amounted to 36 per cent of total lending at DBS Bank as at March 31 and 17 per cent at OCBC. Such lending comprised just 7 per cent of UOB’s loan book.

CMC Markets analyst Desmond Chua added that the withdrawal of government stimulus in China would have affected the business and loan books of banks in the country.

OCBC’s proposed $6.2 billion acquisition of Wing Hang Bank is also scaring investors.

Buying Wing Hang will require OCBC to undertake some form of equity issuance and that could mean too much stock hitting the market too fast, pushing prices down, said Mr Kenneth Ng, CIMB research head.

Mr Chua said: “The acquisition seems on the expensive side. If OCBC is unsuccessful in its attempt to take Wing Hang private, it would be forced to release the required balance back to the open market, of which it’s unclear if investors will still value Wing Hang at the premium that OCBC paid for it.”

Investors also like UOB’s ASEAN niche, he noted. For example, in Thailand, where UOB has a greater presence than DBS or OCBC, the equity market is on the rise despite the ongoing political crisis, he noted.

“ASEAN appears to be better sheltered from the recent turmoil in global equity markets, and has an emerging affluent class that might be a source of growing loans,” he added.

Maybank Kim Eng noted last week that UOB’s share price outperformance is likely to continue this year. Its relative price-to-book value valuation to DBS and OCBC “remains modest from a historical standpoint”, it noted.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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