Following is the transcript of CNBC’s interview with Bill Winters, CEO of Standard Chartered Bank at the Credit Suisse Asian Investment Forum in Hong Kong.
Interviewed by CNBC’s Akiko Fujita.
Akiko Fujita (AF): We’re joined by Bill Winters, who is of course, the CEO of Standard Chartered Bank. Welcome. We’re still going strong. How many hours in, right? You know it’s interesting because we look at the backdrop with which this conference is happening. Over in China, we’ve seen Xi Jinping essentially anoint himself as a longer term leader at least with the term limits reduced. Over in the U.S., we’re hearing about the potential for additional tariffs coming from the White House. And then of course there’s still that uncertainty as it relates to the central banks and the inflation outlook. Is the economy here in Asia still fundamentally strong or are you starting to see some cracks in system?
Bill Winters: Well, things are still very strong, for now. So of course there’s lots of noise. Not all that noise is necessarily bad at all for the economy. So I think the clarity around political leadership in China and the announcement seen as recently as today around the economic leadership, head of the Central Bank, these are all reassuring things for the market and I think it will give us a strong sense of continuity but also a renewed drive for reform. The tariff talk, the protectionism more broadly of course is a concern. But so far it’s been lots of talk and some actions and not so much is really concrete on the ground. And of course we can hope that the policymakers on both sides are able to come to terms because both have said that a trade war is a bad thing. No one wins a trade war. Well I guess some think you can win a trade war. Pretty sure you can’t win a trade war. And the rational voices on both sides I think are quite keen to find a way to work through this with a minimal amount of disruption. We live in hope.
AF: There seems to be some division as it relates to these tariffs on steel and aluminum. Is this just really the first step of the Trump administration really starting to go after China? Or are they trying to use this as leverage for broader trade negotiations. Which side do you stand on?
Bill Winters: Of course I don’t know and I’m not sure who does know. As an opening gambit in a negotiation, it may be effective in terms of demonstrating a resolve to go against some sort of global consensus to ignite a negotiation which has been difficult and tense for some time. I think if there really is a sense that you can win a trade war, that would be more concerning because I think the only thing that’s clear is as you ratchet up tariffs and other levels of protectionism, globally you lose.
AF: Given that uncertainty though, has that shifted your lending decisions? How has it shifted your thinking in terms of, you know, we’re still not sure exactly what could come next coming from the White House. Standard Chartered, of course, a lot of focus on trade as well as commodities. How does that shift things out?
Bill Winters: Well, we are a very big trade bank. We’re very big in Asia in particular in trade within Asia and between Asia and Asia’s natural markets which are in the Middle East, Africa and the rest of Asia, South Asia. So a relatively small percentage of our trade business is trade between China and the U.S.. In fact it’s a very small percentage. So we have a big operation in the U.S. helping companies manage their finances in the Asian parts of the world, Middle East and Africa. Likewise with China. But the actual trade corridor between China and the U.S. is not such a big business for us. We feel not very exposed to a ramping up of the protectionism between those two parties but more broadly believe that global trade is good. We believe that it enriches the populations in all parts of the world and on all sides. Surely some people have been left behind. Many people have been left behind in particular in the industrial heartland in the U.S. and in Europe. And there are things that we can do to address those populations and the fact that we must do short of depriving the world of the benefits of trade. But should there be a ramping up of protectionism and this bilateral tit-for-tat between the U.S. and China or other parties, the result would be much stronger trade flows within Asia. So you know China is not going to stop producing the product it sells to the U.S., they’ll find other markets where they can sell those and other areas where they can buy the products that they’re buying from the U.S. today which actually plays to our strengths because this is our home market.
AF: I was going to mention, you talk about the stronger trade flows that could happen within Asian countries it seems like we’ve already seen that pivot a few weeks ago we were talking about finalizing the CPTPP. Still just 13 percent of the economy now that the U.S. is out of it, but are we really seeing increasingly these countries turn inward within the region given the questions over where the U.S. actually stands?
Bill Winters: Yes.
AF: And that has to benefit, I imagine, StanChart?
Bill Winters: It very much benefits Standard Chartered. I think it has to be the case that if you believe in the ongoing opening up of China. So the internationalization of the RMB, the opening up of capital flows and the opening up of the current account. If you believe that those are inexorable trends, and we do, then it’s inevitable that China will become a stronger and stronger powerhouse in the trading markets in the eastern two thirds of the world where China has a very natural advantage. So that’s a long term bet that we made at Standard Chartered. It’s not a straight line, and as we saw with the wobble in the RMB back at the end of 2015 and into 2016, there was a pulling back of the free movement of capital but if you look at the long term trend over the past 20 years and I think for the next 20 years to come, you’ll see that there’s a gradual and persistent opening up of China which will inevitably bring the rest of Asia, Middle East and Africa into their web.
AF: Let’s talk about Brexit because you’ve been very outspoken about the impact of Brexit, making plans to move some of your staff to subsidiaries being set up in Frankfurt. We’ve heard today from the Mayor of London actually saying that he’s quietly confident the Government will be able to find a transitional Brexit solution by the end of March. Does that give you any more confidence in the process that’s playing out?
Bill Winters: I hope he’s right. And clearly it is in everybody’s interests, both with the EU and the UK and frankly the rest of the world for there to be a smooth transition from where we are today to whatever the end state is. But along the way we must be prepared for the worst. That would be our own view. It’s also the view of our regulators that if there is a hard Brexit, if we could no longer use the licenses that we have today to conduct the business that we’re doing today, then we have to have the alternative in place well in advance of knowing what the end sight is. So our plan is to build a subsidiary in Frankfurt. We already have a business in Frankfurt so it’s really just creating a legal entity and should we no longer be able to access our European business through our own branch network, we’ll have to execute that through a subsidiary. It’s very unlikely that anybody will tell us in March that you’re not going to need that subsidiary because they haven’t had those discussions yet. The whole reason for a transition is to have a longer period of time to work out the details. So we’re going to have to go ahead exactly as we are and as has every other bank preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.
AF: So it doesn’t sound like you’re entirely convinced based on what we’ve heard today that the process really change and the uncertainty has changed. I wonder though you already have a lot of exposure here in Asia, given the uncertainty over in Europe, do you see more opportunities? Has that forced you to look here as well as other emerging markets and places like Africa which I know you were talking about on the panel earlier.
Bill Winters: One of our biggest growth areas at Standard Chartered is serving European and American companies who do business in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. A third of our wholesale business today is with European and American clients and for the most part they deal with us because of the access that we can give them to Asia, the Middle East and Africa and that’s growing very very nicely for us and I think we’ll continue to grow for some time. So as the European economy continues to improve and it is, these are great opportunities for us because these companies are investing in their supply chain, and their distribution chain, and selling and investing in our markets and that should continue for some time. Of course the opportunities here in our home markets are spectacular. The populations are growing, they’re becoming wealthier, they’re investing, they’re becoming more international. All of these things are things that play to the strengths of the Standard Chartered Bank.