Why foreign banks are turning tail and pulling out of Vietnam

By Ngan Anh   February 24, 2018 | 09:30 am PT
Why foreign banks are turning tail and pulling out of Vietnam
An employee counts U.S. banknotes among Vietnamese banknotes at a branch of a bank in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Reuters/Kham
Foreign banks concerned about poor risk management or faced with fierce competition in Vietnam have been withdrawing their investments.

The most recent case was Standard Chartered Bank, which sold its entire 8.75 percent stake in Vietnam’s publicly listed Asia Commercial Bank (ACB) in January after a 12-year partnership.

Standard Chartered had previously withdrawn its representatives from ACB’s board of directors for unspecified reasons.

Late last year, France’s BNP Paribas divested its entire 18.68 percent stake in the local Orient Commercial Bank (OCB), ending a decade-long partnership.

Also in 2017, HSBC sold is majority 20 percent stake in Techcombank, while the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) offloaded a 20 percent stake in VIB.

Economist Nguyen Tri Hieu said that foreign banks have accelerated their divestments from Vietnam over the past few years after rushing to invest in the country nearly two decades ago. The withdrawal gathered momentum in 2017.

Hieu said many international banks have been unsatisfied with their businesses in Vietnam because of high bad debt ratios and poor risk management at local financial institutions, and the legal system. Meanwhile, other lucrative markets have sought ways to draw their investment.

“The business environment in Vietnam is quite different from in their countries. Foreign banks have found it hard to do business in Vietnam due to overlapping legal regulations and inefficient risk management at local banks,” Hieu said.

Most foreign banks have invested in Vietnam under strategic partnerships or other joint arrangements with local partners.

A low foreign ownership cap is another reason for the capital withdrawals by foreign partners, who have been waiting for the limit to increase for many years now, economists said.

The 30-percent cap covers total foreign shareholdings and limits a single foreign strategic investor to a one-fifth stake in a local bank.

This has proved unattractive for many foreign lenders who see little incentive in a minority share and limited control of banks requiring restructuring and recapitalization.

A limit increase would help retain foreign investors, many economists concluded.

Normal moves

Some other experts and industry insiders said the foreign capital withdrawal is individual and normal moves. It is not a trend. Foreign banks could leave a market for a new one when having new business strategies.

For example, Australian lender ANZ sold its retail business in Vietnam to South Korea's Shinhan in 2017.

Farhan Faruqui, ANZ's international group executive, said in a statement that the sale will allow the bank to focus its resources on institutional banking, its “largest business in Asia.”

“We will be maintaining our presence through our institutional bank in Vietnam which will continue to support our corporate clients in the Greater Mekong Region,” he said.

Nguyen Dinh Tung, CEO of the Orient Commercial Bank (OCB) told local media: “Banks leave markets where their business is ineffective or competition is too fierce. This happens not only in Vietnam, but in many other countries.”

Vietnam now has seven wholly-owned foreign banks, as well as 50 branches and more than 50 representative offices of foreign banks and joint-venture banks. Their total assets have topped $35.8 billion.

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