Stock - Standard Chartered
The Abu Dhabi lender said it had been in “the very early stages of evaluating a possible offer” for the emerging markets-focused bank. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: Standard Chartered’s Bill Winters wanted to mark the start of 2023 “with a little kindness,” he said on LinkedIn, but instead finds himself in the middle of a fresh debate about the emerging market lender’s future.

On Thursday, First Abu Dhabi Bank revealed it had looked at a bid for Standard Chartered in a statement that came minutes after Bloomberg News reported that the Middle East’s largest bank had spent months exploring options, including a takeover. While FAB said it’s no longer evaluating a possible offer, the news sent shares in the London-listed lender higher as investors weighed the prospects of any deal.

Standard Chartered’s relatively small market value - about $24 billion - and the lure of a business with exposure to some of the world’s fastest growing economies across Asia, the Middle East and Africa, make it attractive despite the enormous regulatory complexity of any deal, according to analysts. The drop in British pound also adds to the attractiveness of a bank that trades at just 0.65 times its book value.

“Whoever owns this bank can expect a medium-term yield well into the double digits within two years,” Jonathan Pierce, an analyst at Numis, said in a note Thursday, noting the wider banking sector was increasingly good value. “There is real franchise value that is not being assessed properly by public markets.”

Takeover trouble

There has been open speculation over Standard Chartered’s future for years. Back in 2018, Barclays Plc was reported to be interested in a takeover. In the mid-2000s, there were suggestions that the likes of Citigroup Inc and JPMorgan Chase & Co. were interested in buying the bank.

Since Winters took the helm, Standard Chartered’s shares have fallen by a third. But with rising interest rates starting to boost the financial sector’s profits, the stock has risen by more than 50 per cent in the past 12 months, including a 6.8 per cent jump on Thursday in London and more than 5 per cent in Hong Kong early Friday. Still, its market value remains about half of FAB’s and less than a fifth of historic rival HSBC Holdings Plc.

Analysts at Jefferies Financial Group Inc., who have a “buy” rating on the shares, said that the news of FAB’s interest had “awakened animal spirits” of the markets in Standard Chartered. “In any event, we believe that, at least in the near term, STAN has an embedded M&A put,” they wrote.

Singapore key

Though Standard Chartered is headquartered in Britain and answers primarily to UK regulators, the bank’s fate is likely to be decided thousands of miles away in Singapore.

Temasek Holdings has been the company’s largest shareholder for nearly two decades, giving the Singaporean wealth fund the biggest individual say in what happens to the bank. The Asian city state is also the bank’s largest hub after Hong Kong and home to thousands of its staff.

The stake originates from the last serious attempt to end Standard Chartered’s independence in 1986, when the bank fought off a bid from Lloyds Bank with the help of Singaporean financier Khoo Teck Puat, whose estate sold the holding to Temasek in 2006.

Winters comments

For Winters, now nearing eight years as CEO, such speculation means he may have to explain yet again why the London-headquartered but Asia-focused bank is best off remaining independent despite years of lackluster share performance.

Speaking at a 2021 financial services conference, he gave a robust defense of the status quo, saying that the bank was a “complex beast” that few buyers could hope to digest.

“I don’t feel very vulnerable,” he said “But by the same token if there’s a very valuable combination out there and somebody wants to give it a go and explain to our shareholders why they are better off in combination than they are sticking with us alone, be my guest.”