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A woman walks past ANZ Royal’s Kramuon Sar branch yesterday afternoon in Phnom Penh.
A woman walks past ANZ Royal’s Kramuon Sar branch yesterday afternoon in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

ANZ to remain in local market?

The chief executive of ANZ Royal Bank has denied media reports that the Australian and New Zealand Bank Group (ANZ) is considering pulling the plug on its Cambodian operations amid a planned retreat from the region’s markets.

In a filing to the Australian Stock Exchange yesterday, ANZ announced that it was selling its wealth and retail operations in Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Indonesia to the Singaporean-based DBS Group for about $80 million, taking a loss of nearly $250 million in the process. It said the move was aimed at scaling back Asian operations to focus on institutional banking, while shoring up its primary asset base in Australia and New Zealand.

Leonie Lethbridge, CEO of ANZ Royal – a joint venture between ANZ and Kith Meng’s Royal Group – confirmed the sale, but insisted that it would not affect ANZ’s Cambodian operations.

“This transaction did not include ANZ Royal’s retail and wealth business in Cambodia, as it did not form part of ANZ’s strategic review,” she said. “It is business as usual for ANZ Royal.”

She declined, however, to comment on long-running rumours that ANZ has been looking for a way to exit its investment in Cambodia.

In a report filed yesterday morning, Reuters news agency quoted ANZ chief executive Shayne Elliott as identifying Cambodian operations as under review for a future sale.

However, Elliott said in an email exchange yesterday that he misspoke “in the heat of the moment”, and that not all Asian operations would be put up for sale. “The strategic review that we announced is continuing with Vietnam and the Philippines,” he said.

“Cambodia in particular is actually a joint venture, so that’s not part of any ongoing [review] – and same with Laos.”

By afternoon, Reuters had updated its report to indicate that the two countries were not part of ANZ’s current divestment strategy.

However, Stephen Higgins, managing partner of the local investment firm Mekong Strategic Partners and a former CEO of ANZ Royal, said ANZ has long been reviewing its operations throughout Asia, and that exiting some or all of its business in Cambodia was clearly “on the cards”.

He said international banks operating in Asia generally face higher degrees of difficulty and competition compared to a decade ago, and as a result have seen their market share and profit margins diminish.

“The world for ANZ has changed since they really started increasing their investment in Asia over a decade ago,” he said.

“It’s more difficult in a regulatory sense, it’s more competitive, and in general local banks tend to win over cross-border banks.”

He said in recent years, ANZ Royal Bank has gone from being a market leader to around the seventh most-profitable financial institution in the Kingdom.

“While ANZ Royal still has some great people working here including its new CEO, ANZ Group has imposed a much narrower focus on it in recent years,” he said. “So it’s really been competing with one arm tied behind its back.”

According to its 2015 annual report, ANZ Royal Bank held over $1 billion in assets and earned a net profit of $15.5 million last year, down from $17.8 million a year earlier.

Yesterday’s media reports were not the first time for ANZ’s joint venture with Kith Meng’s Royal Group to appear on unsure footing. In 2014, it was reported that ANZ’s then-CEO Mike Smith was looking to break up the marriage after Royal Group engaged in a series of botched investment schemes into airlines, and two internal audits that revealed that ANZ Royal Bank had financed a local, politically connected sugar company that was under investigation for alleged child labour abuses.

However, Royal Group chief financial officer Mark Hanna yesterday said that he was unaware of any discussions about breaking up the joint venture, or any plans by ANZ to sell its 55 percent stake.

“This news of ANZ moving away from Asia is a total surprise to us,” he said.

“And I can’t comment on it as there have been no formal discussions with ANZ or even them approaching us to discuss a sale.”

A banking analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was unaware of any discussions between ANZ and Royal Group over an exit plan.

However, the source added that “the writing was on the wall”, given the bank’s overall retreat from Asia.

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