The suggestion that Singapore could benefit from ongoing protests in Hong Kong may have been “overstated,” according to the head of Southeast Asia’s largest bank.
Singapore — a tiny Southeast Asian country — and Hong Kong are often seen as competitors for the title of Asia’s premier financial center. The demonstrations in Hong Kong have ignited concerns about the city’s reputation, with several reports saying the rich have started to move funds to Singapore.
But Piyush Gupta, the chief executive of Singaporean bank DBS, said Monday such fund flows are only happening “at the margin.”
“We’re certainly not seeing any big movement of money from Hong Kong to Singapore at this point in time. In my experience, these big shifts don’t happen unless there’s a massive regime change which we don’t foresee happening in Hong Kong,” Gupta told CNBC’s Tanvir Gill.
“Hong Kong is a very credible and viable financial center and so, at this point in time, I think all of the focus on Singapore benefiting at Hong Kong’s expense is perhaps overstated,” he added.
Demonstrations in Hong Kong started eight weeks ago against a proposed legislation that would allow extraditions to mainland China. The protests have since snowballed into a movement for full democracy and autonomy from Beijing.
Singapore banks including DBS have in the past few years expanded their businesses in Hong Kong. In DBS’ latest earnings report on Monday, Hong Kong made up around 24% of the bank’s net profit for the April-to-June quarter.
Gupta said the protests in Hong Kong have not hit operations at his bank, but any prolonged political uncertainty could dampen consumer and business confidence — which would be bad news for the bank.
Fed rate cut
DBS on Monday reported earnings that beat analysts’ expectations. Net profit for the second quarter jumped 17% from a year ago to 1.6 billion Singapore dollars ($1.2 billion), helped by rising interest rates in Singapore and Hong Kong.
With the U.S. Federal Reserve expected to cut rates this week, Gupta said the bank’s net interest margin — a measure of lending profitability — is expected to inch slightly lower in the coming months.
Singapore and Hong Kong are DBS’ two largest markets. Interest rates in both are influenced by developments around the world, rather than domestic monetary policies that are set based on the respective local currency’s exchange rate. So, the trajectory of interest rates in the U.S. is an important influence on rates in the two Asian financial centers.
“I think margins have peaked,” said the CEO. “If the Fed starts cutting, overall margins should reduce.”
—CNBC’s Grace Shao contributed to this report.