CEO Mike Smith and the board of ANZ have been completely upfront, even brazen perhaps, with their plans to diversify out of Australia. If you choose to join them, you’ve no excuses when ANZ comes home with its tail between its legs.
Yesterday’s ‘market sensitive’ announcement from ANZ contained nothing of substance. It stated that Mike Smith has been to China and is now in Hong Kong. And that ANZ has a three-point plan to ‘accelerate its progress in becoming a leading foreign bank in China’. So what?
Is this the most important thing ANZ has to tell the market in the middle of a global recession?
The answer to that question is obviously no. The company has more than enough challenges dealing with the fallout from its involvement in the Opes Prime fiasco, troubled loans to Babcock & Brown, Centro and ABC Learning, and a wider deterioration in the Australian economy.
But it’s clear Smith and chairman Charles Goode have their hearts set on Asian domination and, come what may, they are going to throw shareholders’ capital and management time at it. Royal Bank of Scotland’s Asian assets are up for sale and it’s long odds-on ANZ will be the top bidder. Perhaps RBS’s distressed state will enable ANZ to pick up a bargain. But it’s far more likely ANZ will join the likes of AMP, Foster’s, NAB, IAG and a plethora of Australian property trusts as patsies to overseas sellers.
There are, of course, plenty of Australian businesses with successful overseas operations (Computershare, Brambles, QBE etcetera). But I don’t know of one success story that began with a board plan for global domination. All of the successes have built their business through organic growth or opportunistic acquisitions. All of the pie-in-the-sky strategic plans – ANZ’s ‘aspiration’ is to become a ‘leading foreign bank in China by 2012’ – have ended in disaster.
ANZ is a big player in one of the most profitable banking sectors in the world (as measured by return on equity) and the current financial crisis is an opportunity to consolidate that position. Half of the Australian competition has been bought – BankWest by Commonwealth and St George by Westpac – or disappeared (most non-bank lenders). Margins for those that are left are through the roof. Sure, growth options are limited. But what’s wrong with generating mountains of cash and returning it all to shareholders?
There’s no point whinging after ANZ loses billions of dollars in Asia. You’ve been given plenty of warning about its Asian growth plans and if, like me, you don’t want to be a part of it, it’s time to sell your shares.