Stepping on to the Silk Road

With a history of more than 30-years in China, Intesa Sanpaolo has the experience necessary in this evolving but still strictly regulated market

09/12/2019

Intesa Sanpaolo’s philosophy in China can be summed up in one of the country’s many proverbs: ’One step at a time’. It is a complex, evolving market in which regulatory changes can point where opportunities are likely to be found.

Banca Commerciale Italiana (BCI), one of the main antecedents of Intesa Sanpaolo, was the first Italian bank – and one of just three European banks – to have a direct presence in Beijing when it opened an office there in January 1981. Branch offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai were established later. By 2002, the bank was licensed to operate in local currency, paving the way for a fully-fledged banking operation.

Sergio Bertasi, chief representative of the representative office in Beijing, underlines the importance of patience. “Every few years we have taken another step. We have always had a strategy based on small steps forward to match each time China has opened up the country further,” he says.

It is still a strictly regulated market and understanding the limitations and the prospects for each sector are paramount. “Our strategy is based firmly on prudence,” Bertasi explains. “We are a very good bank, a very solid bank, but we are also very careful so we don’t take a bold approach in this kind of market.”

Inauguration of the representative office in Beijing, March 10, 1981.
Source: Intesa Sanpaolo Historical Archives. 
Discover more on the Intesa Sanpaolo’s historical presence around the world here

Until the 1990s, Intesa Sanpaolo was focused mostly on providing support to Italian companies in China. Now it also works with multinationals and increasingly with Chinese companies and state-owned entities. It has also diversified out of standard commercial banking into investment banking and, most recently, wealth and asset management.

“Ten years ago, when I arrived in Beijing, we were hardly able to do anything for Chinese groups, partly because they were not interested in going abroad. Now I am in contact with many of them,” Bertasi notes.

The Beijing office keeps a watchful eye on the political and economic situation, analysing industry and market trends to identify potential customers. It also keeps track of the implications of regulatory change through meticulous desk research.

“My task is to try to look for evidence of groups that may be interested in support in areas such as project financing and advisory services. It is our Hong Kong hub that will provide the actual services. They have dedicated teams for each sector whether it is in oil and gas, M&A, telecommunications, shipping or whatever,” Bertasi explains.

The Chinese companies that operate offshore are normally conglomerates and therefore active in different areas. According to Bertasi, infrastructure is the most important sector – and the Chinese have developed technology that allows groups to build it more cheaply than can Western companies.

The Silk Road initiative could be an interesting development for Intesa Sanpaolo, although – as with all the other changes – it remains to be seen how it will play out. Italy became the only G7 economy to join the project when an agreement for deals worth €2.5 billion was signed in Rome in March 2019.

“Our strategy is based firmly on prudence. We are a very good bank, a very solid bank, but we are also very careful”
Sergio Bertasi, chief representative of Intesa Sanpaolo’s representative office in Beijing

Bertasi says the agreement seems to have prompted a psychological change that could make it easier to approach Chinese public entities and industrial groups. He thinks companies will feel more inclined to interact with the bank because it has been given special status by the Chinese authorities.

“Signing it does not give us a role in deals or anything like that. But we are able to open more doors,” he explains.

Wealth management is another recent development. Yi Tsai was founded in 2016 by Intesa Sanpaolo with a goal to develop this side of the business. It also owns 49 per cent of Penghua Asset Management. This has provided the Italian group with a platform in a market that could develop significantly – again because of regulatory changes.

 

“China is opening this sector – not because they want to open it but because they need to,” Bertasi says. There have been many problems with scams and unprofessional operators, which have dogged the sector in recent years. After a review, the authorities decided that foreign expertise is needed for increased professionalism and fairer competition, which will favour consumers.

 

“This could become a strategic sector in coming years, one in which they will have to invest a lot. They have decided to count on foreign expertise. It is a sector where there is great potential,” Bertasi says.

China still has big regional differences in economic development and is facing mounting competitive pressures from outside. The latter is expected to lead to further reform of the system and a more open market. That in turn could mean more cautious, prudent steps forward for Intesa Sanpaolo.

Bertasi says: “Intesa Sanpaolo has been in China for more than 30 years. In that time, the country has changed beyond recognition and the lives of its people improved in ways unimaginable a generation ago. I have no doubt that the next 30 will be as surprising, ever more ambitious and constantly fascinating. We look forward to being part of that story.”

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