ICBC: Big could be beautiful
Just 35 years in the making, ICBC is the world's largest bank – and is continuing to shape the global financial system to also become the best.
Yi Huiman, chairman of ICBC from 2013 to January 2019
The most noticeable thing about ICBC is its size. With $3.9 trillion in assets in 2018 – 1.5 times as big as JPMorgan and HSBC – ICBC is easily the world’s largest bank and will likely remain so in the near future. That is even more impressive when you consider that it was founded just 35 years ago.
Referred to as ‘the number one bank in the universe’ even by rivals, ICBC has 607 million retail customers with Rmb9.44 trillion ($1.3 trillion) of deposits.
But even with such a large base, the bank managed to attract 40 million more retail customers in 2018, its best performance in years.
ICBC also has a startling number of corporate customers – seven million. That has helped drive short-term business – the bank managed Rmb1.3 trillion of bonds last year – but more importantly, it gave ICBC a huge set of credit data.
A veteran debt markets banker told Asiamoney the firm has a better understanding of corporate credit than any of the country’s rating agencies.
ICBC was not supposed to be a global player. While Bank of China was founded to specialize in foreign currency and international trade, ICBC was set up by the Chinese government to be a conventional deposit-taking and lending bank in the domestic market.
When the bank was opened in January 1984, most of the initial 500 staff came from the central bank.
Its first headquarters was a 2,800 square-metre, three-floor factory building in Beijing.
Much of the reconstruction work was done by its own employees.
Yi Huiman, chairman of ICBC from 2013 to January 2019, was one of those first employees, joining the bank from the Hangzhou branch of the central bank when he was just 20 years old.
ICBC is hoping to be not just the biggest bank in the world, but also the best
In the first decade after the bank was born, it acted as a semi-central bank and provided clearing, deposit and loan services to individuals and state-owned enterprises. But after 1994, the bank began to transform into a commercial bank.
In October 2006, ICBC was listed in both Hong Kong and Shanghai with a combined market value of $142 billion.
ICBC now has grander goals. In the last decade, it has upped its game to become a Chinese-owned global bank. Onshore rivals complain that ICBC is trying to buy its way to supremacy. There is some truth to that, but its acquisition strategy has so far focused on niche players, rather than any one slam-dunk deal.
It bought a 20% stake in Standard Bank Group in 2007, becoming the South African bank’s largest shareholder. In the same year, it acquired 90% of Bank Halim Indonesia and 79.9% of Seng Heng Bank in Macau. In 2012, ICBC bought an 80% interest in the Bank of East Asia (USA). Later, it bought Standard Bank’s London-based global markets division and Argentina operations as well.
ICBC’s expansion strategy has become more sophisticated in recent years. ICBC manages to capture large trends of strategic importance to the Chinese government.
Chinese policymakers can reel off a number of high-level initiatives likely to have a lasting impact on the world: promoting renminbi internationalization, monetizing the Belt and Road Initiative, developing the Greater Bay Area. ICBC hasn’t missed one yet.
The bank now runs seven renminbi clearing banks through its branches in Singapore, Luxembourg, Qatar, Canada, Thailand, Argentina and Russia, making it the first bank to have clearing banks in Asian, European and American time zones.
ICBC also provided Rmb19.1 billion in loans to 83 overseas projects by Chinese companies along the Belt and Road countries and regions in 2018.
It has promised to facilitate two-way offshore and onshore renminbi flow in the Greater Bay Area and help domestic corporations’ expansion overseas in the coming year.
Now the bank has 131 branches in 21 Belt and Road countries and regions. By the end of 2018, ICBC had a presence in 47 countries and 450,000 people worldwide.
It is true that ICBC does not have the rich history of working with international counterparties the way Bank of China does, but it has a comprehensive understanding of China’s economy, businesses and people, an invaluable asset that many international banks will take years to develop.
With this understanding, plenty of capital at its disposal and an aggressive global expansion strategy, ICBC is hoping to be not just the biggest bank in the world, but also the best.