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NAB to build on firm foundations
John Cremer
update on Saturday, January 16, 2010
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It is easy to slip into caustic generalisations about the banking sector, but the fact is that many institutions have successfully skirted the worst of the crisis by exercising traditional caution and an unhurried approach.

"It is no secret that the Australian banks performed quite well over the course of the last couple of years," says Andrew Macintosh, general manager of banking for National Australia Bank, Hong Kong. "So, we are in a fairly strong position to capitalise on opportunities as they emerge, but are not pursuing growth just for the sake of it."

He explains that the strategy is to remain focused on areas of known strength and proven competitive advantage. In particular, that means business and corporate banking, and wealth management and private banking services. Well-established group policy is to maintain a strong balance sheet and to keep developing "the Australian franchise", while bringing Asia steadily up to the same level and range of operations, without being overly active or aggressive.

"In Hong Kong, we are not so much interested in opportunistic acquisitions, but in building on strengths to help our Australian clients better in Asia," Macintosh says. "We are in step and in tune with the group's focus, but a small acquisition that bolsters our wealth management capabilities is very much in scope for us."

The November 2009 deal to purchase Calibre Asset Management, a boutique local advisory firm, fell into that category. The firm was seen as having a good track record in providing investment advice for select private clients, something which would complement the type of personalised services the bank already offered. The thinking is that Calibre will operate as a subsidiary, retaining its own customer focus and identity.

"We will stick to our strategy, but are vigilant about looking at different values, and when it adds up, we move," Macintosh says.

Considering the general prospects for this year, he notes the obvious benefit of having exposure to economies - notably the mainland and Australia - that had outperformed most during the recession.

To take advantage of this, it is now a priority to develop greater "match fitness" in commercial banking to capture more of the business associated with those trade flows.

Assessing the impact of concerns such as asset prices bubbles and possible defaults on commercial property in the United States, Macintosh is relatively sanguine.

"These things do have a very high contagion factor," he says. "But we watch our credit exposure and that of our clients very closely, and the nature of our portfolio means we are fairly well insulated from these risks. Also, governments are now flexing their muscles and showing they are quite responsive, so I have no doubt respective regulators would move again if necessary."

He adds that, with steady growth anticipated in the next few years, the bank will be investing in systems upgrades and additional staff in the main business areas, though exact numbers are not definite.

"Suffice it to say, we remain committed to supporting our clients, so if those needs grow, so will headcount," Macintosh says.

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