ANZ brushes Asian critics

The margins may be skinnier and the returns lower, but ANZ is pushing ahead with its Asian expansion.

If ANZ's (ANZ) Mike Smith is concerned by the criticism over his Asian expansion strategy, he certainly isn't showing it.

The moderately paced expansion which he hopes will provide up to 30% of earnings by 2017 – double ANZ's current level – continues apace with speculation this morning that it was in the running to acquire Hong Kong lender Wing Hang Bank.

During the past five years it has expanded in the region through a series of small acquisitions, minority holdings and organic growth. Its biggest single expansion was the purchase of the wounded Royal Bank of Scotland's Asian operations in 2009.

Not everyone is a fan of the strategy. Investors Mutual head Anton Tagliaferro once labeled it "nonsense".

"It's just a fad of going where everyone else is going," he said.

More recently, the ructions on commodity and currency markets, resulting from speculation that the tapering of America's massive stimulus program would lead to uncertainty and instability in the region, have raised further questions about the shift (see Eureka Report's video).

Even in a stable environment, the most recent earnings performances from ANZ indicate that its Asian operations remain a drag on earnings.

Competition across the region is more intense that on the domestic market and the margins are skinnier.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch recently downgraded ANZ on this basis, noting that increased competition in the region meant the bank potentially faced  "a period of low returns on equity".

It is, however, difficult to fault ANZ boss Mike Smith's execution on the strategy. Rather than an expensive high risk purchase, Smith's slow but steady approach limits the chances of a serious problem emerging, recognising the cultural differences the region.

And given the dominance of Commonwealth (CBA) and Westpac (WBC) on home mortgages, ANZ had to develop and alternative growth strategy.

Given Asia's growth potential, and the opportunities that will arise through greater regional trade ties, the increased business may compensate for the lower margins.

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