To understand where Standard Bank is today, says its boss, Jacko Maree, you have to go back to South Africa in early 1987, when Standard Chartered, its original parent, sold out completely. Most South African firms were not welcome in the rest of Africa, he says, and “it wasn’t entirely obvious” that Standard Bank’s priority should be there or indeed in emerging markets at all. When South Africa moved to majority rule in the 1990s, plenty of South African firms shifted their domicile to London and tried to diversify into developed markets, but Standard Bank stuck to its guns. Something of this determination is reflected in its choice to keep its headquarters in downtown Johannesburg even though most financial firms moved to Sandton, a safe but dull suburb where adventure is a bar named the Bull Run.
Mr Maree, at the cuddly end of the spectrum of South African bankers, has been pretty astute. He became chief executive in 1999 after a failed takeover bid for his bank, which he says “was a big kick up the backside”. That meant making more of its main activities abroad: an African presence built from branches bought from Australia’s ANZ in 1992; an investment-banking unit in London (originally put there because of foreign-exchange controls in South Africa); and small operations elsewhere, including Russia, where natural-resources banking, an obvious specialism for African firms, is important.
The result has been solid, with compound annual growth in profits per share of 8% since 2003 and only a small dent in earnings from the financial crisis. In 2009 almost a quarter of profits came from abroad, either the rest of Africa or indirectly linked to the continent—for example, currency trades executed in London.
South Africa has had two lending booms since the end of apartheid. The first was driven by the opening of the economy to foreign capital, the second by lending to the rising black elite over the past decade. As a market it is fairly mature. But Africa as a whole is set for a “tectonic shift”, says Goolam Ballim, Standard Bank’s chief economist. The proportion of Africa’s trade with China, Brazil, India and Russia rose from 5% in 1993 to 19% in 2008. Much of this, inevitably, is in resources, but governments are getting better at saving the proceeds of the good times for the less good ones, reckons Mr Ballim.
Old Africa hands who used to roll their eyes at this kind of analysis got a surprise in 2007 when ICBC, now the world’s largest bank, spent $5.5 billion on a 20% stake in Standard Bank in what was then China’s largest ever corporate foreign investment. Mr Maree and Mr Jiang, ICBC’s chairman, stitched the deal together after spending a day in Cape Town together. There is still a wow factor about it, says Mr Maree. Although the revenues generated from working with ICBC are modest—some $78m in 2009—co-operation is being stepped up. Standard Bank has 30 bankers in Beijing now, as well as a main board director in an office close to ICBC’s, who help clients of the Chinese bank interested in expanding in Africa.
For China’s banks the deal is a test case of whether “treading softly” overseas will work. The combination ticks every box, bringing a presence in key markets for Chinese clients and exposure to a sophisticated foreign firm with skills in areas like investment banking and foreign-currency funding. Yet ICBC has limited influence with Standard Bank, with only a couple of directors on its board. A full takeover looks unlikely. ICBC would need permission from Standard Bank’s board to buy more shares, and South Africa’s government would probably not approve.
For Standard Bank the merits of the deal are clear: more capital, and kudos, to build a bigger presence in Africa and elsewhere. It is mulling buying a bank in Nigeria (where the government is opening up more to foreigners). And it is eyeing India, which Mr Maree says is “the missing link”, given that Standard Bank already has an operation in Brazil and a stake in a Russian investment bank, Troika Dialog. With Standard Bank’s complex history and relatively isolated position, explains Mr Maree, “we’ve had to think in a much more out-of-the-box way.”