x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Brace yourselves pinstripe brigade, it's not looking good

Take a deep breath, you masters of the universe, Frank Kane writes. If you think things have been bad in the investment banking scene for the past couple of years, they are about to get a whole lot worse, he adds.

Financial advisers specialising in healthcare are likely to be spared in the event of another crisis. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg News
Financial advisers specialising in healthcare are likely to be spared in the event of another crisis. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg News

Take a deep breath, you masters of the universe. If you think things have been bad in the investment banking scene for the past couple of years, they are about to get a whole lot worse.

That's the main conclusion of the most recent survey of the industry by Thomson Reuters, the financial information group. TR's 2013 Outlook for Investment Banking Services makes for depressing reading if you're one of the pinstripe brigade.

Maybe the rest of us will indulge in a bit of Schadenfreude at their forthcoming plight. After all, they are the people often deemed responsible for getting us in the current mess in the first place.

But maybe too we should not be too quick with the chuckles. Investment banking both reflects the status of the real global economy and acts as a stimulus to economic activity. If they're going to suffer, it could be bad news for us all.

TR pulled together the views of 141 financial executives to produce its outlook, across all sectors. I was surprised such a big proportion came from specialisms in health care (23 per cent), as opposed to say industry (12 per cent). There was a majority from the Americas (54 per cent), with 29 per cent from Europe, Middle East and Africa (Emea), and only 17 per cent from the Asia-Pacific region.

So the survey may be skewed by an American view of the world, although the United States is still the hub of the global financial industry, despite the West-East tilt of economic power to Asia.

But wherever in the world they work, the outlook for next year is "grim". Expectations for revenue and profit growth in the Americas and Emea are down sharply from last year's survey, and "heavy layoffs are expected to continue through 2013". Only 8 per cent of respondents expect increased hiring next year.

The reasons for the slump are even more depressing. While bankers' clients continue to value expertise in a particular sector, they "value competitive fees over existing banking relationships", the survey found.

Clients are not prepared to pay through the nose for general advice any more. This has certainly been a characteristic complaint of investment bankers in the UAE for some time, but it has now taken on a global aspect (although Asians are slightly less sensitive about fees).

This may be good news for boutique firms that also have access to deal financing, but it is bad news for the giants of New York, London, Frankfurt and Tokyo.

Rather than paying out huge fees to investment bankers for mergers and acquisition (M&A) advice, corporations are far more likely to want to return cash to shareholders via share purchases, higher dividends and debt reduction. They are also keen to build up cash reserves, especially in the Emea region.

M&A will languish even deeper in the doldrums, the survey finds. There is significantly decreased interest in geographical expansion and transformational deals, and a much higher priority given to getting rid of what are regarded as non-core assets. Corporations are net sellers, rather than buyers.

What opportunities there are next year will be led by the healthcare sector, and could even contribute to a slight rise in overall M&A business, although with reduced fee levels. The outlook is healthier in America and Asia than in Emea, but still pretty bleak. Property is the only other sector to drum up some optimism, with valuations expected to recover globally.

But looking at this overall scene of depression, investment bankers are trying to see the sweet spots, and those will continue to come in the capital-raising departments.

Equity issuance is not expected to recover to any great degree, which means the record level of fixed-interest business will continue, with corporate bond issuance perhaps reaching the record levels of 2009.

In Emea in particular, corporations will look to the bond markets to make up for the low levels of bank borrowing. Syndicated loans may be subject to a small recovery.

The lesson seems to be that if you are an adviser in fixed-interest finance with a specialism in health care or property working in a boutique firm outside Emea, you'll probably be OK. Everyone else should worry.