Robert Crossman has had a bird's-eye view since the credit bubble burst. The head of HSBC's retail banking and wealth management says a more disciplined sector means a positive future.
Risk perspective puts HSBC in safe hands
The retail banking industry has been in a strange kind of purgatory since the financial crisis.
Not as badly disgraced as the investment bankers, who brought the house of cards down with their wild bets on incomprehensible financial products, retail bankers still shouldered some of the blame, especially in the UAE, for the credit bubble that eventually burst in 2009.
Robert Crossman arrived in Dubai in 2009 at the height of that great deflation and, as the head of retail banking and wealth management for HSBC, the biggest and oldest foreign bank in the Emirates, has had a bird's-eye view of events since.
"Now, we look at things increasingly from a risk perspective. It's all about striking a balance between growth and risk management, and regulation too. Nobody wants to return to the time when companies, or individuals, were overleveraged," he says.
Mr Crossman is an American who has spent most of his career at HSBC, in positions in the US and UK before moving here.
He believes things are definitely picking up on the UAE macroeconomic scene. "I see a reasonable number of positive things and am cautiously optimistic. Loans are growing again, activity has picked up in the mortgage market, and credit card spending is 18 per cent ahead, after contractions in 2009 and 2010," he says.
But it can never be the same as pre-crisis days. "The banking sector is more disciplined and credit growth will be more restrained. Customers must be screened to ensure they can afford lending products, and we'll be sensible too. For example, maximum loan to value rate for a mortgage is 80 per cent, but our average is 60 per cent."
Mr Crossman applauds the efforts of the authorities to put in place a credit infrastructure for the UAE. "We're positively encouraged by the momentum between the UAE Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance, and very supportive of the initiative to have a universal credit bureau. In our opinion, banks should not have the option of staying out of any scheme," he says.
HSBC is also supportive of other moves towards modernisation of the financial environment in the Emirates, like the introduction of chip and pin.
"We're already there comfortably on debit cards, and would expect to be compliant on credit cards next year.
"On direct debits, we're talking to the Central Bank. They see it as a clear priority, and I believe a higher proportion of transactions will be in electronic form in the future. Ideally, we don't want to depend on cheques."
A couple of years back HSBC courted controversy when a senior executive said there were benefits to the cheque system, and the criminalisation of customers who bounced cheques, because it encouraged debtors to repay.
Mr Crossman chooses his words carefully: " We have to respect and abide by the laws of the jurisdiction, but we try to treat all customers as constructively as possible in cases of delinquency. We make every effort to find a practical solution with a customer, and we're able to do that in almost every case. I haven't dealt with a case of custody in a very long time."
He says the bank will reduce or defer payments, and cut amounts owed, and has also been involved in the Central Bank initiative to provide debt relief for Emirati nationals, who form 7 per cent of HSBC's customer base.
Another recent sign of the recovery in the UAE market was HSBC's acquisition of the Lloyds retail and commercial banking network in the country. It has left Mr Crossman with a problem, but one in which he sees an opportunity.
"The deal added a beautiful branch to our network, the old Lloyds building on Al Wasl Road in Dubai. That means we have nine branches in the UAE, one more than the regulations allow for foreign banks. We're in talks with the Central Bank about this, and hope to be able to keep the nine branches. Ideally, we'd like more branches. We feel under-represented in Abu Dhabi," he says.
There have been other changes at HSBC in the region. The bank went through a series of layoffs in 2011, but that downsizing appears to be over. "We'll have more employees in 2013 than this year," Mr Crossman says.
And the bank has pulled out of the Amanah Islamic banking business in several countries, including the UAE. "Here we face very strong competition in the Islamic banking space. There was just not enough scale for HSBC."
No discussion of HSBC's regional business could avoid mention of the great controversy that recently overtook the bank, with a record US$1.9 billion (Dh6.98bn) fine imposed by US regulators for money laundering and sanctions busting offences between 2001 and 2010. Much of the illegal trade involved Iran, and went through the bank's UAE business.
"We've been open and honest in acknowledging our mistakes. There are new compliance measures in place here in the UAE and globally that mean it will not happen again."