Two banks awarded elite status

JARDINE Fleming and Wardley yesterday became the first banks for more than a decade to be given a full banking licence, enabling them to be bracketed with those at the top of the territory's three-tier banking system.

Some surprise greeted the news. Jardine Fleming has been interested in winning a full licence for more than 11 years, after failing to obtain one the last time domestic licences were issued, in February 1982.

Acting Banking Commissioner Albert Cheok said: ''Both of the companies were previously operating as restricted licensed banks.

''They have been given full licences because they have been able to fully meet the existing criteria for the grant of a banking licence.'' Yesterday's gazetting of the granting of licences brings the number of licensed banks in the territory to 166.

''The continued interest of authorised institutions in expanding their business in the territory is a reflection of Hongkong's attraction as an international financial centre,'' said a government spokesman.

Both companies said they expected to use the new status to enhance services already offered to private clients and that neither would use it as an opportunity to enter the highly competitive retail branch sector.

Jardine Fleming and Co, formerly a restricted licence bank, and Wardley Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Wardley Holdings, were both granted licences by the Governor-in-Council.

Mr Alan Smith, chairman of Jardine Fleming, said: ''We are delighted with this award, which recognises Jardine Fleming as one of Hongkong's leading financial institutions.

''We have patiently built our reputation through prudent deposit-taking and active foreign-exchange dealing over many years.'' The merchant bank is equally owned by London-based merchant bank Robert Fleming and trading hong Jardine Matheson Holdings.

Mr Smith said the merchant bank could now issue cheque-books and promote its own in-house credit card more heavily.

The group would use its new status to enhance treasury services and capital market products to private clients.

At Wardley, a subsidiary of HSBC Holdings, chief executive Kevin Westley said: ''The HSBC Group is already Hongkong's major private banking force.

''We aim to spread this reputation throughout the region.'' The Hongkong Bank's group private banking senior executive, Ms Monica Wong, said: ''This is really a matter of status for us.

''It is important to have the prestige that is attached to holding this licence in the eyes of our clients and the sector in general.'' The last bank to receive a full licence, on February 19, 1982, was Sun Hung Kai Finance.

It had spent years gearing up for the status.

The granting of the licence met some criticism in some circles at the time because of uncertainty surrounding its financial solvency.

The company changed its name to Sun Hung Kai Bank in March that year.

It eventually became International Bank of Asia in July 1986, after Arab Banking Corp bought a 75 per cent stake in the company in May 1985 for $360 million.

A further $372 million of fresh capital was injected into the bank on the issue of new convertible preference shares.

Neither Wardley nor Jardine Fleming was able to say what rating they might attract or what financial ratio status either would have according to capital tier one ratios.

The last time Jardine Fleming was assessed was in January 1991, when Capital Information Services gave it an AA rating - the best of any financial institution at the time.

The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp attracted a rating of A-plus.

At HG Asia, chief economist Jake van der Kamp said: ''It is a very lucrative industry but highly competitive in Hongkong.'' A broker said: ''Lending money in Hongkong is like printing money, with the deposit rate at 3.5 per cent and lending at around 7.5 per cent or eight per cent.'' Mr van der Kamp said: ''The problem is attracting deposits in the first place. This is extremely competitive in Hongkong and it can be very expensive.''