ING holds the line on Australian ambitions

The events of 2020 could have tested ING Bank’s commitment to building its wholesale balance sheet in Australia. Instead, says Charles Ho, the bank’s Sydney-based managing director and head of wholesale banking, it has used its sectoral expertise and strong local retail brand to grow its exposure – and prepare for a further expansion of debt-market coverage.

How able and willing was ING to continue extending liquidity to institutional clients during the period of maximum volatility in March-April and then subsequently?

It comes back to the way we designed the team when we set up shop in Australia, in particular the fact that we consciously put sector experts on the ground. In banking, you have good years but also bad years – and it is important to take a long-term view.

We felt it was vital to have the right level of specialisation with people in our team who were close to clients, so when the difficult years came around we would be able to work closely with those clients.

This is exactly what happened through the course of this year. March to May was a challenging period but we were able to support our clients’ requirements for covenant restructuring and the like.

When the air cleared a little, around mid-year, we were actually able to ramp up our business. Not only did we continue to support our clients in Australia but we have also increased lending to the Australian corporate sector – our lending commitments to date in 2020 have increased by more than A$1.5 billion (US$1.1 billion) as compared with year-end 2019.

Has the flow of requests for new liquidity and for amendments to existing terms from corporate clients been significant?

One of the aspects where the current crisis differs from the global financial crisis is that liquidity was available across the bank-debt and equity markets in 2020. The bulk of requests we received, therefore, were changes to facility covenants.

When we received our first covenant waiver requests in support of an equity raising, we were sceptical – on the back of what we saw during the global financial crisis. It quickly became clear that this crisis was different. Since then, it has been a case of working with our clients and ensuring everything is well structured within very tight timeframes.

There were some requests for additional liquidity. This is where the benefit of good sector knowledge came into effect, allowing us to support these borrowers.

How quickly corporates reacted to the situation was also commendable. Almost every client realised they had to act quickly and have discussions with their banks as soon as possible. I think this made a huge difference.

“When the air cleared a little, around mid-year, we were actually able to ramp up our business. Not only did we continue to support our clients in Australia but we have also increased lending to the Australian corporate sector.”

Some corporate borrowers have mentioned that banks’ processes slowed during the worst of the pandemic even if liquidity was ultimately always available. Did ING have any additional hurdles in place?

From a liquidity perspective, we were able to leverage the benefit of operating as a retail and wholesale bank in Australia. This gave us good access to liquidity in the form of customer deposits and the Reserve Bank of Australia’s term-funding facility.

There were, of course, additional hurdles in place. Looking back at the start of the pandemic, there was a huge amount of uncertainty around how it was going to play out and how best to respond. Like all banks, we had to look very closely, for example, at the potential impact of risk costs and migration on our risk-weighted assets and the associated impact on tier-one ratios.

It was a couple of years ago that we started talking about ING’s increased ambitions in Australian wholesale banking. How would you assess the progress made ahead of COVID-19?

The way we think about it is not just the amount we lend but also the quality of the relationships we build. We were pleased to see strong results in this year’s Peter Lee survey. I am a big believer in getting external validation of how we are tracking, whether positive or negative.

The most pleasant surprise in the survey results was the 26-point year-on-year improvement in ING’s net promoter score. A large part of this positive change came from our increasing sector and product coverage in Australia. There was also strong recognition of our coverage of offshore debt capital markets.

Has the pandemic changed ING’s sector focus in Australia?

The strategy remains unchanged and we continue to expand our sector coverage in a steady and progressive manner. Today, we have on-the-ground sector coverage for infrastructure, real-estate finance, energy, food and agriculture, leveraged finance, large corporations and financial institutions (FIs).

We are currently looking at putting a technology, media, telecoms and healthcare specialist on the ground and hope to have this person in place before Christmas.

We are also aiming to expand our product offering and are in the market right now for a debt capital markets person, based in Australia. The main focus will be on offshore bond markets – specifically euro and US dollar denominated issuance – with coverage across large corporates and FIs.

The other area we are seeking to explore is securitisation. We established a securitisation team in Singapore, which is ING’s regional hub for APAC, and Australia is one of the key target markets for the team. Of course it helps that the team is led by an Australian who is very familiar with the market here.

You have already mentioned the value of ING’s retail balance sheet in Australia. Can you give some insights into performance of that side of the business in 2020?

An important part of all banks’ business is brand recognition and this is a significant differentiator for us. Our retail bank has 2.7 million customers in Australia, which has increased by 1 million over the last four years. ING is also the most recommended retail bank in Australia. This positive brand recognition definitely helps the wholesale side of the business.

Sustainable finance has been a central component of ING’s institutional strategy for some years. In your experience, did corporate borrowers maintain their focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations during the period of pressing near-term liquidity concerns? In other words, did the crisis show that ESG is more than a ‘nice to have’ for corporate Australia?

Our observation is that it remains front of mind for corporate treasurers – and there are two main drivers for this. The EU taxonomy was released this year and it draws a clear line in the sand between what is green and what is not. This has implications for Australian borrowers that are looking to tap the euro market. Not to mention the expectation that the EU taxonomy is also likely to influence global standards.

We have also seen investors becoming move vocal about the direction of their portfolios. I believe COVID-19 has emphasised the importance of ensuring good access to liquidity and, to this effect, ESG will need to be a top-of-mind priority.

COVID-19 has enhanced interest in the social aspect of ESG, but this seems harder to measure and deliver than environmental outcomes – especially outside the government sector. Does ING see social finance as a major growth area or is the primary focus likely to remain environmental?

The key call-out here is that social reporting is actually captured under sustainability reporting. For example, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board framework for the mining sector includes a specific category for social capital with subheadings such as human rights and community relationships.

Aside from this, we see emerging trends in the social-financing market. It is not as prominent as transition finance but deals are emerging. For instance, we helped structure a social-bond framework for Korean Housing Finance Corporation in 2018 and were a joint bookrunner for the same issuer’s various social covered bonds – the most recent one having been issued earlier this year.

Can you give some more insight into how ING is managing environmental transition within its overall lending portfolio?

The first key commitment we made was in 2017, when we pledged to reduce our lending to the thermal-coal sector to close to zero by 2025. This includes lending to thermal-coal mining and thermal-coal-fired power generation. We remain on track to meet this commitment.

The second key commitment ING made was in 2018, when it announced that it would steer its balance sheet in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement – adopting what we call the “Terra” approach. This is a science-based approach that looks at measuring and guiding the climate impact of our lending portfolio.

ING released its second Terra report this year. Within this report, we identified nine focus areas that are the most climate-relevant sectors in our portfolio. This group of nine focus sectors covers about 75 per cent of total emissions within the portfolio.

The Terra report identifies measurement benchmarks and indicates how ING is currently tracking against them. We believe ING provides some of the highest transparency levels in tracking the climate impact of its lending portfolio.

As part of the Terra report, we also talk about the opportunities and challenges across the nine sectors that are covered. This is done with the view of encouraging discussion and collaboration with industries on how we can work together in meeting the Paris Agreement climate targets.