Ligia Torres: BNP Paribas AM’s head of Asia on the challenges of investing in China


Ordinary mortals might not envy Ligia Torres’s schedule. The Asia-Pacific head of BNP Paribas Asset Management regularly works from 8am until midnight and “always” on a Sunday afternoon.

The long hours are required as head of a 350-strong team that works across 10 Asian markets, with each presenting different challenges.

“All markets across Asia are evolving rapidly. The challenge is to develop a competitive platform that can accommodate investment markets at different stages of development,” says Ms Torres.

China, Japan, Korea and Australia are the group’s priorities. “We expect Asia to act as the main growth engine for our business worldwide. But asset managers have to pick their battles in Asia. You cannot be everywhere,” says the 64-year-old.

China’s pool of investment assets is forecast to increase from about $4tn at the end of 2018 to $14tn by 2025, according to Boston Consulting Group. This represents the single strongest growth prospect for international asset managers over the next decade.

Many have become more cautious about expanding in China because of increasing friction between Beijing and Washington over trade policy and military disputes. Hong Kong has also experienced weeks of demonstrations by pro-democracy supporters in defiance of increasingly threatening rhetoric from the Chinese government. 

BNP Paribas has operated in China for more than 150 years and Ms Torres does not share her rivals’ misgivings. 

“More than half of the industry’s net new cash over the next decade will come from China. We cannot miss that opportunity,” says Ms Torres during a recent visit to BNP Paribas’ offices in London. 

Born in Mexico, Ms Torres is a fluent English speaker. She has an eye for detail and believes that development in Asia is sometimes misunderstood. 

“I see things that are written which are just not correct,” she says with a pointed look.

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China’s asset management industry is undergoing rapid changes as local regulators introduce new standards to encourage the wider adoption of investment funds. The evolving rules add to the operational and cultural challenges of doing business on the mainland.

“China is a very complex market for international asset managers. They need to have a clear, long-term strategy, the right teams, quotas and licences. They need to understand how to position their business, whether as product manufacturer, structurer and packager, or a distributor,” says Ms Torres.

Over the past two years, regulators in Beijing have gradually lifted longstanding restrictions on ownership of local asset managers by foreign players. 

JPMorgan was the first to move. It acquired majority control in August of its joint venture, China International Fund Management, after paying $35m to buy an additional 2 per cent stake, taking its holding in CIFM to 51 per cent.

BNP, however, has no plans to raise its 49 per cent stake in HFT Investment Management, a mainland joint venture established in 2003 with Haitong Securities.

“We already have a very powerful partnership with HFT. Each asset manager has a unique strategy, requiring different building blocks to satisfy a variety of approaches,” says the industry veteran, who has worked for BNP since 1997.

BNP is in the process of recruiting analysts for its Shanghai-based wholly foreign-owned enterprise (WFOE), a legal structure that allows non-Chinese companies complete control. It is also discussing whether to apply for a private fund management company licence and lobbying China regulators to create a more level playing field between local managers and international competitors.

Regulators in Beijing are expected to grant approval for WFOEs to launch funds that can be sold to the general public, possibly as early as next year.

“We will need distribution partners if we want to go into the onshore market for retail investors. More than 50 per cent of fund sales in China are made via electronic platforms such as Ant Financial and Tencent,” says Ms Torres.

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She believes BNP can help Chinese clients in three main areas: credit markets, as mainland company defaults are expected to rise; multi-asset strategies; and passive index-trackers, including exchange traded funds. 

“Even if foreign players only have access to a small part of the entire Chinese market, it still represents a huge growth opportunity,” she says. 

Ms Torres, who has been based in Hong Kong for the past three years, found that she disliked attending meetings where she was unable to understand what Chinese clients were saying. She already speaks five languages and is in the process of learning Mandarin, often waking at 5.30am to practice.

“But I love it. I love languages and I’m not finding Mandarin that difficult. When you learn a foreign language, read in that language about the history and religion of a country, then you start to understand the nuances of the culture — it is a way of showing respect,” she says.

BNP Paribas launched a group-wide global sustainability strategy in March that focuses on energy transition, the environment and equality.

Ms Torres says Asian clients tend to be more focused on performance, so an education process is needed to help them understand that integrating sustainability metrics can lead to improvements in long-term risk adjusted returns. 

“There is huge potential across Asia for sustainable investment strategies. Asia is lagging behind Europe in adoption, but the rate of growth is impressive,” she says.

BNP Paribas steers clear of exclusion policies that would require it to sell out of companies that fail to adhere to high sustainability standards, preferring a strategy of engagement to help investee companies make improvements.

It recruited Gabriel Wilson-Otto this year as head of stewardship for Asia-Pacific, a new role based in Hong Kong, after hiring Jane Ambachtsheer in 2018 from Mercer, the investment consultant, as global head of sustainability. 

BNP Paribas also operates an asset management joint venture in South Korea with Shinhan Financial Group.

Two-thirds of BNP Paribas’ Asian assets are run on behalf institutional clients. Ms Torres says she is “really trying” to push her teams to move more into other segments, such as defined contribution pensions, working with wholesale distributors and insurance companies, as well as new channels for retail investors.

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She is enthused by the prospect of developing new distribution partnerships with electronic platforms or even non-financial companies with a retail customer base, such as telecoms companies in Indonesia that have been permitted to sell funds by the government.

“Asia is leapfrogging developments elsewhere in the distribution of funds. We need to think ‘out of the box’ to improve fund distribution as part of a push to improve financial inclusion for the people who do not have access to the banking system. And we also need to be extremely mindful of local cultures in creating new products,” she says.

Asked how she relaxes, Ms Torres laughs: “I am always working but you need to be disciplined and to take a step back. I am taking yoga lessons, learning meditation and I try to go swimming.” 

CV

Born January 1955, Mexico City

Total pay Not disclosed

Education

1973-77 Business administration, Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México

1979-81 Finance, HEC Paris School of Management

1981-82 Masters degree, futures & derivatives, Université Paris-Dauphine

Career

1986-87 Standard Chartered, head of interest rate derivatives trading

1987-91 Crédit Industriel et Commercial (CIC), head of trading for fixed income, derivatives and foreign exchange

1991-96 CIC — Banque de l’Union Européenne, global head of sales, capital markets

1997-03 BNP Paribas, global head of FX marketing and sales

2003-08 BNP Paribas, head of corporate and SAS group Emea (fixed income)

2010-13 BNP Paribas Wealth Management, UK chief executive 

2013-16 BNP Paribas Asset Management, head of Apac and emerging markets

2016 to present BNP Paribas AM, Asia-Pacific chief executive

BNP Paribas Asset Management

Established 1968

AUM €427bn

Employees 3,000

Headquarters Paris

Ownership BNP Paribas



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