Magazine issues » Asian Automation 2012

ROUNDTABLE: The business case for automation

Asia is being touted as the new frontier and while many entities want to join the world stage, the lack of automation is holding them back. Our panel of experts discusses what can – and should – be done to help facilitate such an advent. Chaired by Nicholas Pratt.

asia autom roundtable

Marco Attilio,
director, Global Funds Markets, Swift
Michael Chan, managing director, Asset Servicing, Asia-Pacific, BNY Mellon
Tilman Fechter, executive director, head of sales and relationship management, Investment Funds Services, Clearstream
David Li, managing director, Caceis Hong Kong
Carlo Minieri, director, Funds Product Solutions Asia, head of relationship and account management North Asia, Euroclear
Rakesh Vengayil, COO and CFO, Asia Pacific, BNP Paribas Investment Partners

Funds Global Asia: Is there a greater appetite for automation in the Asian asset management market?

Carlo Minieri, Euroclear: We don’t see a willingness to move towards automation from certain market participants – the end distributors or the end trustees. However, where we do see a willingness is from other entities, like the central securities depositories (CSDs). But if their underlying clients are not willing to move then it’s a bit difficult for them to play the role of enabler. Things are changing, though. The CSDs are becoming more active, designing platforms together with international providers and then trying to push the local distributors and the local trustees to use those services.

But, how do you convince those entities to take the plunge? It’s not that easy, because there is pressure on price in this part of the world, and offering a cheap solution which is good for the market is extremely challenging. Also, in Asia, entities want to see their neighbours make a decision before they do so themselves. As soon as you prove automation works and you get the first volumes through these platforms, it will create the momentum for all the other entities to embrace automation. Taiwan and Korea have already seen some volumes of automation. Next year will be about growing those volumes.

Marco Attilio, Swift: Fund managers in Asia are very keen on automation but it’s clear that the distributors in Asia have a different dynamic from the ones in Europe or Latin America. Labour costs are low and they have reached a stage where they have attained manual operations excellence. But this does not allow scalability and office space is increasing. If you make one mistake it can cost as much as the rent for a whole year/two years. But there have not been many mistakes and that’s why most end distributors are unwilling to move to automation.  

There is, however, a push by the fund managers active in the region, especially the cross-border ones, as well as the third party transfer agents and the platforms in the industry who are willing to capture these volumes but not to increase their operational cost to do so.

Tilman Fechter, Clearstream: The problems are the same as in Europe some years ago – the dependencies in the processing chain. A fund manager or a transfer agent (TA) cannot reject an order regardless of its format. You would put yourself out of business if you just accepted automated orders so you’re dependent on the investor to send orders in an electronic format. Europe had the same problem as in Asia in that the investors saw no business case to change to automate the order and the TAs had to swallow whatever manual orders came in.

It’s the same in Asia, in the sense that the distributors around the region have seen no business case for automation. And they’re right. You need to have full automation from front to back because the fax always arrives. We need to prove to  the investor that the business case is in the full straight-through processing (STP) solution, from order routing to cash settlement and safekeeping. Only then will the distributor see the value and only then will they join.

Michael Chan, BNY Mellon Asset Management: What we’ve seen as a provider is when global asset managers approach us for services, they want to know how many languages our team speaks because they want to know that we can communicate with their distributors in an efficient and market-friendly fashion – that is important for them. They do not ask if we are 100% automated as a first order.

In terms of cost savings, companies are moving their operations from Hong Kong and Singapore (where unemployment is between 2% and 3%) to the Philippines and Malaysia because it is easier to get the labour.

You can argue that cost reduction is a reason to automate more, but because of the non-homogenous requirements for each Asian market, providers could simply hire more people rather than focus on automation. It’s the quality of service versus the automation that we’ve been seeing as important.

Rakesh Vengayil, BNP Paribas Investment Partners: We have a huge appetite for automation. But as a global asset manager, we deal with the investment side and the distribution side. The irony is that on one side we have a very sophisticated front to back automated set up, while at the other end there is a very primitive process, and this is something that is challenging and needs  improvement.

Is there a real incentive being passed on to all the people who are participating in the chain? Right now, ‘no’. We and many other global asset managers operating in the region have pushed a lot of fund processing onto our service providers, who in turn have the capacity of allocating huge resources and processing orders at a lower cost. We know this is a temporary resolution but it could explain why there is no big push for automation from asset managers.

But things should definitely change. The biggest problem is that our revenues are variable, while cost to some extent is fixed, so we are attempting  to align both. In the past we adopted a lot of these tactical solutions, but the industry is forced to look into more strategic and long-term solutions. Fund automation is a key element.

David Li, Caceis Hong Kong: Everybody knows STP brings an advantage, but it is not high on the agenda of the asset manager. When they are dealing with us, they are happy to just get a distributor, rather than really push the distributor to automate. It may reduce a bit of cost, but STP is not something they are interested in. Rental costs are high, not just in Hong Kong but in Singapore as well. As a service provider we try our best to be efficient and to answer the needs of the clients, so if they request STP we are ready. But the priority is language and time zones.

Funds Global Asia: Is the automation that we’re seeing in Taiwan going to act as an example for the rest of Asia?

Fechter: Taiwan has come from a fax-only environment to a high level of automation thanks to the Taiwan Depository and Clearing Corporation (TDCC). But if it is just for order routing, which is a problem because it is the distributor that needs to join. The order doesn’t pose a problem for me because the fax is received, the price is received, labour costs are cheap, so he doesn’t see the need. Even if TDCC offers it free to the community, it’s still not the major pick-up that everybody wants because there is not the incentive for the distributor to make the system enhancement.

In Europe, large fund managers have pushed in-house projects to get automation going and the third party TAs are charging separate fees for automated and manual orders, but if the fee is more or less the same, there is no incentive. The more the sales force of a fund incentivises automation, the more it will drive a distributor to change.

Chan: Everybody here talks about automation in Taiwan, but would it be fair to say that if we got Taiwan to be 100% automated, it is not going to make a difference in the whole scheme of things in Asia-Pacific because it’s relatively small, compared with the larger countries like Japan and Korea where automation hasn’t taken off? There are a lot of overseas assets there, but if you were to automate everything, how much money would we save?

Minieri: If you look at the numbers, processing automation will make a huge difference. There are at least 1.5 million orders concerning European funds that go through Taiwan every year so it is the biggest market in Asia in terms of orders. Even though the ticket sizes may be small, automating those orders with the distributor will make a big difference.

Then you have other important markets such as Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Here, there is a tendency to have bigger tickets but a smaller number of transactions. As soon as you move a sizeable market like Taiwan, all the other important markets will start looking at their options and say, ‘If Taiwan made it then we can do it too’. That’s going to prompt greater levels of automation.

Chan: I don’t disagree that it will make a difference in terms of order collection, collation and TA. I’m talking about automation as a whole, the entire chain of the cycle from the investment manager sending the ticket to the end investor. Whether Taiwan’s on the map or not automation-wise, in the grand scheme of things for Asia it won’t  move the dial for the industry.  

Vengayil: The cost from an asset manager’s perspective is becoming relevant. If you look at a global asset manager with assets under management (AuM) of €500 million ($652 million) and generating close to 120,000, 150,000 transactions in a year, it could be paying between €10 and €15 for every transaction that is not automated. So it’s a high cost, whoever is paying it and that’s why there is a lot of focus on Taiwan and on getting it right.

Li: Taiwan could be a good showcase but if you look at those offshore fund managers coming from Europe into Asia, what is their priority? It’s to get into the market, get something working, provide funds at a reasonable price. Compared with Europe, it’s cheaper – they just want in.

Fechter: No, it’s a question of perspective. The problem and the respective costs come from a lot of small tickets where the total amount of assets under management for this investor does not justify the high cost he is creating. As a TA or as an asset manager you would prefer that one big ticket trade rather than hundreds of trades that generate the same value.

The big universal banks are all automated, they aggregate customer order to big single tickets which are send to the TA. But there are players in Taiwan that do not aggregate and are providing 95% of the manual flow into cross-border centres like Luxembourg and Ireland.

So it depends on your perspective. From a risk perspective, an asset manager wants to automate and make sure the big tickets are placed but they also need to pay a TA to get all of these small tickets processed as well. The risk is limited but the work effort and the cost all adds up to a nice sum which ultimately goes to the total expense ratio of the fund.

Attilio: Taiwan is the largest manual distributor in Asia, with high transaction volume. It is trying to advance through a market infrastructure initiative. This is happening in Korea and Hong Kong. Another area to watch out for is the Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries where a combination of political will and financial opportunities will create an interesting space for the funds industry to evolve. Market infrastructures in the region will grow and they will need systems that are viable.

Eventually, from a cross-border perspective, they need portability. And to be interoperable, they need to be able to make cost savings by re-using the same system.

Funds Global Asia: Is cross-border interoperability and the portability of funds acting as a driver for automation? How are we seeing that in terms of infrastructure for a cross-border market?

Li: As a service provider we participate in industrial working groups, like the Alfi [Luxembourg Fund Industry] Asia distribution working group. If there’s any initiative that can improve any automation or fund distribution, we will work with them. But we cannot push our clients to do something they are not interested in. We try to make things more efficient for ourselves and we can connect to big players, like our prime TA services and the infrastructure providers such as Swift, Euroclear and Clearstream, so when our clients are ready, we will help them plug in.  

Vengayil: When we set up a regional platform in Asia, we made a distinction between the core markets (Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan) which we served with an integrated automated platform and the secondary local markets, where we used separate systems. Now, what we are seeing is that these barriers are being broken because, when you are offering a pan-Asian investment capability to a global client, it touches all the markets even though they are not all at the same level of maturity or investment process. If an institutional client comes to you wanting a pan-Asian exposure, and if you are deliberating on your local research and local investment process, they would expect to see the same level of sophistication across all markets.

We are also trying to limit the inefficiency by outsourcing into a middle office service provider. If you look at our model in Asia, we do operate on a global operating platform which is extended to all the countries where we deliver. But post-trading, even from execution onwards, we have the ability to outsource and limit those variables. I’m not saying we are pushing it to a service provider who will take the pain of dealing with the different standards. There is no way you can automate some of those variables when you send an instruction for settlement to that market. When it comes to fixed income, none of the markets is  organised or reached maturity level, where you can have defined automated processes.  

Chan: The Asean countries, more so after the global financial crisis, realised that each one by themselves is never going to be able to compete against the rest of Asia. So it is not purely about automation and interoperability. They already came to a realisation that if they don’t start grouping themselves together they’re not going to have a chance in competing in the regional marketplace.

Is that going to happen any time soon with the interoperability of the all these countries’ infrastructure? Malaysia and Singapore have connected up their exchanges recently, but some of the other countries have only started to seriously consider more interoperability. Even though Singapore may be seen as leading the charge, they do recognise that it is important to be part of Asean to have a chance to play alongside the likes of Hong Kong, Taiwan or China, India in the next decade.

Li: From a regulatory point of view, their interest is to protect their reputation, so they are not interested in co-operating. If a Ucits product is brought to Hong Kong, the regulators will go through the documentation themselves as they know it is necessary to build and preserve their reputation as a major financial centre.

Chan: Yes, it is not purely the market participants and the investment managers who are pushing the regulators to take the next steps. It is the regulators recognising that if they don’t create the right environment, no one’s going to come into their territory to do business.

Vengayil: There is a distinct difference between a place of doing business and domiciliation of the product which you are distributing and the ease with which that product can evolve. From a pan-Asian perspective there’s not a single country domiciliation which will make it appealing for the whole region.

Chan: That’s why the Asean funds passport is important and what they are trying to work towards.

Fechter: The question is always, who would kick it off. The success of Ucits came from the EU pushing it, but nobody had looked at Luxembourg in a democratic way and decided it, or Ireland, should be the centre of Ucits funds. It was because neighbouring countries were not quick enough or flexible enough and had different tax regimes. Nobody said, ‘Let’s decide on a country in Europe which takes the lead’. It came because they’d been quick, they’d been stable, they built trust and they haven’t messed it up. My question is, who would enforce it here?

Chan: There’s no question there will be the equivalent of a Luxembourg and Dublin in Asia. Many believe that’s going to be Hong Kong and Singapore. Hong Kong will certainly be one because foreigners who are not familiar with the region will see it as the only hub to Asia. But if you ask people in China which jurisdiction they would choose to buy their funds, many will choose Singapore because of the rule of law.

Fechter: That is the natural choice and it is how they position themselves. Hong Kong and Singapore are clearly in competition because they consider themselves to be international hubs, whereas other markets, like Korea and Japan, are essentially domestic markets, which are not positioning themselves as a local hub for the region.

Minieri: Trying to determine which country will develop into the international hub or major financial centre in Asia is guesswork. Opinion shifts from city to city on a regular basis and wide-scale processing standardisation across Asia is not likely to happen soon. A pan-Asian regulator equivalent to the European Commission is not something we are likely to witness soon. These countries are expected to continue competing in a number of different business segments. So it’s important to develop interoperability between them all and allow the CSDs and the central banks to talk to each other.

There are many good initiatives out there, such as the Pan-Asian CSD Alliance, that would promote interoperability without changing too much. But to really succeed, these initiatives have to be taken progressively.

Taiwan needs interoperability with the rest of the world, starting with order routing. Eventually, you can add automated settlement and custody as well as increase the coverage of funds. In a market such as Korea, we started with the full automated service on investment funds, that is, order routing, settlement and custody. In Hong Kong, we followed the same approach. And we are looking at pan-agency initiatives for collateral management and settlement and custody.

Vengayil: Is there a proof of concept in Asia where two depositories or central banks can work together with the full interoperability today?

Minieri: On one hand, we have seen the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and Bank Negara Malaysia taking concrete steps to work together with the assistance of Euroclear Bank. On the other, there are a number of initiatives gradually gathering pace which are still to yield future benefits. The development of a pan-Asian CSD alliance, being discussed by the Asian Task Force – whose members include Euroclear Bank and a number of Asian CSDs and central banks – is one example.

Such an alliance would enable Asian CSDs to adopt harmonised processing procedures and to share capital market technology. So there are initiatives to link up the different CSDs in a number of different areas. Such initiatives do not target full standardisation, nor a common regulatory approach because this is something that Asia is not ready for. Nonetheless, sharing expertise and co-operating around garnering greater processing efficiencies will bring long-lasting benefits to the markets in terms of lower costs and risk mitigation.

Attilio: Standardising regulation is very difficult; what you can start with is standardising the flows. Of course, the level of maturity in Asia is different than we have in the other parts of the world but the problem is you don’t get to standardise unless there is a need to standardise, and the need only arises when you start dealing with multiple counterparties or multiple businesses.

In the funds market, if you are a mono-directional single counterparty then there’s little point in standardising immediately. Things get a bit more complex when you start dealing on multiple levels, counterparties and business lines. We are talking about interoperability, how you communicate, not using each other’s protocols because that creates overheads, it creates maintenance issues, it creates costs, so you need an operational backbone. Standardisation is not easy, but if everybody can agree on a common backbone, that would be a step towards a common syntax.

Funds Global Asia: Will a Target2-Securities (T2S) type of project ever come to Asia? If so, would that drive automation and interoperability?

Attilio: With T2S you have a dynamic led by the politicians and driven by European authorities though the ECB with  infrastructures that span the EU. This is not the case in Asia. There is one organisation, Asean, which is working on setting something similar but it’s a long way from doing it because it requires a legal and fiscal agreement framework that can be uniform throughout the different markets.

Chan: If we can put a man on the Moon, then we could certainly connect the burses and all these other structures. But it does largely come down to the political will. Nothing technology-wise is stopping anyone in connecting the region. Political forces through monetary policies create issues that make pan-Asian interoperability really complicated. Two examples are taxes and the movementof currencies. Each country wants to control their currency and their taxation. It’s that political will and the desire to protect their own markets that’s holding some automation efforts back.

Attilio: Political will is not always sufficient.You need to create the technical framework that allows the necessary interoperability and standards to communicate to each other. Fiscal and legal agreements are necessary to support certain types of products and make them portable.

Then comes the passport – you have to act accordingly and make it easy for products to circulate in the region, whether it’s local or cross-border products, because that’s what makes the success. You need to open frontiers to attract best of breed and best of class in your market, which will drive up the need for interoperability and standardisation.

Vengayil: But there is a fear of killing their own domestic market.

Attilio: Exactly. That’s the major challenge for all these countries and that’s where they have to be visionary and innovative to allow that to happen. In that space, competition is important. You want to create value for your investors and, at the same time, protect them. You don’t want them to pay too much to operate so you need to create an environment that is optimum at every level.

Funds Global Asia: Given this reliance on non-technical issues – the political will and regulation – from an infrastructure perspective, how do you manage the risk of creating a white elephant where the capability of the structure is far ahead of the market itself? Is it a case of gradual development?

Miniero: You should never go into a country expecting to be able to cut and paste the same solution you offer elsewhere and apply it to the new market. You need to keep your services as modular as possible. Allowing the market participants to choose a tailored service offering to meet their needs is key to being successful on entry to a new market.

You need to avoid forcing your solution on the market. A steady approach will pay dividends.

In Taiwan, full automation as opposed to simply an order routing service would  have been very beneficial to the market. But we have been there for ten years trying to sell the full service, and it did not work. The only way was to start small and hope it will evolve into something bigger. Korea, on the other hand, was the complete opposite, with the market wanting the full service from day one. So each market is different.  

Vengayil: The cost factor also will be critical across some markets. For example, Indonesia – there are many fund managers, including us, who are running with an efficiency ratio of about 30% to 40%, and you can have a sophisticated automated solution but that will obviously increase the cost and, as for some, prohibitive to use. A natural tendency then would be to get two  resources who can do it manually for $5,000 each. So somewhere, these costs have to balance out.

Li: And that’s why it’s not purely a technical issue. Each country has their own agenda, so they have to deal with multiple issues – whether this part of the business is considered as part of the property of the country, whether they should fall into foreign hands or to protect jobs. That’s why you said when you have a domestic-only situation they will not open up for you at all because they will consider it as their own.

But when you start to talk about the international side, they will see how we should get our share, and this is why you are talking about having a joint venture to make it easier to come to an agreement. But we are still a long way from where we need to be.

Vengayil: This is one area in our business where we have seen that the clients and consultants ratings can create pressure. You can have a country where you run everything manually, but the moment you get a sophisticated client or a consultant coming to look at what you are doing and rating you, they would like to see international standards of sophistication in your investment process.

Even though it may be cheaper to continue operating in the same way you are, if you are willing to invest in a sophisticated investment process there is a chance for you to win the mandate. Then you enhance the standards and peers will start catching up because they want to do the same.

Attilio: But you need differentiation in terms of offering. We are linked up to all the global players for payments, securities, treasury and many other activities, but the real challenge is the last mile. In the funds business this means the small distributors. They are often not encouraged: if the fund or the transfer agent is not differentiating cut-off times, service, remuneration or anything that can push the distributor to move to an automated solution.

Why would they automate? They’ve automated their faxes, they’re happy.

Fechter: It always comes back to the same fundamental question: where is the business case for the investor? A distributor will not join because the fund/TA wants it. He will only join automation projects if there is a business case for him –  and he will never see a case for order routing only and standardise that process. The efficiency gains and the business case is in the post trade area – cash payments  and reconciliation.

For Clearstream, our offering to the distributor is, in most cases, the full solution. We shield the investor from the complexity of the fund world -- telling them a fund is a fund wherever it is.

If a settlement takes place in the TA in Luxembourg, the TA in Singapore or in the CSD in France, you send me an order and I’ll take care of the rest. I’ll place the order, I’ll pay for you and I’ll make sure your shares are credited, that’s the service we are offering.

So if you ask a Euroclear or Clearstream customer, ‘Are you standardised?’, they would answer, ‘We are completely standardised’. They send us one order and we shield them from all of the complexity of the TA Market, CSD market, central bank money paid in Germany, commercial bank money paid in Luxembourg, commercial bank money in Singapore and so on. Distributors love us for that because they see a business case.

Funds Global Asia: To end on an optimistic note, is there a single initiative, service, market or process where you expect to see tangible improvement in terms of automation in the next 12 months?

Li: If Asian funds become very popular and there are more foreign asset managers coming over here, then we’ll see much bigger volumes in all markets in terms of the order placement, and that may trigger higher levels of automation.

Vengayil: I am optimistic because we have come a long way and there are a lot of interested parties, like the Asian Fund Automation Consortium, where there is participation from global providers and they are pushing regulators and participating seriously.

From an asset manager and service provider perspective, margins are drying up and managing cost is becoming a huge factor and that is going to drive automation.

As a result, we can’t be complacent in terms of excess cost. The industry is adapting to the business environment and that will push these kind of initiatives, which will result in overall improvement.

Chan: As more global managers are coming into the region, some are realising that they are not the biggest players in the region. At the same time, national governments do want these managers to stay and this could be the recipe for more automation. Specifically, if the managers say that it is too expensive to do business locally, the regulators will ask what more can they do to drive costs down. There are already tax breaks and subsidised office space.

This is where automation can come into play. If the asset managers push for it on one side while the infrastructure providers continue to push from the other side, hopefully, with political will in play, this will remove some of the last obstacles that have been holding full automation back.

Fechter: In the last three to four years a lot of customers have joined our full service solution, and that will continue. There will still be those that continue sending faxes but we will see more automation from others, especially in countries where the full solution is implemented. But it will take time to convince the majority. And the risk aspect will become more important – no one will want to miss a deadline – and so will the value-added services that come with automation and central custody such as the overnight collateralisation of the over-the-counter deals with  fund shares. These services will push more and more distributors to link up to state-of-the-art and fully automated infrastructures.

Attilio: We’re just at the beginning of a very big advent. We’ve been talking about Asia for many years as the new frontier, but we’re there now. A lot is happening but there is still a lot to do. The Asian countries want to compete worldwide and this will be the biggest driver for more automation and more standardisation at every level – not only ISO [International Organization for Standardization] levels for communication, but even from fiscal and legal frameworks to interoperate and to distribute products.

We are positive because we see that there is a demand to make it easier to go on Swift, to automate and standardise and be interoperable. This is why we’ve been trying to work with all the players in the market to make the standards as accessible as possible. We’ve also looked at low-end connectivity solutions to cater for smaller players.

The key question is, where else, apart from order processing, does the industry want Swift and standards to go for the funds business? Do we need to go into funds data referencing? Do you need corporate actions for funds to be standardised? Do you need collaboration with local players for us to provide the right information at the right time and in a standardised manner?

Going forward, Swift will continue to support all market infrastructure initiatives in the region acting as a critical service provider in accordance with the service levels defined in the recent CPSS-IOSCO principles for financial market infrastructures.

Minieri: I am optimistic about the progress in three countries; Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. This year has been about setting up projects in these countries.

Next year, we will start to see tangible volumes of fund orders going through which will demonstrate to interested parties that automation really does work. If automation in these three markets, which are among the biggest in Asia, does prove successful, then we believe it will set an example. Then just maybe, we can use the same solution in other markets. So next year shows signs of being very exciting for Euroclear.

©2012 funds global asia

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