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Asian bankers face US$43b dead deals after oil plunge

It's a tough time to be an investment banker in Southeast Asia.

[SINGAPORE] It's a tough time to be an investment banker in Southeast Asia.

Singapore, the region's biggest stock market, is having its driest spell in six years with no initial public offering bigger than US$25 million in 2015. Mergers involving Southeast Asian companies have dropped 45 per cent this year to the lowest level since 2009, bucking a 39 per cent rise in the broader Asia Pacific. Adding to the woes, more than a fifth of all acquisitions, or US$43 billion worth, announced in the past twelve months were scrapped, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

The dearth of mergers, down to US$20 billion, is taking a toll on bankers. Goldman Sachs Group Inc is reducing its investment-banking team in Singapore about 30 per cent, while HSBC Holdings Plc's top equity capital markets banker in the region and the merger heads at Bank of America Corp and UBS Group AG are departing. Companies are reluctant to do deals or go public in the wake of low commodity prices that have curtailed growth in Southeast Asian economies including Malaysia and Indonesia.

"The mood on the street is very dismal," said Nicholas Teo, a Singapore-based strategist at CMC Markets. "In Southeast Asia, the big companies and tycoons have been sitting on the sidelines." Representatives for Bank of America, HSBC and UBS declined to comment.

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"While our Southeast Asia strategy and client coverage model remains unchanged, we do expect activity levels to be challenged," Tim Leissner, chairman for Southeast Asia at Goldman Sachs, said by e-mail.

Falling oil prices earlier this year helped undo several announced deals. CIMB Group Holdings Bhd in January terminated a US$20 billion three-way merger that would have formed Malaysia's biggest banking group, citing unfavourable economic conditions following the plunge in oil prices. The same day, Sona Petroleum Bhd abandoned a proposed US$281 million investment in Thai energy assets.

Another withdrawn deal involved Thailand's richest man, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, who in February abandoned plans to buy control of Singapore builder United Engineers Ltd after failing to reach agreement on price.

Last month, Malaysia scrapped a plan to seek buyers for the US$3 billion power arm of state investment company 1Malaysia Development Bhd, reversing course just a week after saying it appointed a bank to field interest in the assets. No reason was given. It will now pursue a long-delayed IPO of the business.

"There was certainly a sense of optimism three to four years ago, when both local and international banks were hiring aggressively," said Nick Gardiner, a Hong Kong-based managing director at Boston Consulting Group. "They probably didn't see the kind of activity levels they were hoping for."

Firms led by Standard Chartered Plc and Macquarie Group Ltd have eliminated about 400 investment-banking jobs across Asia since the start of the year, according to Boston Consulting Group estimates. More cuts could come if deal flow continues to slow, Gardiner said.

"The market is tough," said Peter Cheng, a former Standard Chartered technology banker in Singapore who now runs a Vietnamese property website. "I know a lot of people who left banking who are facing challenges in looking for other positions." One bright spot has been Thailand, which hosted Jasmine Broadband Internet Infrastructure Fund's US$1.7 billion February share sale. That accounted for more than half of IPO fundraising in Southeast Asia this year. The only other IPO above US$500 million in the region was last month's US$770 million share sale from Malaysian power producer Malakoff Corp, Bloomberg data show.

Singapore's IPO activity has been hurt by an anticipated rise in interest rates. That dents the appeal of property trusts, which typically comprise many of the new offerings there, said Kelvin Ho, Nomura Holdings Inc's head of Southeast Asia investment banking.

Only two companies sold shares in the city-state this year, raising a combined US$33 million, down from US$721 million a year earlier, and both have slumped from their offer prices. Singapore Exchange Ltd is trying to court mining companies, develop closer ties with China and attract IPO candidates from overseas as part of a goal to double the market value of companies listed there within five years.

There's little hope for deal activity to pick up this year, said Alan Richardson, a Hong Kong-based money manager at Samsung Asset Management Co, which oversees about US$112 billion.

"The growth outlook in Southeast Asia is weakening and there's uncertainty over the global economy," he said.