Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group is on the hunt for bankers in the U.S., looking past the recent turmoil and concerns about an economic slowdown to accelerate its North American expansion plans.
The newly appointed head of the Japanese firm’s core banking unit says the downturn in the global economy will help it attract talent as it seeks to boost areas like sales and trading. Japan’s second-largest bank is also studying requirements to become a U.S. primary dealer, the select group that bids at Treasury bond auctions.
“We want to invest more to expand in the U.S.,” Akihiro Fukutome, who became CEO of Sumitomo Mitsui Banking this month, said in an interview. “The U.S. is the biggest single market and still growing.”
Struggling with ultra-low interest rates at home, Japan’s big lenders have been looking to overseas markets to drive growth. The U.S. in particular is where the megabanks have set their focus on areas from syndicated lending to capital markets. Such ambitions aren’t without risks and some foreign banks have struggled in trying to expand in the country.
Over the last few months, major banks from Goldman Sachs to Bank of America have either been cutting jobs or pausing hiring as merger activity declines and market volatility keeps some clients sidelined. Several of them may however be tempted to undo de facto hiring freezes to tap top talent from Credit Suisse Group after its emergency rescue.
For Sumitomo Mitsui, it aims to boost its secondary market business and further expand primary services like underwriting corporate bonds, according to Fukutome. The Japanese firm has an existing partnership with Jefferies Financial Group, which it wants to strengthen.
“We would like to do more in fixed income, currency and derivatives,” he said.
Fukutome said the bank needs time to study and prepare for what is required to become a U.S. primary dealer. Currently, Daiwa Securities Group Inc., Mizuho Financial Group Inc. and Nomura Holdings Inc. are Japanese banks designated as primary dealers by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Asia Appetite, India
The bank is also looking to put more cash into Asian countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and India, according to Fukutome. The lender last month agreed to buy a stake worth about $1.5 billion in Vietnam Prosperity JSC Bank and in November agreed to purchase an additional stake in Philippines-based Rizal Commercial Banking Corp.
“In each of these countries, we have not reached a complete phase,” he said. “We are looking for further investment opportunities,” he said.
A market that remains one of the bank’s top priorities is India.
“We are very positive about India,” he said. “We have been saying we would like to do full-ranged banking services in these countries. We are at the very beginning phase in India.”
Fukutome, 60, joined the bank in 1985 and has had an unusual career that sets him apart from his peers running the country’s major banks. After spending a large chunk of his tenure in markets businesses, he left the bank in 2017 to become a senior executive at Toyota Motor Co. and president of the automaker’s finance company.
Fukutome begins as head of Sumitomo Mitsui’s banking unit just as the Bank of Japan ushers in its new governor, Kazuo Ueda, who starts on April 9. He’s hopeful Ueda will raise interest rates at some point, saying this would be a boon for Japanese banks.