Anthony Espina's view on Kazakhstan's banking sector

2017年06月30日

The interview was prepared within the scope of joint project of KIMEP University and Kapital “Let’s talk”.

Could you please tell us about your first impressions of Kazakhstan when you first came here?

-  I first came to Kazakhstan in 2007 as part of a Hong Kong Government delegation to promote Hong Kong as a destination for listing Kazakhstan companies on the stock exchange. I am the owner of a Hong Kong based securities dealer on the Hong Kong stock market, and at that time, I was also the Chairman of the Hong Kong Securities Association.  The HKSA represents securities industry in dealing with the government, the securities regulator, and the stock exchange.

-  When they first approached me, they said: “Tony, we want you to go to Kazakhstan with us.”  I was very surprised. It was nothing like what I had expected after watching the movie “Borat”.

-  Kazakh people are very hospitable and they welcomed I continued coming back to Kazakhstan, virtually once a month to meet my friends. Part of the reason enjoy this country is that it reminds me so much of Australia. I lived and studied in Australia for about eight years, and when I looked at open fields, the green, the friendly people, even the buildings – all of these reminded me of the other continent. I have made a lot of friends and now I am living here.

How did your family react to your move to Kazakhstan?

-  Well, I am here on my own. My family has been already been living in America for more than 30 years.

 What did you think when you started learning about Kazakh traditions and way of life?

-  I will tell you a little bit of my family story. I was born in Hong Kong, my father is Filipino, my mother is Indonesian and my nanny was Chinese, so I was born in a multicultural and multilingual environment. At home we spoke a number of languages – mother spoke to me in Bahasa Indonesia and Dutch, my father - in Spanish and Filipino, and my nanny - in Chinese. The common language at home was English. I also speak three dialects of Chinese and some Thai after working in Thailand for a year.  So for me coming to a multicultural and multiethnic society was not a big cultural shock.

-  I studied in Hong Kong, then I went to Australia to complete my secondary and tertiary studies. I had worked in Australia and America. And when I was based in Hong Kong I travelled to Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia so it is very easy for me to adapt to different societies. But the most difficult thing for me in Kazakhstan is the Russian language. It is the most difficult language I have come across. Most of my friends and colleagues here speak very fluent English and so I don’t have much opportunity to practice Russian. In Kazakh I only know “Rakhmet”.

Since you have lived in Kazakhstan for a few years now, what differences can you point to between the Kazakh and Hong Kong banking systems?

-  Well, banking is banking and the basics are always the same. The main difference is in demographics.  This applies across the board to the corporate, small medium enterprises and retail individuals sectors.

-  In the US and Hong Kong we have a much larger middle class than in Kazakhstan and because of that the products provided to customers by banks are different. When you have a large middle class, you provide a lot of credit products. Here, for example, in the retail sector, we issue more debit cards than credit cards.

-  The second difference is the fact that Kazakhstan has gone through some very difficult times as a result of financial crises. Because of this, the National Bank is controlling the banking sector at a very detailed level. 

In the Kazakh banking sector there are a lot of foreign specialists. What is the reason?

-  Hong Kong has one of the highest concentration of banking institutions in the world. Seventy of the largest 100 banks in the world have an operation in Hong Kong. 

-  In the Hong Kong banking sector, at the end of April 2015, there were 157 licensed banks, 23 restricted licence banks and 21 deposit-taking companies, together with 64 local representative offices of overseas banking institutions. These institutions come from 36 countries and include 71 out of the world’s largest 100 banks. Together they operated a comprehensive network of about 1 376 local branches, excluding their principal place of business in Hong Kong.

-  Compared to Hong Kong, I do not think there are a lot of foreigners working in the Kazakhstan banking sector. Here at ATF, we have two other foreigners, apart from me, but they are from CIS countries.

Managers come and go. How do you pass on your experience?

-  Letting people go is one of the hardest things to do whether you are head of a bank or line manager. You`ve worked with your colleagues for a while, you have built up relationships with them. On top of that if you were the one who was responsible for hiring these people, you have to admit that you might have made a mistake.

-  The most important thing you have to do is to discuss this very openly with the person in question and say “I think we both made a mistake”. This is the hardest thing in management. It is easy to hire people, it is much more difficult to let people go.

What was the most difficult decision in your working experience?

-  Every decision we make is difficult. The most difficult part of decision making is knowing when to say we have enough information. One of the biggest traps in decision making is what I call “analysis paralysis”.  Make a decision based on what we know and know monitor changes.

-  By the way, coming to Kazakhstan was not a difficult decision. I saw the opportunities, I liked the business environment and people so it was very easy for me to make the move.

What do you think of the Kazakhstan banking sector in general?

-  We have 180 licensed banks and 81 authorized financial institutions in Hong Kong, but it is a much bigger economy. Hong Kong’s GDP in 2015 was over USD300 billion and Kazakhstan was over USD180 billion. 

-  However, in terms of geography and space and the size of population – Hong Kong is much smaller than Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, the top 10 account for most of the loans and deposits.

What areas do you think are promising in Kazakhstan for development?

-  Kazakhstan is a developing economy. To a great extent, I compare Kazakhstan to Australia and Canada – large geographic area, small population and rich in minerals and energy. I think Kazakhstan can emulate these two countries’ economies. They are very successful in agriculture exports, Kazakhstan also has agriculture but its share in GDP is not so big as energy and mining or related sectors.

-  Next to our country we have two large economies. On the one side is China with a 1.3 billion people, on the other is India with the same size of population. There are a lot of mouths to feed. If you look at dietary habits of Chinese, a typical Chinese consumes less calories and proteins than a Westerner. As the Chinese economy improves, food consumption increases. China now imports wheat and rice, and most proteins come from Canada and Australia. Kazakhstan can and should supply China and India with food.

The interview was first published by Kapial, view full interview content at https://kapital.kz/business/60836/let-s-talk-with-anthony-espina.html 

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