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Taiwan’s struggling banks look to China

Taiwan’s banks are among Asia’s most unprofitable. They have for years searched for ways to grow. Improved relations with China offer the promise of entry into a hugely profitable new market, but it won’t be easy. Lawrence White reports.

VICTOR KUNG IS just warming up on the subject of the problems facing Taiwan’s banking sector in a meeting room in his firm’s Taipei headquarters when, without warning, the lights go out. As the power cut momentarily plunges the entire building into gloom, Kung says that Euromoney will at least have had a memorable visit to his offices and his colleague jokes that the walk down to the ground floor after the meeting will provide valuable exercise.

Puffing down the staircase afterwards, Euromoney reflects on the apt timing of the blackout, punctuating as it did an assessment of Taiwan’s financial sector that was characteristically gloomy. Kung has more reasons to be optimistic than his peers: Fubon Financial, of which he is president, is generally regarded as the most successful of Taiwan’s financial conglomerates. It is more profitable than its peers, and has made more progress in diversifying its business overseas. Yet while he is bullish about his group’s plans in mainland China – of which more later – there are problems in the domestic market. Although Fubon’s life insurance unit has recorded increasing profits from strong sales, its banking business has like its peers struggled to make money in an oppressive, low-margin environment.