Asia continues to lag other regions for integrating ESG principles with investing; better data and stronger regulatory requirements will help institutional investors, market observers say.
The landscape with respect to the competition has changed dramatically. We are the oldest existing US law firm in Hong Kong. There was only Coudert Brothers û which subsequently disbanded in 2005 û and ourselves in the beginning. Only one UK firm was ahead of us, and when others came they were much smaller. Now, the arena is far more crowded. But our own philosophy has not changed that much. We were never interested in being the biggest. We focus on high quality, value-added work on complex transactions. In Asia since 2005 we have done about 50 major deals worth more than $40 billion û we are focused on big-ticket deals. Our core strengths are our capital markets, private equity, project finance and leveraged finance practices. We have no single country focus and do not practice local law. Globally, we practice US, UK and German law.
How has the kind of advice your clients seek from you in the region changed?
I believe the quality of our practice and the resources we use has increased both in quantum and responsibility. In the mid-nineties the corporate finance practice in Asia took off. At the end of that decade the internet frenzy caused another change. Private equity has driven the third trend û clients today are larger, more sophisticated, and doing much more complex deals.
What kind of risks do your international clients investing in Asia seek assistance to mitigate?
The first kind is more straightforward: political, governmental, terrorist, natural disaster type risks.
The second kind is more complex. In some areas of Asia, business practices are quite different than the US. CEOs and general counsel of our client companies are very interested in ensuring that the same company-wide best practices are observed and adhered to. So, for example, we had a large client whose people were put in jail in China and at the height of this someone asked for a bribe to take it all away. Our advice always remains the same û we will explore every possible avenue to resolve the situation, but will not resort to practices that we would not use elsewhere in the world.
Cyclicality in business in Asia is often more dramatic and quite different to what our clients are used to in their home markets. They want our advice on how best to mitigate this.
I would highlight though, that increasingly we see, that our Asian clients or counterparties generally expect us to play by the same standards we would use in the US.
What kind of advice are your financial institution clients û investment banks, private equity firms û looking to you for?
We help our financial institution clients to expand their business within the framework they are used to operating in. Our clients often turn to us for difficult judgments that are practicable. In the capital markets practice of an investment bank, this could translate to ensuring that investors get the same high standard of due diligence they would expect elsewhere. For a financial sponsor, investors in the fund expect deals to be structured creatively and high quality documentation.
One thing that cuts across all practice lines is vigilance about reputation risks. We always remind our clients that the damage which can be done by stepping over the line is far larger than any benefits. Reputations with clients and regulators are built over years of practice. They can be lost very quickly û this has happened in Asia and several institutions have been shut out of major markets. It has been unfortunate every time.
Milbank has been here almost three decades û how would you predict the next decade?
Living in the US I am struck by the ôobsessionö of my clients based there with China. At a recent dinner event with assigned seating I was found three CEOs at my table were going to be in China this week at exactly the same time as me. The potential in China has led to ôstars in the eyesö of many of our US clients.
The future for us lies in representing both our traditional clients and those local clients who will become the giants of tomorrow. To cite a recent instance, we represented China Construction Bank on its strategic sales to Bank of America and Temasek, and then in its record-setting Hong Kong IPO.
Our China focus is alongside a focus on other key Asian economies. We have an established Korean practice and recently advised Hynix on its $1 billion bank debt financing for its new semiconductor plant in Wuxi, China, one of the first limited recourse project financings for a wholly foreign owned manufacturing plant to be financed predominantly by Chinese banks.
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