COVID-19 Pandemic and The Era of Responsible Banking

COVID-19 Pandemic and The Era of Responsible Banking

An industry that has been able to weather crises such as SARS, Ebola, 9/11, Asian financial meltdown and of course, the 2008 financial crisis, otherwise known as The Great Recession, is nothing less than resilient. Amidst the ongoing uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the banking industry is once again facing an enormous challenge, the likes of which are totally unprecedented in scale.

Instantly, the impact on the economy started to reverberate across all regions. According to The Center for Global Development, an international think tank that focuses on international development, “travel restrictions and lockdowns imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 continue to impact the economic outlook for low- and middle-income countries.”

In Asia and the Pacific, economic growth is expected to decline by 2.7 percent in 2020 (down from last year’s 3.6 percent growth) and is seen as the most significant fall since the near-zero growth rate logged in 2009 during the global financial crisis, according to APEC. In addition, Asia-Pacific will also see a 50% decrease in passenger demand this year compared to last year. As a result, airline passenger revenues is estimated to record a revenue decline of $113bn compared to last year.

DBS, Southeast Asia’s largest bank, reports a 29% drop in first-quarter year-over-year net profits, setting aside $772.5 million “to cover potential losses from the coronavirus pandemic.”

Meanwhile, Latin America may experience a contraction of income between 11% and 22% according to a simulation by the Bank of Spain. Moody’s predicts a 6% contraction for Argentina’s economy for 2020, 5.2% for Brazil and 7% for Mexico.

Brazilian government minister Salim Mattar estimates that “the unemployment rate in [Brazil] may even double due to the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the economy.”

Not spared from economic shocks, Africa’s growth is also estimated to slow to 1.8 percent in the best-case scenario or to contract to -2.6 percent in the worst-case scenario from the 2.9 percent in 2019 and the pre-pandemic 2020 forecast of 3.2 percent, according to The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

Overall, the World Bank warn that “COVID-19 is likely to cause the first increase in global poverty since 1998 when the Asian Financial Crisis hit.”

“Global poverty — the share of the world’s population living on less than $1.90 per day — is projected to increase from 8.2% in 2019 to 8.6% in 2020, or from 632 million people to 665 million people,” World Bank adds.

Overall, the World Bank warns that “COVID-19 is likely to cause the first increase in global poverty since 1998 when the Asian Financial Crisis hit.

The Era of Responsible Banking

Since 2008, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, banks have made significant steps to take action and create products that are better aligned with the social and environmental values of the clients, not just because regulators have demanded it, but because society expects it. Moreover, it has proved to be beneficial to the bottom line.

Formally, this is now known as Principles for Responsible Banking (PRB). The Principles for Responsible Banking were launched by 130 banks from 49 countries, representing more than USD47 trillion in assets, on 22 and 23 September 2019 in New York City, during the annual United Nations General Assembly.

At the end of March 2020, as the world sees the rapid spread of COVID-19, the PRB group called on its signatories to take action to support society and businesses in this unprecedented crisis. More than 150 banks joined the call and were in fact, doing more than what their governments are asking them to do when it comes to supporting small businesses and unemployed individuals.

The examples of how banks are helping societies during the collapse of an economy is aplenty.

For example, in the US, banks have become the predominant channel for its Paycheck Protection Programme, a $659 billion aid programme for small businesses. US regulators have also eased restriction to allow banks to tap into their capital reserves so they can continue lending.

In Switzerland, regulators and banking institutions worked together to provide loans for businesses who only need to fill out an online form and if approved, the loan could be disbursed to their accounts the next day. Likewise, in South Africa, filling in a form is not even needed as banks were allowed to adopt ‘opt-out’ models making it easier for loans to be extended. And in China, banks worked closely with regulators so loans and extensions could be fast tracked.

In mounting these unprecedented efforts to help societies, as well as prevent further deterioration of economic gains, global central banks are also stepping up to the plate and taking decisive actions.

Elsewhere, in The Netherlands, ABN Amro has extended an automatic six-month deferral on payment of principal and interest for clients with a credit facility of up to 50 million euros. And in Singapore, DBS Bank is allowing credit card holders to roll repayments into a single loan, effectively cutting rates from more than 20% to high single digits.

In mounting these unprecedented efforts to help societies, as well as prevent further deterioration of economic gains, global central banks are also stepping up to the plate and taking decisive actions. Through various measures such as rate cuts, liquidity support and easing of financial policies, the world’s central banks are playing a crucial role in preserving economic stability during this crisis.

Commitment to Move Forward

While the proverbial light the end of the tunnel may not be very clear in sight yet, COVID-19 and its impact already highlight the importance of keeping sustainability and responsibility at the forefront of banking agenda. Banks that have been committed to responsible banking are seeing good progress and are in fact, dealing better with the COVID-19 crisis.

Through the Principles of Responsible Banking, understanding the needs of all stakeholders becomes a paramount concern, and as such, it allows decision makers to understand the potential impact of any decision during a crisis.

However, any principles and proposals around responsible banking may come to naught if these aren’t backed by commitments and tangible targets. The new normal may come sooner than expected, or later than hoped. What’s important is to continue to look out for each other. After all, doing business is all about helping our customers and our people.

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