It's Asia, innit? The London argot is basic, but it does encapsulate the primary reason for London-headquartered Standard Chartered's market darling status. Another reason is as important: the bank is generally well run.
Three-fifths of the bank's revenues and profits last year came from Asia-Pacific, and less than a quarter of the rest from the current banking trouble spots of the UK, Europe and the United States. More importantly for management evaluations than its historical, long-term choice of country focus, it also kept expenses under control. Like HSBC, its UK-based, Asia-focused rival, Standard Chartered's operating costs rose by nearly a 10th, led by rising staff costs in Asia. Unlike HSBC, however, its top-line growth at least kept pace.
Peter Sands, chief executive, believes that staff costs - mostly retention-related - will ease a little. That assumes no more Korea-style problems, where a staff revolt cost $206-million. Still, Standard Chartered will do its own bit to soften those pressures: hiring is expected to add about 2 per cent to its 87,000 headcount this year, similar to 2011. The near one-tenth jump in 2010 in employee numbers was responsible for a large chunk of last year's cost increase.
Since the banking industry's post-Lehman Brothers nadir in early 2009, Standard Chartered has returned 180 per cent, four-fifths of which comes from share price appreciation. That is more than double the returns from either the FTSE UK banks index or Bloomberg's Asia-Pacific version. The investment case for the bank is partially a case of right time, right business. But check out the hit it took in 1998 and 1999 - about two-fifths of profits - for a cautionary tale. So long as China and the broader region manage their slowdown as expected, there is little reason for investors to stop being blunt about why they like this bank.