For corporate access in Asia, the past year has been a tale of two regions.
“We are seeing a divergence of approach this year, with North Asia remaining largely virtual whereas ASEAN and Australia have started resuming in-person events,” according to Vivian Lee, head of APAC corporate access at UBS. “Over the past year there have been instances where physical events were converted into virtual ones at the last minute, which was disappointing, but we were surprised to see how quickly we could change from one format to another without causing disruption to our clients.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, corporate access — the service of bringing together institutional investors and corporate clients by sell-side firms — had to immediately pivot from in-person meetings, events, and road shows to a virtual offering with delivery channels via phone or enterprise video. While abrupt, this change was not without its silver linings, according to Jack Clein, Morgan Stanley’s head of equity distribution, Asia-Pacific, with corporates benefiting from reduced travel and investors benefiting from greater supply, variety, and easier access.
“Assuming a resumption of business travel in North Asia, we are confident that the importance of physical interaction has not been undermined during the pandemic,” Clein added. “A degree of virtual access is also here to stay — in particular, the diligence and fiduciary obligations for most managers will mean that a virtual offering will be a part of a bundled delivery of access.”
In fact, in this hybrid economic environment, demand for corporate access is higher than ever. “The thirst for ‘more’ is obvious,” Clein said. “Given the dramatic economic disruption we have experienced over the past two years, the need for content to help investors navigate an unclear path is paramount.” Sector-wise, Morgan Stanley’s team continues to see demand across a wide range of industries, with biotech, healthcare, and consumption, along with technology, media and telecom (TMT), among the standouts.
Corporate access at Morgan Stanley is focused on three core elements: Generating relevant and topical access ideas; providing high-quality, differentiated access to senior management and industry experts; and executing its program with “a laser focus on seamless logistics,” according to Clein.
“But ultimately, this question is best answered by our clients,” he added. “What we can say is that every day, we try to distinguish our offering through a combination of innovation, creativity, traditional hard work, and world-class execution.”
It appears that clients have responded: Morgan Stanley is once again No. 1 in Institutional Investor’s 2022 ranking of Asia’s top corporate access providers. The firm defended its title after reclaiming the crown last year in a competitive field. This year, J.P. Morgan improved one position to take second place, followed by UBS in third. Citi maintained its fourth-place finish, while Credit Suisse moved up one spot to round out the top five.
As part of II’s 2022 Asia Research Team survey — which Morgan Stanley topped as well — more than 717 investors at 422 firms representing the buy-side point of view rated sell-side firms on six attributes: team quality, field trips, conferences, roadshows, logistics, and virtual events.
The survey also captured the corporate point of view, with 227 votes for both sell-side and third-party providers, which are starting to compete with brokers. Voters ranked their four top firms in the following attributes: virtual conferences, feedback, investor introductions or ad hoc requests, nondeal road shows, and site visits. Morgan Stanley placed first here as well, followed by UBS in second and Citi in third. CSLA and Credit Suisse placed fourth and fifth, respectively.
“Investors are overwhelmed with choices, so we have to be on top of [our] game when it comes to differentiated and timely content offering,” said UBS’s Lee. “The need to rapidly find the best expert in a particular topic and get C-Suite access is here to stay, with or without Covid.”
At UBS, this means collaboration across wealth management, investment banking, research, sales event marketing, and global markets to deliver timely and differentiated content, in addition to leveraging its local footprint across Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
In addition to building events around investment themes, UBS prides itself on its listening to its clients, according to Lee. “For example, one of our clients came to us and suggested that it would be useful to see and touch actual beauty and cosmetics products from China,” she said. “We immediately took that idea and worked with China 360 Research to put together a ‘Touch & Feel’ beauty event, in which we delivered cosmetic samples to our clients’ offices and hosted a virtual meeting with a leading cosmetics expert in China.”
But even amid these innovative ways to bridge the gap between corporates and investors while travel restrictions still exist, what clients want hasn’t fundamentally changed that much, according to Lee. “They are keen to gain timely C-Suite access, plus [have] relevant content delivered through reliable technology,” she said. “Direct access is vital; on-the-ground channel checks and reading body languages cannot be replaced by the virtual format.”
Where countries are reopening, UBS is planning physical tours and in-person conferences. “We will continue to host virtual events for countries that are more restrictive, while keeping a close eye on any changes to travel policies,” she added.
Jonathan Jenkins, head of equity distribution for Asia Pacific at Credit Suisse, confirmed that where possible, there is a high demand for in-person meetings. In May, the firm hosted its ASEAN Conference physically in scale for the first time since the pandemic, with plans to roll out more in-person events in other geographies as the Covid pandemic eases and subsequent travel restrictions loosen.
“Investors are keen to hear more from independent industry experts to validate their understanding of the industry, and we have doubled our offering in this area in the last two years,” he said. “Experts with a good track record of industry insight often attract good participation from the audience.”
Looking forward, UBS’s Lee also believes there will be more of a return to more of the events of pre-pandemic corporate access. “We anticipate a pickup in field trips and the resumption of large-scale in-person conferences, where investors and corporates get to appreciate all the things that technology cannot replace,” she said.