By Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat
The equity capital market is a jungle for the well-entrenched men in the world of finance, but no longer. This industry has opened up to new standards and even to the more resourceful and hardworking distaff side. Global giant UBS spearheads as it fully embraced the new measures and demands among investors for sustainability, environment, governance, gender equality, and social conscience in the corporate world.
Robrina L. Go, Robby to most and a self-made woman who rose from the ranks in this manly world, is on top of her game. Armed with three decades of experience, the managing director, country head and president of UBS Philippines, and head of equities, and investment bank of UBS Philippines constantly seeks to provide investors correct understanding of the Philippine equities market. She knows this market like the palm of her hand.
UBS, a Swiss multinational investment bank and financial services company, operates three entities in the Philippines – UBS AG, UBS Securities Philippines (UBSSPI) and UBS Investments Philippines (UBSIPI). Since it established a presence in the country in 1996, UBS has consistently strengthened its offering and delivered excellence to clients. UBS has no retail operations in the Philippines, but concentrates on institutional investors’ side.
Continuously ranked as one of the top-three houses in Equities Research for the past 15 years. UBS has a regional and global network of institutional clients.
It continues to retain its number one position in core IB products. UBS has been named “Best Foreign Investment Bank,” “Best Brokerage House” and “Best Equity House” by a number of external industry surveys.
Since its inception, UBS Philippines has completed 140 transactions for a total deal value of close to $34 billion. It focuses on core IB products and M&A activities. In Equities, it has consistently ranked among the Top 3 firms since 2010.
This year, UBS celebrates 22 years in the Philippines with the strength of being the leading investment banking business in the Philippines.
Coming from the two financial crisis – Asian financial crisis and the global financial crisis – the Philippines showed recovery in 2005 under then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. But before that, a lot of foreign markets exited the Philippines because the low trade volumes could not sustain their operations.
“But UBS stayed without thinking twice,” says Robby. UBS has kept a very lean organization in the Philippines because technology practically runs its operations.
“GMA did something good for this market,” says Robby citing the VAT reforms. This was followed by the listing of an Ayala-owned company. The IPO was oversubscribed, setting an eye opener to the market. Interest rate went down to historic lows.
“Investors suddenly woke up to the reality: there is money here,” says Robby, who heads the UBS Philippines team that has consistently ranked as best in class in Equities Research, Sales and Trading & Execution. UBS ranks consistently among the top 3 in turnover with the Philippine Stock Exchange.
Other deals happened and the equity raised from the private sector came from family-owned firms doing IPO or reissued stocks.
Robby survived the two rounds of financial crisis. “It is a difficult industry,” says Robby, who even tried to run for the Board at the Philippine Stock Exchange.
Despite the difficulties, growth continued. Foreign money flowed in the last 5-7 years as well as active domestic funds.
“We are awash with cash because the shift in 15 years is just dramatic,” says Robby. What UBS has done is look at more opportunities in investment banking like sales of assets to strategic investors. Our products are backed with scientific data,” says Robby.
UBS continues to position the Philippines as it holds an annual investment conference. It offers best in-class Corporate Access with a high-level flagship UBS CEO / CFO Forum every year, which they used to hold in Hong Kong and Singapore with participants from more than 15 countries. But they have shifted to the local market in the past eight years on strong investors’ appetite towards the Philippines.
When the UBS investment conference started, it was 90 percent composed of foreign companies with less than 50 client participants. Then it went on to as high as 120 clients and the mix is 60 percent foreign and 40 percent local from only 10 percent.
“Local investors will continue to grow and they have professionalized and trained to set themselves to global standards,” says Robby.
As an investment bank, UBS took pains in educating local institutions. “Before it was all calls, but today it is all electronics so we have to elevate the local institutions and regulators to global standards,” she adds, noting the surge in confidence in the local institutions and corporates.
Although they are not into retail, Robby is happy about the strong growth in retail money, which she considers pivotal because of its direct impact on the local economy. She expects growth in retail investments in the equities market to continue in the next two years on higher market confidence.
“This could be the start of something because the average investor is young and more risk averse and they’re smarter because they have access to platforms and the number of accounts is still very low,” she adds.
The growth in the retail sector should be welcomed because this would create liquidity as foreign investors will not touch a very low equities market. While this could mean UBS losing its market share because their business model skipped retail, but Robby stressed that the pie has also grown bigger.
“That is a sign of progress, maturity of the domestic economy, and real investors are flocking into the country,” she adds.
There are factors affecting the capital equities market. Government is just one, but Robby said that what is more important is the quality of management of institutions.
“There was an outflow of foreign investors, but they are back,” says Robby. So, the role of UBS is to make these investors understand the risks and opportunities of the deals.
“We have 6 years of good stock market growth but that is part of the investment thesis. The most important is to look at the economy if the wealth created is real and if it has been trickling down,” says Robby.
Yes, there has been an upliftment in the local economy where domestic consumption drives growth and shields the domestic from the downturn in exports. That is why companies should be very focused on their quality like governance and sustainability as these are the new trends that investors are looking for when they invest in a company. Institutional investors also look at women empowerment, gender equality, and social issues.
Another challenge is that investors are now engaged in passive investing, where they just follow the index. They are not actively buying.
But Robby’s personal advocacy is to develop a strong domestic investors’ market because that is the backbone of the economy. “If the domestic market is less exposed it will be strong enough to create liquidity,” she adds.
To sustain the upbeat outlook, UBS continued to engage clients to think about moving forward toward sustainable investments.
“We did a theme on e-commerce in the Philippines as we try to think ahead of the market,” she adds. Recently, they came up with a report on the property sector and were the first to discuss the Chinese buying in real estate in the country. They also did a consumer report to gauge the consumer confidence level. This put them ahead of the pack.
An Ateneo graduate with a degree in management engineering, Robby was hired by a financial service firm where she forayed in the stock market as a research analyst.
Robby never thought she would end up in this field. “I always thought I could be a musician because I love to play the piano,” she says.
“Literally, I did not know anything but one day Meralco just got listed and then Ayala Land so the more you learned about the companies the more reason I stayed,” she adds. She was a witness to the industry’s growth and movements to very interesting jobs from operations, to marketing, finance and company’s like Jollibee evolving from the entrepreneur to a big sized company.
“Part of the job is to get these companies see how they transform and rise above the industry,” she adds. This makes her job interesting because every day comes a new set of things to learn and everybody is not the same every day.
Now, as one the more seasoned industry leader, she thinks that it is unfair that the Philippines with a great set of corporate culture has been relegated to a very minute role in the Index.
“If only they see the quality of management of companies,” says Robby. Partly, politics is to be blamed. But Philippine companies operate well despite politics and some have been successful in their acquisition overseas. What if politics did not hinder?
She finds fulfillment when investors come to them.
“When you are young you get blinded, but today I have to think about the fulfillment of passing on this knowledge or understanding of markets,” says Robby even as she was grateful having learned from institutions as client mentors. She was grateful to be trained only by the industry’s best.
Throughout her career, she has been involved with a wide range of equity capital market transactions in the Philippines, with lead roles in executing IPOs and follow-on offerings. She has regular contact with the investor base over the years, riding through waves of changes in both the buy-side and sell-side of the industry.
Aside from passing on that expertise, Robby would like to see more Philippine firms get to the level of their ASEAN counterparts because the Philippines has a strong management culture.
“The last leg is for me to see companies behave responsibly to environmental and social issues and that is what we’ve been working to make sure these themes are communicated sustainably because these impact on investing,” she adds citing some companies moving into this direction.
While the equities market is subjected to the boom and bust cycle, the UBS team was pretty solid. They have senior and very seasoned people in the industry.
“When I joined UBS, the Philippine market was really struggling,” says Robby, who joined UBS in 2000. The Philippine economy was unstable and politics, uncertain.
“My team has been together, never really jumped ship,” says Robby of the results-oriented organization.
Now, the equities market is still dominated by men, but Robby noted a growing number of women involved in foreign brokerages. She is fortunate that UBS values women and has been consciously embraced diversity.
As a manager, Robby has always been rigid and very results-driven. Perhaps, because as a woman she has to prove herself harder, but she has mellowed down a bit though.
“I am not selfish, I have to ensure that the next level of talents also get the same equal opportunities,” says Robby stressing that women in the UBS organization are not simply part of the statistics but are part of the entire plan.
“UBS supports women and continues to do that,” says Robby citing that there are lots of billionaires in the ASEAN region and women are part of that and Filipino women are no exception. She cited Filipino women are very resourceful and hardworking. Some women working in the corporate are even leaving to become entrepreneurs. “They don’t stay home,” adds Robby, a mother of two kids.
This has further emboldened Robby to engage institutions the level of financial awareness and independence as a theme in this year’s Women’s Summit on how to put money to work because women are more conscious in bringing social change.
The important lesson she has learned in this industry is professionalism, hard work and integrity. She could surmise that some may consider her lucky, but she does put in a lot of hard work and results whether in good or bad times.
“One day I will look back and say I was able to help and develop the capital markets, raise financial literacy that help improve quality of life,” says Robby wondering about the new generation that is different from her own.
“My goal is that someday, they will appreciate why financial market is important. When I look at the millennials, they have short term view, my generation is long term,” adds Robby, noting how privileged the kids are now.
Since most of the big corporates are her clients, Robby would rather not identify who she looks up in business.
“I would rather look at qualities of people who start something and brave enough to change the status quo,” she adds as she explained that today access to capital is no longer a problem as long as one has the tenacity to get through it.
“I think more and more people have social conscience and even kids these days get this awareness not just about environment but gender equality, social class inclusion. So, I am hats off to those people because capitalism has also changed, not because you are the biggest but are you doing it with a conscience,” says Robby. UBS Philippines itself has partnered with various foundations to pursue programs supporting school projects and especially during calamities.
UBS is trying to influence this new thinking because it is here to stay and be there bank for its clients.