Singapore Exchange back in hunt for overseas buys

It was a simple three-line announcement responding to a wire story but it flagged a seismic change in the way the Singapore Exchange (SGX) plans to grow its business. The statement said in essence that the SGX had submitted a non- binding bid to buy London's Baltic Exchange.

But what it highlighted is that under new boss Loh Boon Chye, the SGX has finally shaken off the aversion to expanding by making overseas acquisitions, six years after its audacious $10.4 billion bid to buy Australian bourse operator ASX failed.

No doubt, the SGX may be one among a number of parties in talks to buy the famed Baltic Exchange, jostling for a piece of the action with heavyweights such as CME, one of the world's largest options and futures exchanges, and the London Metal Exchange, which is owned by the Hong Kong Exchange.

But the action itself speaks louder than words, indicating that the cash-rich SGX is on the prowl for acquisitions. As of December last year, its balance sheet showed a healthy cash balance of $718.87 million, giving it plenty of ammunition to make a big purchase if it wants to.

That is likely to lure investment bankers, hungry for deals in a year when acquisition and merger opportunities have been bruised by brutal sell-offs in stock markets everywhere, to come knocking on the SGX's doors.

Growing via acquisitions has been a route well trodden by other stock exchanges. Organisations such as the London Stock Exchange Group (LSE), now in the midst of a merger with its German counterpart, Deutsche Borse, had bulked up in the past decade by buying up derivatives exchanges, data providers, index compilers and clearing houses.

In doing so, what was once the mainstay of their business - charging a small fee to clear the trades listed on their exchanges - now only make up a fraction of their revenues.

Such a strategy has enabled the LSE to outperform the London benchmark index - the FTSE 100 - by more than 200 per cent in the past five years.

This is unlikely to be lost on the SGX as it faces up to the same challenges of falling stock market turnover in Singapore and how it can grow its revenues to make up for that loss in business.

As a target, the Baltic Exchange, which produces daily benchmark rates and indices used all over the world to trade and settle freight contracts, would complement the freight derivatives traded by the SGX. It may also give the local bourse a leg-up in derivatives products such as iron ore, where it has been doing a roaring trade.

On the broader front, the purchase would bolster Singapore's position as a global shipping and commodity hub.

There was no mention in the SGX's statement of how much it is willing to pay for the Baltic Exchange, which is owned by around 380 shareholders, many of whom are from the shipping industry, but the sum is unlikely to be in the same league as what it was prepared to pay for ASX.

Early reactions from investors to the announcement appeared to be positive, with the SGX gaining 13 cents, or 1.85 per cent, to close at $7.14 yesterday.

This article was first published on February 27, 2016.
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