The Asia-Pacific (APAC) region now represents a quarter of the global private equity market. Although COVID-19 has significantly disrupted the private equity industry in APAC, it doesn’t alter the industry’s promising long-term growth prospects. In fact, it could create opportunities for those who are well-prepared and understand the characteristics and trends of deals in a more dynamic investment landscape in times of uncertainty.
Liquidity is critical to private equity firms as they need the funds to secure ongoing revolving investment projects. And banks work closely with funds to provide financing solutions to help ease their working capital needs. Since East West Bank entered the fund finance market in Asia five years ago, the number of Asia-based fund clients grew exponentially.
“This is a niche but crowded market, but we have our secret weapon to compete with larger banks,” says Emma Wang, managing director and head of private equity at East West Bank’s Hong Kong office.
With only 10% of women holding a senior position in the private equity section worldwide, Wang is a bit of a unicorn. She has over 15 years of experience in fund finance serving clients in both the U.S. and Greater China, and chatted with us about cross-border banking, the current state of fund finance, and her personal experience being a female executive in this male-dominated sector.
I lead a team of bankers to provide capital call lines and highly engineered credit structures to private equity and venture capital U.S.-dollar-denominated funds in Asia. Previously, I worked out of our Boston office and traveled to Asia three to four times a year to meet customers in person, and went back to the U.S. to execute and deliver.
During the past few years, I have witnessed the fund finance market grow significantly in Asia. I wanted to be closer to my customers, so I moved to Hong Kong in September 2019. It has been a wonderful journey so far, as I don’t have to deal with the time difference, and I can talk to my business partners and address customers’ needs much more promptly. It has also been rewarding. Despite the global pandemic, my team’s portfolio continued to grow and I’ve met a bunch of amazing new customers in Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan and Singapore.
I started my banking career at Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group’s New York office, servicing large Japanese companies’ U.S. subsidiaries. I went to college in Osaka, Japan, so I speak Japanese fluently. Then I moved to Boston and spent five years at Comerica Bank’s private equity group.
In 2012, my boss joined East West Bank, as the bank was setting up its private equity team on the East Coast at that time. I was drawn to East West Bank’s unique value proposition as the financial bridge between the U.S. and China. It became a no-brainer for me to join East West. Growing up in Suzhou, China, and later educated in Japan and the U.S., I had always wanted to leverage my Chinese language skills and my understanding of Chinese culture in my career. What also excited me was that the nature of the job required a high level of entrepreneurship, as we needed to build our portfolio from the ground up. I felt that I was at the right place at the right time.
As our team gradually built our customer base and infrastructure in the U.S., I started to explore the opportunities in Asia around 2016. At that time, fund finance was a relatively new concept for private equity firms in Asia. These firms did not know how banks could help them ease their operations and support their liquidity needs. I saw lots of business opportunities and believed we could replicate our success in the U.S. in this emerging market.
Although we have a smaller presence in Asia, we are a highly recognized brand name in the fund finance sector. How we earned this reputation was by execution. As long as the loan size fits our sweet spot and we are comfortable with the firm and the structure, we can make things happen. Compared with large global banks, we are much nimbler and more flexible. We don’t offer “cookie cutter” products. We offer highly customized solutions. When I talk to prospective customers, I don’t bring marketing materials such as brochures or a thick PowerPoint deck. I show them a logo sheet of all the high-profile private equity firms we serviced before. That speaks to it all. And I listen to my customers’ financial challenges and operational needs.
Because we know this sector so well and we have extensive experience, we can come up with creative credit structures, and we are comfortable with the collaterals and the margin. As our relationships strengthened, many general partners not only talked to me about financing related matters, they sought my advice on many other perspectives. For example, when a partner of a firm started his own fund, he came to me to weigh in on that from a legal structure and many other aspects, such as how to set up the fund so that in the future the firm can easily get financing from banks, etc.
I recently co-authored a paper, “The Fund Finance Market in Asia,” which appears in the so-called “bible” of the fund finance world, Global Legal Group’s "Global Legal Insights - Fund Finance 2021.” Fund finance in Asia has become a crowded space where international, regional and local banks offer a diverse range of fund finance products to compete in this market. Although the majority of the deals have been the traditional subscription line (or capital call) facilities, the market has shown interest in more structured and bespoke facilities.
As fundraising slowed down last year due to COVID-19, and many limited partners shifting interest to RMB funds, many U.S. dollar funds have had challenges to raise capital. Therefore, the size of bankable capital was shrinking. However, this is where we see opportunities as we have the expertise and experience to deliver quite customized and creative solutions to our customers, which truly helped us stand out from the competition.
Through my entire banking career, I felt that women have been a minority in banking sales forces. That’s also the case in the fund finance world. Females have taken roles as service providers to private equity firms, such as CPAs, lawyers, or bankers. As for funds themselves, women tend to be in the back office. I’ve met many amazing female CFOs at different funds. But there are fewer women doing deals in private equity firms.
Juggling between family and work, women in this space like to build comradeship with each other. Women are more empathetic, and I enjoy working with female business partners as they are detail oriented, have a great level of perseverance and grit, and are good at getting things done.
I am a strong advocate in promoting women leadership and gender equality in this space. I was very involved in organizations focused on women in fund finance topics and issues. I participated in many seminars and events to coach young generations to have their voice heard and to break the glass ceiling.
I enjoy cooking for my family and friends. I like to make things from scratch. No matter if it’s rolling a pasta machine or making dumpling dough, it is a good form of meditation for me. I have this uninterrupted time when I can think of a deal that I recently worked on, or a summer trip that I’m planning for my family.