It was a great pleasure to have been allowed to personally interview Mr. Hans Sicat of ING Bank and tackle the banking and finance industry. As an economics major myself, the banking industry is close to my heart and from time to time it is important to discuss some critical issues that affect us all, especially in these unprecedented times.
Here’s a question: How many times have you used online banking in these past seven or eight months? And how many times have you stepped into a brick and mortar bank? If the answer weighs completely on the former, then we’re all on the same boat. As we slowly reopen our economy, we are gradually seeing the benefits of growing our digital economy.
Like many industries across the globe, banking took a hard hit at the onset of the COVID-19 lockdowns. “We had perhaps the most unusual situation where both demand and supply literally just came to a screeching halt,” says Hans Sicat, Philippine country manager of the Dutch bank ING. “We’ve never had that problem before,” he adds.
Sicat is a trained mathematician and economist, with an illustrious career in the global capital market that spans three decades. But he had humbler beginnings: Funny story when I was maybe just a toddler, my mother [thought] I wanted to become a garbage collector, saying that he would mimic the motion of loading the trucks while looking out the window. But he eventually had bigger dreams, moving up to wanting to become an astronaut. When I started learning a bit more, he recalls, I said, 'Oh, I saw Neil Armstrong go to the moon,' and I said, 'That'll be cool.'
Clearly, Sicat grew up to be neither of those. I had to earn a living and I ended up being a banker, he says, going back to more grounded dreams. And it has served him well, so to speak, being closer to the earth. Apart from his post at ING, Sicat also served as a member of the Philippine Stock Exchange Board of Directors and was its longest-serving CEO since 2011. This has allowed him to keep an ear to the ground, surveying the economic landscape as it moves into various ups and downs.
Now, as we move towards a more digital economy, Sicat is leading ING through the twists and turns of overcoming a pandemic stricken economy. After a period of absolutely no economic activity under lockdown, markets are slowly reopening. Because for us to survive until the pandemic is over, we must achieve a careful balance of economic activity and safety. One of the first questions I ask him is if can we survive without all this economic activity. “No,” Sicat says, and that’s why it’s important for some activity to resume, even if it's at a slower rate than before. There are signs that the economy is at least operating, he says; I would say that the big institutions are doing their transactions. When you look at the last two months alone, according to Sicat, large conglomerates — including the government, by the way, he adds — have raised around six billion in both dollars and pesos. But that's not something we see in our everyday lives. Throughout the lockdown in the country, the mass extinction of small and medium enterprises has taken place. There are a variety of reasons that many businesses, from travel to restaurants and other establishments, have closed, but it's still mainly because we're all still stuck at home.
So is it wise to open up the economy again, to give a chance for small and medium business to survive? It’s a complicated answer, according to Sicat. “Clearly,” he says, “We’re at a bit of a disadvantage as an emerging market with a not-as-developed healthcare system.” This means that the quarantine is still necessary to slow down the virus, but there needs to be some economic activity because it's going to be a while before the situation can drastically get better. Sicat explains, The cure for this pandemic is not coming anytime soon — it will take a while for pharmaceutical firms to develop effective vaccines. In the meantime, he says, the way through this medium-term problem is to balance economic activity in a way where the health of people is the top priority.
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