Singapore law firms defy dry patch as banks' M&A drive sparks boom

Local alliances come good as Linklaters, Lovells, Freshfields and Herbert Smith muscle in on bank merger frenzy

Law firms in Singapore have been the winners in a spate of mergers and acquisitions within the country's banking sector.
While Thomson Financial's figures reported that M&A trends in the region have taken a dramatic downturn, for local and international firms involved in the mass consolidation of Singapore's five banks, business is booming.
According to the figures, announced merger volumes in the Asia Pacific region dropped to $80bn (£56.1bn), a slump from a record $118bn (£82.7bn) for the same period last year.
At $21bn (£14.73bn), M&A activity in Singapore's bank market accounted for more than a quarter of the total announced transactions. Freshfields Drew & Napier partner David Simpson said: “This market is the biggest thing around.”
None of Singapore's five banks – Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), United Overseas Bank (UOB), Overseas United Bank (OUB), Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) and Keppel Capital Holdings – have proved immune to the flurry of M&A interest.
In anticipation of the second phase of banking liberalisation that will finally permit foreign banks some access to the domestic retail market, Singapore's banking players are aiming to become as big as possible. DBS and UOB have both approached OUB. DBS's bid was hostile compared with UOB's more friendly offer. Meanwhile, OCBC is trying to gain Keppel Capital Holdings, which owns Singapore's smallest bank, Keppel TatLee Bank.
These are domestic takeovers, so legal advice has initially been sought from local firms. One lawyer commented that there is no real reason for involvement from international firms. On the other hand, takeovers, particularly hostile ones, are unusual in Singapore, and the banks have a number of overseas shareholders, so international firms have had a role to play.
UK firms with local joint ventures or alliances are picking up work from their domestic counterparts. Linklaters & Alliance joint venture partner Allen & Gledhill has worked for two of the banks, DBS and OCBC.
UOB has retained both the Wong Partnership and Freshfields Drew & Napier, although in this case the local element of the joint venture is not involved. This is because of a perceived conflict arising from a longstanding relationship with Allied Irish, a shareholder in Keppel.
Lovells Lee & Lee is acting for OUB; Arfat Selvam & Gunasingham is advising Keppel.