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Doors close across the border

Expansion plans unravel as Syrian crisis deepens

by Paul Cochrane

Lebanese banks with operations in Syria are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The uprising that kicked off last spring has forced banks into survival mode as the Syrian economy has weakened and profits have been slashed. Some banks have considered exiting the country, expansion plans have been put on hold, and all players have set aside millions of dollars in provisions.

While Lebanese bankers are used to operating in crisis mode, the international sanctions against Syria — by the United States, the European Union and the Arab League — have presented further operational challenges and the specter of reputational risk. Although Lebanese banks are not legally obligated to comply with the sanctions — and operations within Syria are essentially unaffected — the sector has pledged to do so. The US Treasury in particular has breathed heavily down the necks of Lebanese bankers to comply with the sanctions and for Lebanon to not be a conduit for Syrian cash.

Such internal and external pressure has impacted the bottom lines of the seven Lebanese banks with Syrian affiliates, both within the affiliate itself and at group headquarters in Beirut. For while Lebanese banks only entered Syria from 2004 onwards, the market was under-banked and ripe for growth, with the banks attracting $6.79 billion in aggregate assets by the end of 2010.

“Before the uprising the banking sector was on a fast track and expanding throughout Syria. Profits were good and it was a virgin market that needed everything,” said Samih Saadeh, managing director of Banque Bemo, which has a stake in Banque BEMO Saudi Fransi (BBSF) in Syria.

At the end of 2011, aggregate assets had dropped by 17.2 percent to $5.8 billion. As Saad Azhari, chairman and general manager of BLOM Bank put it, “Syria was the (sector's) second most important market after Lebanon.”
The pull of gravity
Indicative of the impact of the uprising on the banking sector is BLOM's affiliate, the Bank of Syria and Overseas, where loans to Syrians dropped 60 percent over the past year, from $650 million to $250 million. As Jihad Yazigi, editor of the financial publication, The Syria Report, remarked: “Nobody is investing, nobody is spending, and companies are closing. Whole areas are out of business entirely. I think gross domestic product will decline 10 to 12 percent this year.”

To cover bad loans and banks’ exposure, provisions are being hastily put aside (see table). “All Lebanese banks are taking profits as collective provisions,” said Alain Wanna, head of Group Financial Markets Division at Byblos Bank. “In Syria the decision was for all profits made in Syria to act as collective provisions, as we don’t know how long (the instability) will last.”

Financial Safety Valve
Last year, Bank Byblos Syria's profits slumped 26.8 percent to $3 million. Wanna conceded that internally, the bank's management discussed exiting Syria on several occasions, but in the end decided to reduce its exposure to the country.

Most affected by the Syrian crisis has been Bank Audi Syria (BAS), with profits down 83.20 percent to $2.1 million, attributed to problems with their portfolio (BAS' management turned down Executive’s interview requests). Less affected have been the newcomers, BLF's Al Sharq, First National Bank's Syria Gulf Bank, and Fransabank Syria, which saw profits, assets and customer deposits actually increase. BLF's general manager, Walid Raphael, put Al Sharq's 72.2 percent growth in assets, from $161 million in 2010 to $284 million in 2012, down to its recent start and a focus on commercial rather than retail banking, adding a new branch that opened in May. However, that has been the exception rather than the norm.

BBSF, the largest private bank in Syria with 40 branches, has put on hold plans to open three new branches in Damascus and one in the conflict-ridden city of Homs. “We are not looking for more business, but our strategy is to stay there and no branches have closed except in the hot areas,” said Saadeh. Profits at BBSF dropped 1.2 percent last year, to $11.8 million, but in the first quarter of 2012, with BEMO holding 22 percent of BBSF and profits down, the Beirut arm “got zero,” said Saadeh, which negatively impacted BEMO's net profits, dropping 53.57 percent on the first quarter of 2011, to just $1.45 million.

Causing further headaches for the sector was a requirement by the Central Bank of Syria (CBS) initiated prior to the uprising, for banks to increase capital from $100 million to $200 million. “There was a list of banks and a schedule for each to reach (in phases),” said Byblos’ Wanna. “Ours was in August last year. We tried to negotiate with the CBS to say the balance sheet was down but they insisted on the increase.” Currently Byblos Syria’s capitalization is $120 million for a balance sheet of $700 million. BBSF has also reached the first phase of the higher capital requirements.
Looking ahead
The banking sector has proved remarkably resilient in the face of the conflict. The limited run on the banks last spring by depositors was a “panic move,” said Saadeh, while deposits and withdrawals have “balanced out” since then. Bank share prices on the Damascus Stock Exchange (DSE) have also not plummeted as some might have expected, although they have been somewhat artificially salvaged by only 3 days of trading  a week, and stock only being allowed to decline by just 1 percent a day and increase by 5 percent. Nonetheless, the DSE has slumped by 40 percent since the uprising broke out, according to figures released by the International Monetary Fund.

Cross Border Performance

Summing it up
“We’ve not seen any banks go under in Syria yet, and that is a positive thing. People haven't withdrawn all their money and I see it as a stabilizing factor,” said Ayham Kamel, a Syria expert at risk consultancy firm, Eurasia Group, who formerly worked in the Syrian financial sector.

Yet with the economy expected to contract further this year, more sanctions slapped on Syria by the EU in May — including on the CBS governor Adib Mayaleh — and operational costs higher due to the crisis amid a slump in business, the outlook for Lebanese banks in Syria could not be described as peachy.

“There is a risk for Lebanese banks at some point, as I'd expect them to hit the red zone and become unprofitable,” said Kamel. “To me, it is not a question of if but when, given the current trajectory in Syria. They are going to find it very hard to manage the books and have profitability towards the end of the year or in 2013.”

 

This article was published as part of a special report in Executive's July 2012 issue.

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Paul Cochrane

Paul Cochrane is the Middle East Correspondent for International News Services. He has lived in Beirut since 2002, and has written for some 70 publications worldwide, covering business, media, politics and culture in the Middle East, East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
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