Lebanon’s capital market is entering a new era, at least in legislative terms, with parliament’s approval of the long awaited capital market law in August 2011. In a next step, an independent regulatory authority with oversight of the Beirut Stock Exchange (BSE) is to be created and headed by the central bank governor, the indomitable Riad Salameh. Fadi Khalaf, secretary general of the Union of Arab Stock Exchanges and former BSE chairman, talks to Executive about the new law, imbalances in Lebanon’s financial markets and the BSE’s new prospects and challenges.
The BSE has not had a president since you left in August 2009. Do you know of any plans to have a new president?
I am not aware of any plans regarding the election of the next president. This is government politics. There are over 50 vacant positions in the Lebanese government and this is just one of them. It is the government’s decision to find a new president. When I left in August 2009, I never thought that we would be in September 2011 and still without a president, but some posts in Lebanon stay vacant for three to four years.
What are the most important issues that the BSE faces?
We don’t have enough companies listed. Most of the companies in Lebanon are family owned and they avoid listing because they don’t want foreign investors to own a stake in their company. Listing implies fiscal taxes and transparency, and in Lebanon, companies have several books. If companies list and don’t disclose their entire income, their stock price will be hit. If they disclose their income, then they have to pay taxes. So some companies will avoid listing.
There is also a lack of liquidity. The BSE is not a priority for the government. It has always been secondary. The government wants to encourage the BSE but it needs the liquidity to cover the government expenses and the government deficit. If there remains excess liquidity, then it will see if it will be directed to the exchange. If the banking sector needs liquidity, then the government needs to keep it there. Many exchanges in the world have enjoyed a strong boost due to the privatization of state owned enterprises, which also gives incentive for other companies to list. We have not had this in Lebanon. Take the privatization of the telecom sector for instance, if a strategic investor wants to pay a good price and not be listed, the government accepts. So the BSE was never a priority.
Do banks encourage companies to list?
Capital markets and the banking sector are usually complementary but [in Lebanon] they are in competition. Investors put their money either in a bank or in the capital markets. When companies need funds, they either take it as debt from banks or equity from capital markets. Since the banking sector is 10 times the size of the capital markets, it has a much stronger influence and it will not encourage companies to list since it is not in their interest.
For example, I had once convinced a very large Lebanese company to list on the exchange and sent them the necessary [documents]. Two to three months later, the CEO tells me that his banker, who is also a shareholder in the company, advised him against listing and provided him with a loan to cover his financing despite the fact that his bank has a brokerage firm and its duty is to convince companies to list.
How about the fees that banks would receive from advising companies to list on an exchange?
Banks earn more fees by providing companies with loans as it provides them with regular payments of interest, whereas listing on the exchange only generates a one off fee. When a company’s debt to capital ratio reaches a certain limit, then the banks might advise them on considering the capital markets. The exchange is just a tool. It is living on the crumbs of the banking sector.
Will there be more interest in the stock exchange following the capital markets law signed in August?
Yes there will be more interest. The governor of the central bank will head the capital markets authority and he has the most influence in the banking sector. This is a good step for the exchange. He can direct the banking sector to inject liquidity into the capital markets. He can also influence the banking sector into encouraging companies to list. In the exceptional case of Lebanon, the banking sector’s market capitalization is around $120 billion whereas the exchange is a mere $11 billion so if the banking sector is not convinced, the only other way to boost the exchange is through privatization of the telecom industry and it does not look like that will happen anytime soon.
When do you think the law will be implemented?
I am not sure if it will be implemented by the end of the year. No one knows how long it will take in Lebanon.
How about the initiative to privatize the stock exchange?
It gives the exchange independence from politics. The private sector is the driving force in Lebanon. Privatizing the exchange will give it a boost but it is not the key factor; if companies are not convinced of listing, privatizing… it is not going to change anything.
One issue that needs to be addressed regarding privatization is how to implement it. The law says the stock exchange should be privatized but it doesn’t say how. It says that after the formation of the capital markets authority, the exchange has one year to have the legislation in place to become a [registered] company as opposed to a public institution and one year after that to be become private.
What initiative could be put in place to increase liquidity? Would it help for example to provide incentives to local banks to buy stocks on the BSE?
What is the point of going to the supermarket with plenty of money in your pocket if there is not much on the shelf for you to buy?
How about incentivizing companies to list? Should the government encourage mergers?
When I was head of the BSE, we did a study on the Lebanese market and we found that there were 50 companies sizeable enough to list on the exchange and they were not listing. Mergers mean putting family businesses together. It is a problem on a whole different level. It could help but it is not enough. Besides, we shouldn’t want the exchange to live on incentives only.
What can the Beirut Stock Exchange do to improve?
It cannot do much… The evolution of the exchange has already taken place in the past ten years with the implementation of measures such as an increase in the type of instruments that can list (stocks, bonds, preferred shares, GDRs, etcetera) ,a move from fixed pricing to continuous pricing, a reduction of the taxes on dividends and an update of the trading system. All these steps helped increase the volume of shares traded from $200,000 per day in 2000 to 8 to 10 million dollars per day today.
The exchange has done what it can do. The rest remains in the hands of the other players of the Lebanese economy. Unfortunately, the correct step they are taking with the capital markets law is happening during a time when the biggest Arab bourses are complaining of low volumes, so the timing is not great, but at least the exchange will be ready for the next wave of investment in the Middle East.