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Investment banking: Small sector in search of big deals

Beirut’s investment banking sector struggling for significance

by Livia Murray

The investment banking sector in Lebanon is staggeringly small. With Lebanon’s history of maintaining a strong financial sector despite periods of crisis, one would expect its finance professionals to be well-versed in the notoriously lucrative industry, which registered revenues of $76 billion globally in 2013. But as the Lebanese market shows, not all financial systems are endowed with the same opportunities. Revenues from investment banking in Lebanon are so marginal that an operation could not even sustain itself if it were to rely solely on investment banking income.

Identity crisis
To compensate for low revenues, institutions that do investment banking are forced to diversify their products. What are referred to as investment banks in Lebanon commonly delve into brokerage, wealth management, long and medium term deposits and lending, alongside their advisory and capital raising services. Though it borders on an identity crisis, this combination of services is feasible and even encouraged by the specialized banking license under which these banks operate.

“This is the model that works,” says Samir Taleb, founder and partner of financial institution Lucid Investment. “It’s the central bank license which allows both together and actually encourages both together.” This specialized bank license issued by Banque du Liban (BDL) gives a wide mandate to the banks for services in corporate finance and private banking.  A total of 17 banks are registered under this license.

Investment banking is still relatively new to Lebanon. As the newest pillar of FFA Private bank, it accounted for only 10 percent of their total revenues in 2013 according to its senior manager and head of investment banking Julien Khabbaz. Their investment banking division carries out corporate finance advisory to regional companies who want to sell, restructure, or carry out a merger or an acquisition, and provides fundraising on a project-by-project basis. With the bulk of their revenues stemming from brokerage and asset management, the money they raise mostly comes from a pool of investors who are clients of the private bank. FFA acquired the specialized banking license in 2007 and has a shareholder equity of $30 million.
Cedrus Invest Bank’s founder and CEO Raed Khoury estimates that a similar 10 percent of the bank’s total revenues stem from investment banking. Out of a total net income of $3 million for 2013, investment banking profits would stand at $300,000, with the lion’s share of the bank’s revenues coming from private banking and wealth management. Established in 2011, the bank has a total paid-up capital of $52 million.

The weak appetite for investment banking in Lebanon has caused investment bank subsidiaries of larger groups to derive a bulk of their investment banking activities from divisions of their parent companies. According to Credit Libanais Investment Bank’s head of corporate finance and economic research Fadlo Choueiri, a great part of the bank’s investment banking activities come from advisory work for the Credit Libanais Group, particularly as it added a number of branches in the Middle East and West Africa.
Blominvest Bank uses a similar model. With parent Blom Bank having branches across Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, whenever one of these branches identifies a company that needs investment banking services, they outsouce these services them to Blominvest where the manpower is. “Our role will be really to provide services for our subsidiaries outside of Lebanon because this is where the deals are,” Fadi Osseiran, general manager at Blominvest, says.

slim pickings
Investment bankers in Lebanon are forced to diversify their services or outsource because of the barren landscape for such activities in Lebanon. “You might wait two years and have no transactions,” says Lucid’s Taleb. The lack of companies willing to seek investment banking services explains the meager profits of investment banking, and the need for a backup plan. “Because when it dries up, it dries up,” says Khaled Zeidan, who works on the buy-side of deals as general manager of MedSecurities.

Those in the financial sector blame the family ownership structure of Lebanese companies as hampering investment banking activities. “They want to preserve their control and going public or opening up their capital is a much lengthier and difficult process,” says Osseiran. Business owners in Lebanon will opt for taking bank loans when they need capital over selling shares, which would dilute ownership.

Though scepticism is not undue for a sector that does not have the cleanest reputation, those in the industry point to the merits of financial services and advising for a company. “You have shareholders and partners to report to,” says Taleb. In juxtaposition with the family business structure which has a reputation for being shadowy and inefficient in their finances, opening up capital can lead to fiscal transparency and institutionalized management. “Investment funds will be fighting to get a meeting with you as a company to support you, possibly partnering with you, financing the company to expedite growth,” says George Azar, managing director at financial advisory firm GA consult.

Sourcing deals
If Lebanese investment bankers are having trouble sourcing their deals locally, the appetite for Lebanese investment banking services is only slightly better in the region. But sourcing deals from the outside is more difficult than keeping active on the local market because of competition from large regional and international banks. Those who have managed have had to find space in the market. “I believe we sit in a nice niche,” says FFA’s Khabbaz. “We’re kind of in the niche of deal size where you don’t have many investment banks working on that same field,” going for deals in the $5-$50 million range.

Nonetheless, Lebanese investment bankers are forced to look abroad. “In order to be financially solid, if you want to work only in investment banking, [you need] to have deals in the region,” says Khoury. Many of the mandates currently under control of Lebanese investment banks are from Lebanese companies abroad, as regional expansion is the preferred method of scaling for these companies. In 2013, Cedrus worked on acquisitions in the UAE’s insurance sector, Saudi Arabia’s healthcare sector, and Lebanon’s food and beverage sector, with tickets ranging from $5 million to $10 million per deal, as well as smaller advisory deals within Lebanon. They could not disclose the names of the companies because of non-disclosure agreements.

Lebanese investment banks can look at bigger deals by getting work from their parent bank’s regional subsidiaries. Blominvest is currently working on two advisory mandates for a Saudi plastics company at a size of $70-80 million and a Qatari construction company at a size of $300 million, thanks to Blom Bank’s branches in those countries. They raised $100 million in 2013 for investments abroad, $50-60 million of which went to Saudi Arabia, mostly in real estate.

The future
In spite of the current limitations, investment bankers are hopeful that the next couple of decades will see an increase in investment banking activities in Lebanon. “We’re going to see exits in the next few years, people that inherited that business and they don’t want it, or people who inherited and want to grow it or need new partners or cash injection or people that need restructuring or advisory on corporate governance,” says Khabbaz. New management opting to open their capital would give investment bankers the opportunity to structure and plan these exits.

Capitalization would also allow investment bankers to sink their teeth into larger deals. “As the Lebanese companies want to grow and become competitive in the region, they need to re-capitalize. So they might ask for investment banks to advise them how to increase their capital, and find them companies for acquisitions, etc,” says Khoury. “There are a lot of things that need to happen as naturally family businesses grow and become a size where they can be more institutionalized and have a future. Maybe someday we can see some of these companies be publicly listed,” says Khabbaz.

Besides the capitalization of family businesses, some of the major sectors of the economy are still public. Privatization of major sectors of the economy such as telecoms and a major airline would drive demand for investment banking services. “You couldn’t really kick off investment banking in a place where there the sectors of importance are not privatized,” says Osseiran. Investment bankers also see potential in sectors of the economy on the verge of being developed, such as oil and gas.

Capital markets:
no exit in sight
Though investment bankers see prospects in the future for investment banking deals, one of the lingering problems they will face are the underdeveloped capital markets. Very few companies are listed on the Beirut Stock Exchange. With real estate giant Solidere and a handful of banks taking up the majority of the market, it has not seen any new equity listings since the turn of the century.

Weak capital markets provide little exit strategy — dubbed by Zeidan as the “holy grail” of the industry — for investors to sell their shares in a company and capitalize on their gains. But the current political situation has lead to an undervaluation in the price of shares that dissuades investors from buying and companies from selling. “Investors are not willing to pay a premium over and above the book value of the share,” said Choueiri, who claimed that the price of listed shares fell from roughly three times the book value in 2008 to barely over parity today.

Political deadlock limits both investments in companies and the desire for companies to list, take capital injections, and expand, as today’s climate is far from ideal for initial public offerings (IPOs). Khabbaz admitted that some of their mandates for mergers and acquisitions ground to a halt in    2013 because of insecurities relating to the political situation. “They kind of stalled and froze just because people were reluctant to do deals, to execute, to invest, to buy each other out,”he says.

But political deadlock is not the only culprit for lack of deals and IPOs. A regulatory framework has been slow in implementation, despite the establishment of capital markets as early as the 1920s.

These regulations would establish minimum requirements for companies to list and be traded on the stock market that would increase the transparency and accountability to their shareholders.

With the relatively recent formation of the Capital Markets Authority, a regulatory body to oversee Lebanon’s capital markets in 2011, investment bankers are still dubious this will lead to real change any time soon. “We’ve been waiting 10-15 years on the making of it,”   says Osseiran. A high priority in every country that wants to develop serious capital markets, a regulatory agency is a must for a highly functioning and reliable trading environment. Though Lebanese investment bankers may see more deals in the next couple of years, it is important that this is paired with a regulatory framework to limit the potential risks in this industry.

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Livia Murray

Livia covers business, finance and economic policy for Executive.

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