Simon Cooper is deputy chairman at HSBC Bank Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Herecently sat down with Executive to discuss the effect of the regional unreston business and investment in the MENA region, as well as growth opportunities for the future.
With all the capital outflows, the foreign investments that have been stopped, the people who have been laid off, the expectation that unemployment will rise rather than fall, the lost tourism and the fact that the government is not spending yet, it seems it will take a lot for Egypt to not to fall into a very vicious circle. Banks in general and HSBC are exposed to a lot of risks there. There’s a risk of default from corporate clients and absolutely from individuals for the retail banking division. How are you going to manage this crisis?
I think you’ve got to step back here. First there was the physical crisis that hopefully has passed. We were able to manage that through being part of a regional network so we were able to immediately support what was taking place onshore in Egypt with our infrastructure offshore. We were the first bank to re-open in Egypt.
In terms of the credit risk, we saw a short-term blip in delinquency in February when people on the retail side were not paid because businesses weren’t open to issue payrolls. But we’ve seen that reversing in March.
We as a bank are at the higher end of the economic spectrum in our client base so we have a natural advantage in terms of segmentation of our customer base. When you look at the corporate side, the central bank of Egypt was very disciplined for many years in terms of making sure that foreign currency borrowing was mirrored by foreign currency earnings. So again the impact of foreign exchange has been largely self-hedged by the regulations over many years.
There’s certainly going to be a short term impact on tourism. Hotel occupancy is definitely lower this time this year than it would have been this time last year. I understand that people are starting to book again for October-November, which will be the next peak season for Egypt’s tourism industry. It’s too early to say whether that will be successful or not. It will be a very important barometer to see how many people do come back in.
There’s definitely a bump in the road; exactly how long that bump will last is too early to say. To my mind, it’s probably a year or two to get back on its historic trajectory but I don’t think it will take 10 years, after a sort of downward spiral from where we sit today. We now need the constitutional reform to be moved forward; we need the government to come into place and hopefully it will be a sustainable one.
You were one of the first to be in Iraq along with Standard Chartered, but in the end it wasn’t really operational. What’s your prospect for Iraq and why there?
I can’t take credit or blame; it was done before I was in the region. But talking to Lebanese customers, there’s a huge amount of interest in business opportunities in Iraq. A number of people distribute their products into Iraq – all told me that their only constraint was in getting enough product into the market, whose potential they believe is significant. I think if you look at foreign investment coming into Iraq we’ve done a lot in terms of some of our multinational clients looking to establish or grow their business [there]. It’s not going to suddenly take over the United States as a top-five economy in the world, but in terms of growth potential it’s significant. Physical security remains a high operating cost of having a branch network in Iraq. But the business potential I think is significant. We used to manage the business predominantly from Jordan, and we increasingly put more and more people into Iraq as security becomes much more stable.
Bahrain’s image as a financial hub has been tarnished recently. Is doing business there at the moment such a good idea?
There are clearly a number of companies that ran regional businesses from Bahrain that had to move their operations very quickly elsewhere. So clearly that is a memory that people will retain for some time and it will cause people to think twice when they are looking to really invest. So yes, there has been some damage to its brand. But we’re absolutely staying there. We’ve been through a number of wars in the region and turmoil — we’ve seen it all before. So we’re very much here to stay and to continue to invest more.
How would you assess potential for Syria and Libya?
In Syria we have a representative office. We applied for a branch license last year, which we didn’t get. In terms of Libya, there’s a tremendous opportunity in terms of the economy and to be part of the economic growth. But I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of the current conflict; that has to resolve itself one way or another before you can form a view as to where the economy is going and how long it’s going to take to get there. But the potential is absolutely huge. In Syria, I’m sure the economics are strong; but from a banking perspective, as an international bank doing business in Syria, given the US sanctions and everything else, it is too difficult.
Will the‘Arab Spring’ provide new opportunities for the region?
Look at what’s been the reaction for a number of governments. There’s been an increase in infrastructure spending. There’s a renewed or heightened oil price. Both of those things are economic stimulants for much of this region, and that gives tremendous opportunities for employment, gives opportunities for bankers, for project financing. So, yes, I think there will definitely be some benefits coming from it.
Many of the countries’ infrastructure is not at as high levels as you would expect given these countries’ wealth. So as infrastructure investment comes in, it is a real sustainable investment and a real sustainable benefit to the economy. It’s not just the initial sort of cash injection; it’s what it does to enable businesses going forward.
Who benefited from the capital outflows within the MENA region?
There’s definitely a flow of capital around the region. While there’s been an FDI [foreign direct investment] outflow, some of it has come back into some of the other countries. The UAE [United Arab Emirates] has definitely benefited from some of the unrest that’s taken place around the region. It’s become a safe haven for some direct investors.
It’s also become a safe haven for tourists. Tourism numbers in the UAE have risen dramatically in the last few years…because perhaps people are more concerned than they were about holidaying in some of the other destinations they would have otherwise gone to.