President Bouteflika’s 2005 Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation closed a chapter of Algeria’s tumultuous past and focused instead on solid economic development program and reforms. This has been dovetailed by record oil prices steering the North African nation into a period of exceptional prosperity. Given such a favorable context, it is not surprising that a growing number of financial institutions, including Lebanese banks, see opportunities in Algeria.
“By restoring security, stability, credit worthiness, economic growth, and convertibility on current accounts, Algeria elicits all the features of a business environment that is predictable, safe and attractive for the expansion of foreign direct investment (FDI),” said Joe Dakkak, general manager of Fransabank El Djazaïr.
The African nation is currently running substantial trade surpluses and building up record foreign currency reserves, close to $100 billion. According to Nassib Ghobril, head economist of Byblos Bank which is currently applying for a license in Algeria, the nation has undergone major economic changes, shifting gradually from a state to a private sector economy. “Soaring oil prices have also allowed to replace foreign debt with current account surpluses while public finances improved significantly.”
Among the larger economies in Africa, Algeria’s gross domestic product is estimated at $116 billion, with a growth rate of 4.5% for 2007, picking up from 2.7% in 2006 after a 5.3% growth rate in 2005. “The 2006 lower growth rate was principally due to a drop in total hydrocarbon output related to infrastructural problems, which were resolved since,” said Ghobril.
Privatizing the banking sector
According to the World Bank, Algeria falls into the lower-middle income country classification, with a per capita GDP of $3,400 dollars for 2006. Most growth witnessed recently has occurred in the fields of construction and services, which exhibited growth rates of 5% and 7% for 2006. In 2003, public debt constituted 44% of GDP, a figure brought down to 17% of GDP in 2007. “In 2006, Algeria has prepaid its exterior debt of $12 billion with revenues from the oil sector, while Russia agreed to erase its Soviet-era debt,” said Ghobril. At the same time, the restrictive monetary policy of the Bank of Algeria, has kept inflation under control at the respective moderate rates of 1.5% in 2005 and 2.5% in 2006. “It is expected that inflation will remain moderate and under control in the coming years,” emphasized Dakkak.
Elie Azar, marketing manager at the Lebanese Canadian Bank, which owns 60% of Trust Algeria (paid-up capital of $35 million), underlined that Algeria’s sheer size and its lack of basic products and services, fuels the appetite of Lebanese bankers, while Dakkak said that, while the country has freed itself of the centralized planned economy, public banks are not yet a driving force in economic development and the financial system. This leaves room for private sector banks to grab a share of the market.
The IMF and the World Bank have both been very vocal about the necessary measures to propel Algeria’s financial sector into the 21st century. The African country has been strongly encouraged to privatize several public banks, in order to transfer know-how to the sector, help curb restructuring costs as well as position Algerian institutions regionally. Algeria seems to be listening closely as state owned bank Crédit Populaire d’Algérie (CPA) is the country’s first financial institution to be put up for sale. “The bidding process is starting very soon, most probably in the next few months, with 51% of the company going on the bidding block,” said Ghobril.
According to the Oxford Business Group, cash transactions predominate in the African country where only 15% of the population utilize ATM cards while the number of branches for banks stands at one per 30,000 people.
Dakkak believes, however, that the government and Central Bank alike have made significant efforts to modernize the banking sector and the payment system. “Today, 19 banks are accounted for in Algeria, six of them public, one semi-public, and 12 foreign private banks of which one is American, four French and seven Arab,” said Fransabank El Djazaïr’s GM. Société Générale, BNP Paribas, Arab Bank, City Bank, Natexis, Al Salam, Deutsche Bank, Calyon (a Crédit Agricole corporate and an investment banking subsidiary), have all set up shop in the capital Algiers. They will also be joined by the Export Development Bank of Iran that has announced it will open a branch in Algeria very soon, as reported by the Byblos Country Risk Weekly Bulletin. The largest three state-owned banks are Banque Extérieure d’Algérie, Banque Nationale d’Algérie and CPA. By the end of 2007, the private banking sector will account for only 6% of total deposits amounting to $56 billion and 7% of total outstanding loans, currently at $26 billion, from $23 billion in 2004. Today, 90% of the banking sector is dominated by state banks, while local private banks are mostly family-owned.
The size of banks varies significantly. While state-owned banks boast as many as 200 branches, private banks feature limited networks with branch numbers varying between one and 21 branches as in the case of Société Générale, according to Azar. “The banking sector remains quite underdeveloped, most activity residing in import-export payment operations. Percentages of customers using banking services are also very low. We are, however, slowly introducing private retail banking services,” he explained. In Ghobril’s opinion, one reason state banks remain powerful and are the heaviest of all local players is that they tend to lend to mammoth-like state-owned companies. “This situation results in a high level of non-performing loans (NPLs), which has recently forced the government to inject $150 million to state banks in a recapitalization effort.”
In 2007, banks’ assets ratio to GDP will reach 47%, a figure that is considered to be relatively low. The NPL of public owned banks for 2005 were 38.2%, which accounted for 8% of GDP while it remained at 5.8% of total loans for private institutions. “The capital adequacy ratio for private banks was 23.7% for 2005 rising from 21% in 2004. It decreased in the case of state owned banks from 14% in 2004 to 12% in 2005,” Ghobril pointed out. Public banks are also weighing down on the whole banking sector, as return on assets (ROA) and return on equity (ROE) exhibited levels at 0.4% and 8% in 2005 respectively. On the other hand, private banks showed an ROA of 2.2% and ROE of 25.4%.
Many hurdles to jump
One major drawback to any banking sector progress lies again in the lack of branch networks. The collapse of several private banks between 2002 and 2004, with the media-blitz Khalifa scandal on everyone’s mind, has greatly undermined public confidence in private sector banks and led to the closure of private banks or their merger with state-owned institutions. The slow penetration of the banking sector is also due to a governmental decision dating back to August 2004 which banned public companies from dealing with private banks. “It is, however, our belief that the ban will be removed very soon, along with the privatization of CPA; this process should accelerate market penetration of private banks,” so Dakkak.
According to Ghobril, the $60 billion infrastructure project undertaken by the Algerian government is one way the local banking sector might benefit. “However, another reason lies in the market’s reality where private sector lending to individuals and companies is growing, the economy flourishing, and the middle class expanding.” The size of the country population estimated at around 35 million is thus reason enough for attracting the attention of the Lebanese banking sector.
In Dakkak’s opinion, economic reforms implemented by Algeria in recent years have brought vigor and consistency to banks in relation with allocation of budgetary resources and management. “It has made it possible to devise incentive and supportive instruments to benefit private initiative conducive to the emergence of a new class of entrepreneurs. The pursuit of reforms will concentrate henceforth on the modernization of the financial and banking sector, enabling it to play a strong role in financing the economy,” he added.
The government has been working on improving governance and transparency within the financial sector. On this, Azar said, “Part of this endeavor aims at modernizing the banking sector, especially through telecommunication with the introduction of basic universal banking practices such as an electronic payment system and ATMs.”
One downside to the banking sector remaining under scrutiny is the tight grip the Central Bank has on the FX market which means that banks are faced with a surplus of cash and an increasing difficulty in re-using it. This state of affairs leads to a more active involvement of private sector banks in the extension of credit facilities to the fast developing private sector. “Imports are free and exports are encouraged by public authorities in a move to reduce the dependence of the Algerian economy on the hydrocarbon sector. Thus, FX transactions are allowed, although the regulations in this regard remain constraining. The development of private banks can be jeopardized by the lack of access to money markets (due to the Aug. 2004 directive) as the huge liquidity concentrated with the public bank is unproductive,” Dakkak stated. Structural problems will hence remain an obstacle to the emergence of a dynamic banking sector.
For Fransabank El Djazaïr’s GM, the over-estimation of the Algerian risk can no more be justified by political factors, safety arguments or economic and financial data. In this context, the government’s continuous efforts to diversify the economy by attracting foreign and domestic investment outside the energy sector, should have even more success in reducing high unemployment and improving living standards.
Ghobril nonetheless underlines that security will remain a growing concern along with the evolution of the political situation in light of the constitutional amendment that will allow president Bouteflika to run for a third term. “As long as oil prices run high, public finances remain sound, infrastructure projects are multiplied, leading to a rise in living standards, the outlook will be positive. Algeria needs to pursue reforms, liberalize capital accounts, improve the ease of doing business and attract FDI to the non hydrocarbon sector.”