Bullish is not a term many would use to describe Lebanon’seconomy in the current situation, or indeed Lebanon’sbanking sector on a domestic level, but when it comes toLebanese banks expanding beyond their own borders, bullishwould seem to be the right terminology.
All the Alpha banks, along with a good proportion of theBeta banks, are getting in on the act, putting Lebanon backon the regional banking map after largely disappearing fromview in the late 1970s when the sector lost out to Bahrainand the UAE as a Middle Eastern banking hub. In manyrespects, the roller coaster ride Lebanon has been on forthe past few years has actually been positive for thebanking sector, compelling banks to diversify away fromLebanon and mirror the movement of Lebanese white collarworkers that have gone to the Gulf and elsewhere in theMiddle East in search of more promising employment.
As Semaan Bassil, vice-chairman and general manager ofByblos Bank put it, “One positive thing of the [July] warwas putting pressure on Lebanon to find new markets outside.This is very healthy, as before the civil war, the marketwas outside.”
Changes to the regulatory environment in the MENA regionhave also been conducive to the banks expansionaryaspirations. Syria’s banking sector came in from the cold in2001, allowing foreign and private banks for the first timein over 30 years; Sudan, Algeria and Egypt have opened up,and Qatar has becoming an increasingly assertive financialmarket.
An additional factor is that the Lebanese market holds fewpossibilities for serious growth. “All banks have reached asaturation point and cannot compete for more market share.The main driving force is [that the banks are] not happy inLebanon,” said Shadi Karam, Chairman of BLC.
Equally, it has only been in the last few years that bankswere able to viably entertain the idea of expansion. “Onlynow have banks reached a certain size to allow them toexpand overseas – whether in total assets or equity,” saidSalim Sfeir, Chairman and General Manager of the Bank ofBeirut (BoB). Chasing the money
The Central Bank has been key to the expansion, relaxingcross border lending and dishing out approvals to encouragethe sector to charter new waters. Indeed, with bank lendingto the government gradually declining – although still thebedrock of the banking sector – the Central Bank, under thesound guiding hand of Governor Riad Salameh, is under nomisconceptions about the potential for cannibalism if bankswere not able to seek new markets.
Equally, with inter Arab trade estimated at $20 billion,Lebanon would be foolish not to go after a larger slice ofthat pie, given its geographical positioning and commercialas well as retail banking strength. Lebanese bankers alsohave an added advantage over their internationalcounterparts operating in the Middle East – namely, anunderstanding of the culture and language as well as theknow-how of turning a banking sector around, as was the casein Lebanon after the civil war. Lacking such insight, someBritish banks that recently entered Egypt have read themarket wrongly in terms of products and services. But forLebanese banks, such attributes have played into thebankers’ hands, particularly in Jordan and in Syria. Aftertwo and half years in Jordan, Audi “could reach $2.5 billionin assets,” said Freddie Baz, advisor to the chairman atBank Audi. While in Syria, after two years of operations,Audi Syria reached some $400 million in assets. BLOM andByblos have also fared well in Syria.
The fledgling Syrian market is attractive to other banks,with First National Bank (FNB) an 8% stake holder in thesoon to be launched Syria Gulf Bank, and Libano-Francaise,BoB and Fransabank waiting for licenses. The Lebanese-Canadian Bank (LCB) and CreditBank also plan to enter theSyrian market. “It’s a natural expansion into Syria, as itwill benefit the sector and help to converge the two marketsto a common denominator,” said Tarek Khalife,chairman-general manager of CreditBank.
For Libano-Francaise – with 10% to 15% of its business inLebanon consisting of corporate loans to Syria, and 90% oftheir Paris operation catering to Syrians – the bank was“following our clients,” explained Walid Raphael, deputygeneral manager. The bank had planned to enter Syriaearlier, but shareholders in France opposed the move.
Cairo and beyond
Jammal Trust Bank (JTB) is also in expansion mode, planningto rectify their position in the Egyptian market afterlosing their license in 2005. “When the late chairman passedaway two months before the [Egyptian] Central Bankrequirement to increase capital, I couldn’t raise anextraordinary session because the one who passed away held99% of the shares. I had to wind down operations, but nottotally liquefy,” said Anwar Jammal, Chairman and CEO of JTB.
√Meanwhile, JTB is looking to expand to West Africa. “Ithink there is huge potential, be it catering to Lebaneseexpatriates or the locals. We’re also hoping, at a laterstage, to move into the Gulf,” said Jammal.
Other banks are faring better in Egypt, which is proving tobe a lucrative market. Bank Audi bought Cairo Far East Bankwith $47 million in assets, and after nine months, had $1billion. BLOM bought Misr-Romania Bank at the end of 2005for $100 million, $60 million in net equity and $40 million“in good will.” “The first year generated profits of $11million. For the first three months this year, it was $6.3million, so by year’s end, it should reach $15 million,”said Saad Azhari, BLOM’s vice chairman and general manager.After a year of operations, BLOM Egypt had 40% growth inlending and 25% in deposits.
BLOM, Byblos and Audi are already in the Gulf, and otherbanks are also moving to have a slice of the boomingmarkets. CreditBank plans to open offices in the QatarFinancial Center (QFC) and the Dubai Financial Center, aswell as a representative office in Kuwait. BLC, which wasbought out by the Qatari Investment Authority in late 2005and is well established in the UAE, is planning to open inthe QFC.
Driving the move to the Gulf is the surging number ofLebanese expatriates working there, using correspondingbanks or the Lebanese bank equivalent to remit money home.For instance, in 2002 there were some 3,500 Lebanese inQatar, there are now 35,000, according to Khalife. Suchremittances are highly significant to the economy, withworldwide remittances to Lebanon recently estimated at $5.2billion or equivalent to 25% of national GDP.
As Khalife remarked, “The middle class has disappeared fromview, but not from the banks, they are [working] in theregional markets.”
While Algeria is proving a promising market for BLOM,Fransabank and the Lebanese-Canadian Bank with its 60% stakein Trust Bank Algeria, banks are wary of the recentlyliberalized Libyan market for political and bureaucraticreasons. Indeed, one of the top five banks recounted how anemployee wasn’t able to visit Tripoli to prospect thebanking sector as he was unable to get a visa. Sudan is alsoseen as potentially risky given the ropy peace and thetroubles in Darfur, but Bank Byblos is already present, asare the Lebanese-Canadian Bank with a 3% stake in Al SalaamBank, Fransabank with a 20% stake in United Capital Bank,and just last month, Bank of Beirut acquired an 18% stake inthe Saudi-French Bank.
Bank Audi is also optimistic about its presence there.“Sudan could bring millions of dollars in assets, its on theright track to increase significantly,” said Baz. Some banksare equally bullish about Iraq, with Byblos andInternational Bank operating in Irbil in the Kurdish areaand FNB angling to get in on the action.
“We are looking very seriously to open in Irbil, probably in2008 with a license for all of Iraq,” said Yasser Mortada,deputy general manager of FNB.
Other banks are hesitant to enter the market until thesituation improves and clearer regulations are establishedconcerning Central Bank regulations, whether from Irbil tooperate in Northern Iraq or in Baghdad to operate in thewhole country. Such issues recently warded off Bank Audi,and as BLOM’S Azhari put it, “we look at countries more andnot less stable than Lebanon.” Given the current situationin Lebanon, that is probably sound advice.
Nonetheless, the benefits of expanding outside of Lebanonare manifold. BLOM and Audi are now among the top 20 banksin the region in assets and ratings, with both estimating50% of deposits will come from outside Lebanon in the nextfive years. Already some 40% of the deposits collected byLebanese banks abroad are by BLOM, said Azhari, while ByblosBank’s foreign operations account for 20% of profits anddeposits, slated to reach 40% in the next five years. “It’sa win-win situation for well established companies to useLebanon as a platform to export products and services,” saidBassil.
Whether Lebanese banks will go even further afield as theygrow larger, banks are reticent to say. Libano-Francaisehinted that they were not confining plans to the MENAregion, and Sfeir said that the Bank of Beirut was activelyseeking acquisitions to establish new branches in differentmarkets.
Further expansion of Lebanese banks in the region isassured, although the country’s most regionally prolificbank, Bank Audi, was keeping quiet about its expansionstrategies. “Currently in the pipeline are three to fourother markets we are working on, either for a license oracquisition. We will hopefully close the year with a minimumof two new expansions in the region,” said Baz.