With high oil prices pumping fairy-tale-like sums of money into the coffers of the oil producers, the private equity wave is sweeping the region, with more and more capital looking for interesting projects to finance. GDP growth in non-oil producing states is increasingly buoyed by oil money from abroad, most visible in the various “mega-projects” springing up not just in Dubai, Doha, or Manama anymore but now also in Damascus, Amman, and Cairo.
In the Gulf, PE funds are now replacing traditional commercial banks as big investment houses and the region is flush with money. The question, however, is: How does this play out in Lebanon?
The financial experts interviewed by Executive say that the domestic political situation during the past decade forced Lebanon to move on a separate path, different from the rest of the region.
According to Khaled Zeidan, at Banque de la Méditerranée, “Investment banking, as a stand-alone business, has ceased to exist. If we look at all the investment banks that sprang along Lebanon in the 1990s, Lebanon Invest, Middle East Capital Group, investment house, etc. … those houses, which were quite well-capitalized, were unable to survive because the depth of the market was not there.”
As he explained, most of the specialized investment firms were acquired by other banks and ceased to exist as independent entities. An example is Lebanon Invest, which is now part of Banque Audi Saradar, a big and diversified bank. Zeidan sees the reason for the investment banks’ failure is that for serious investment banking in Lebanon, there are too few deals available. Everyone banked on Lebanon becoming a business hub for the region but that did not materialize. And since investment banking is a high overhead business — people that work in this sector are usually extremely well paid — it cannot be run on a cheap budget. But, in his words, “if there is not enough of a deal flow for market conditions, it just doesn’t work.”
Failures of investment companies
Jean Riachi, chairman of Financial Funds Advisors, put it even more drastic: “Lebanon Invest and Middle East Capital Group (MECG) were not bought as star acquisitions, but instead were dismantled when they went into liquidation.” Like Zeidan, he sees one of the reasons for the failure of the investment companies that had started with some IPOs in the ‘90s, when there were high expectations about Lebanon, in the fact that the economic boom did not last. However, he adds that, “For various reasons, in some cases mismanagement, the basic foundations were not laid within these companies, creating problems. Also, the market did not mature — the local financial market, needed to create a secondary market for the primary issues, did not exist and was not established. It should have been created parallel to the investment business, but it did not happen, and thus the necessary conditions for successful investment banking were not brought in place.”
The fall of investment banking has, in Khaled Zeidan’s view, led to a strengthening of classic private banking.
“The bulk of Lebanese banks, even at the branch level, do private banking, the sort of high-end retail,” he said. In Lebanon, people do expect their bankers to offer them many things outside the basic deposit business. One can see that at multiple levels, even in commercial banks, where the bankers cater to wealthy individuals. When done in a more organized fashion, there are a few banks that have established private banking departments or are private banks. What they are doing is either managing assets out of Lebanon in Cyprus or Switzerland, or sometimes also in Lebanon. The relationship managers are located in Lebanon and travel throughout the region, gathering assets, developing new projects or following up with their existing client base. They usually provide everything — they do portfolio management, real estate business, can push a particular product. Overall, they are relationship managers that do the full-fledged liaison with a particular client. Contrary to investment banking, where a windfall could be made with each deal, private banking is a long-term, low-margin business. But as assets grow, a lot of money is made. The majority of banks, like UBS & Credit Swiss, generate 40% of their income from the asset management of their private banks.
Difficulties on the Lebanese front
In his view, “This model has been more of a success, it is here to stay, and most probably will continue to grow. Had there been more stability in the country, we would’ve seen even bigger success, since we have the human resources. It takes time, effort and a lot of resources. But it pays off in the end.”
Private equity fund penetration of the Lebanese market seems to be facing the same difficulties as the investment banks of the 1990s: not enough interesting deals and a reluctance of domestic, often family-owned companies to disclose and embrace international standards of business transparency.
The first product of this type launched in Lebanon, Lebanon Invest’s “Lebanon Holding” in 1997, was launched by an investment firm that had had deal flow in the past, had a sizeable team of 40-50 people, and was a product that had about $50 million in assets. Yet, it still failed. Zeidan sees the reason in the local business structure, explaining that, “When you are in PE you need to penetrate the family structures in the country, convincing them that if you are the PE fund entering into their capital, it will not change the course of the way they do business. But people have a problem with reporting in Lebanon, with transparency and all those things that affect the business environment. Hence, PE will have a hard time in Lebanon, like in the rest of the region. The market isn’t mature yet.”
The only place where PE can attract large sums of money is the real estate market. As Executive reported in previous articles, over the last 12 months large sums of money have been poured into Lebanon’s real estate market, as reflected in prices: up by 30-40% year-on-year. Yet, in the wider region real estate prices have been rising even more, so that now Lebanon is perceived to be a cheap market, attracting buyers and investors.
But in other sectors, industry or high-tech for example, Zeidan does not see any deal flow because there are not enough mature companies. There are a number of venture capital transactions but these deals do not attract PE people because they like to go into companies that are already established.
There are some activities, in which Banque de la Méditerranée participated in a PE fund geared toward helping small and medium-size enterprises that do not have the resources.
Jean Riachi sees the impact of PE on Lebanon more in within the development of an integrated regional market: “When it comes to PE, one has to think regional. Even if there are interesting investment deals in Lebanon, they can be bought by regional PE firms. There is something happening with the integration of markets in the region. Lebanon is too small of a market. If you think only in terms of Lebanon, you think too small and you cannot succeed.”
Khaled Zeidan sees the developments in the region posing a threat to the Lebanese market, as major banks are looking for opportunities outside Lebanon because they do not see any realistic growth in the country today.
In the end, Zeidan calls to resist quick jumps from old, established financial tools onto the new horse in the stable. “In terms of private equity, one should wait with the analysis until one has a real PE market. Right now there are small, hybrid funds between private and public money. I don’t see any real PE flowing into Lebanon, unless it’s a specific deal, like buying land and developing a project. But private banking is here to stay.”