While the capital markets show on the Lebanese national financial and economic stage had been one that, for years, fit above all a characterization of spurned overtures and unconstitutional delays in the implementation of declared and legislated measures, such as the transformation of the Beirut Stock Exchange (BSE), 2019 was kicking off with the boost. Already in December of 2018, a request for proposals (RFP) went out from the Capital Market Authority (CMA) and invited interested entities to submit their concepts and express their ambitions for becoming the operators of a new exchange, known as Electronic Trading Platform (ETP) and talked about as such in financial circles for about five years. Next, at the end of February, Beirut witnessed the convening of international exchanges upon the city—whose languishing BSE has only moved further down and has long attracted unflattering epithets, such as dormant and comatose—that in the first part of 2019 saw BSE market capitalization dwindle even below $9 billion. Executive sat with Firas Safieddine, the vice chairman of the CMA to find out more.
E At the end of February, the CMA welcomed participants to a conference on securities exchanges. After dedicating your energy to hosting this, what was the value of holding an international event of this caliber, with such a wide range of topics?
The importance of the World Exchange Congress (WEC) in February was two-fold. [First] is the size of the conference and its weight internationally. The organizers of this conference plan their annual flagship event in the way that you bid to host the conference. Lebanon was chosen as winning bidder to host the 2019 event.
E But are we talking about a financial bid?
No, [bidding] is about the program and commitment. There is no financial bid. Basically [you demonstrate] how committed you are, why you want the conference to be in your country, and if it is a good time for [the WEC] to be held in a country: Will the topics affect the local market, and will they impact the international side as well? Two years ago, we were chosen to host [this event], which was the 14th WEC. According to the organizers, [this edition in Beirut] was the most successful in terms of organization, in terms of size and attendance, and in terms of international participants: [meaning] exchanges. We had more than 50 exchanges that participated and exhibited here. One has to understand in this context that the WEC is not a regulatory conference, but a conference of exchanges. We decided [as the CMA, the regulator] to take the lead [of looking to host such an event] because the [BSE] is not taking such steps. We, therefore, decided to step up and organize this.
The second important matter regarding this conference was the timing. The conference happened just at the time when Lebanon is about to witness the launch of an Electronic Trading Platform, or new exchange. By the end of May, as all the bids for [operating the ETP] have been submitted to the CMA, we will be choosing a licensee. As the WEC came at a time when we had already issued the request for proposals for bidding for an exchange, and we benefited from this [concurrence] first and foremost in terms of generating awareness of Lebanese capital markets internationally, and [signaling it] to other exchanges—and not just them, but all downstream businesses, such as consultancies, technology providers, etc., everything related to exchanges. Also, [in terms of local participation], Lebanon was there at the event, and we thus now have a lot of awareness among the Lebanese on what we have planned for the future. One of the observations that we made at the event was that we saw one bidder for the [ETP license] actually make contact with one of the international exchanges. They then worked out an agreement and issued a bid together. If you want to have a tangible success, this is a tangible success. I am not saying that this specific bidder will be the licensee, but the [two parties] at least have come together for a joint bid.
E Is it correct that the CMA was not averse to having international bidders, and in the RFP did not specify if the successful bidder can be fully international or has to form a consortium with a local partner?
Nationality was not a criterion, it was simply the readiness to offer the best business solution catered to the Lebanese market. The evaluation formula of the bids was transparently communicated within the RFP, whereby CMA has set forth the criteria weight distribution according to technical, financial business plan and market development strategies, market making commitment and operator’s ownership and governance profile.
E When talking about international attendance at the WEC event, you referred to participation of technology providers. The operating of any exchange today relies very heavily on the respective technology platform and the chosen electronic systems. Is the technology platform proposed in a bid an important factor, and does the technology provider receive an important consideration when a bid is evaluated? And how important would it be for a local bidder to have capacity for adapting such a system from a foreign provider for the local market, or could the local operator just buy such a system and run it in Beirut?
It is a possibility. Technology is one and the same. The providers of the technology are limited in number, and their systems have been adopted by most of the exchanges around the world. I think the key [for offering a strong bid] would not be the underlying technology of the platform—this is accessible to anyone. [The key bid components] would be on the operations of the ETP, the marketing of the ETP, and the understanding of the market. At the end of the day it is the business side. It is the licensee who is going to promote [the ETP] and who is going to assess what the opportunities on the capital markets are. We will appoint a licensee. The licensee then has six months to organize and open shop, but within that time, we will be working very closely together with this licensee. We have given the bidders now four to five months to understand the market, and we made ETP requirements so flexible that they can put anything on the platform, meaning they can decide whether to launch [the ETP] with the foreign exchange [platform], the SME platform, or the commodities platform, as an example.
E What is the relationship between Law 161 (2011), the conversion and privatization of the BSE as BSE sal, and the ETP?
Law 161 stipulates clearly that within one year of establishing the board of the CMA that the status of the BSE has to be switched from a government institution to a joint-stock company and that one year after that, they have to privatize it. This is clearly stipulated, and the [deadline] dates were clear. Now it has been [over] seven years [since passing of Law 161] or six years beyond the establishment of the board [of the CMA] and nothing has happened. There was advancement, a cabinet decision was taken 18 months ago [at the end of 2017] to take those two steps, but this is still hanging because of the appointments of the interim board members of the BSE have not been finalized until today and nothing has moved. Law 161 allows for the board of the CMA to license other exchanges if it deems this necessary for the capital markets. Ideally, we would have liked for one exchange to cover everything, but we are seeing this delay [in transforming the BSE] at a time when we urgently require the exchange to be much more active and much more dynamic. This is needed for many reasons, for instance the exchange can be the venue for CEDRE in terms of [public-private partnerships] PPP, and the exchange could also be the [conduit] for reducing the exposure of banks to commercial loans. [This exposure is] 110 percent of GDP; it can be a venue for moving into securitization, into factoring, and whatnot. The exchange can be the venue to help create more liquidity in the economy. We would have liked [this venue] to be one [single] exchange, but I don’t think that the BSE is ready to play such a role with the structure that it has today. Thus, we decided on the board [of the CMA] to create another exchange—not to compete with the BSE, but to complement whatever is not on the BSE today.
E But the ETP as second exchange will have a separate identity and be operated separately from the BSE by the winning licensee?
For the time being, yes.
E It might get merged at some point?
This remains to be seen. As I say and want to repeat, we would like it to be one exchange.
E You mentioned that the licensee for the ETP would have six months to open shop, and there was some talk about July 2020 for the opening. Is there a fixed target date for the commencement of the ETP operation?
It will be up and running in the first quarter of 2020.
E Could that mean that everyone migrates from the BSE next year?
Not necessarily at all. There is no incentive for them to migrate at the moment. What the new exchange will be focusing on are the products that are not listed on the BSE. The BSE today does not have forex trading, it does not have commodities trading, it doesn’t have reduced requirements for listing of SMEs, and there are no clear directives to support startup listing.
When we look at the prospects and expectations for the Lebanese economy as of today, also considering the reform and austerity aspects of the budget that has been under finalization this month, things are moving—albeit slowly—and outcomes in the long term could well be very positive.
E However, would one have to expect in the short term that Lebanese capital markets will be impacted by uncertainty, protest moods, and debates over austerity? Might the ETP in the first year of its operations then reflect negatively what could be a temporary slowing of the economy?
In spite of all the challenges we are facing, now is the time to focus on new outlets for capital formation.
If you were to tell us that today might not be the optimal time to launch the ETP, we would say, ‘This is exactly the time when we need to speed up the process and launch the new exchange.’ We are going through very tough times, and the capital markets are reflecting this—as we see from the performance of the BSE. There is also another indicator that I want to tell you about: For the past few months, the amount of funds and products that have been submitted to us for approval has gone down. We would like to give things six months in order to compare numbers properly, but the way that the trend is, such activities have been reduced, that is why opening up to new investment opportunities and allowing Lebanese companies to access capital at lower cost might help some of them better face the challenges of today.
E When discussing the potential of the ETP just before, you mentioned the CEDRE context and PPP projects—which presumably can benefit greatly from access to a liquid capital market. Would the ETP also be a venue for privatizing companies that have hitherto not been successfully privatized, such as Middle East Airlines (MEA)?
Absolutely. The platform needs to be promoted and positioned in a way that it is a solution provider for overcoming all the obstacles that we have been facing, whether in the regulatory framework or the ways laws are written. The ETP is a platform that is there to be utilized as means to create more liquidity in the market. We could list Middle East Airlines, and plans are for it to be one of the leading stars to be listed on the exchange. This has been communicated by the main shareholder in MEA, which is the [Banque du Liban, Lebanon’s] central bank.
E How are things developing in terms of awareness and preparedness for capital markets in the local financial and investor communities? Do you see increasing skepticism, enthusiasm, or what?
I will answer this question taking it from two sides: the supply side and the demand side. If you need [to attract] an investor, you need a product. So if we approach the issue, therefore, from the supply side, we are at this moment reaching out to major SMEs and family businesses. We have a team that is dedicated to contacting these companies; they are explaining to them what an exchange and listing would mean for them, and how they can access capital through listing on the exchange.
E Are they listening?
Perfectly well. They are extremely interested and have a lot of questions. We have collected those questions and created like a town hall meeting session to which we are inviting all the companies that we believe are the first crop of potential companies that can be listed. Some of them already have full governance in place, some of them are on their way to having full governance, and some have a good appetite for governance. On the supply side, we need products, companies who understand that they can access capital in a cheaper, long-term way and sustainable way. We are adapting our fees and have a formula to make listing more sustainable for all of them, not a burden.
On the investor side, we have the institutions and the retail side. Institutions are definitely interested because when they are investing, they are not lending, and thus capital requirements are less. In the retail investor side, we have investor education activities and are reaching out to them. We are tackling the issue therefore from both sides, supply and demand.