macroafricaintel | [#StopTheKillings] Would foreign banks be beneficial for Ethiopia? (4)

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Do foreign banks help?
What has been the actual experiences of countries that allow foreign banks to participate in their financial services sector, African ones especially? International banks have been pulling out of Africa lately. Some of the reasons include a realisation that local banks have a greater edge. Another is how shallow most African markets still are. Trade finance was the main draw for the increased interest of foreign banks up until the global financial crisis in 2007-08. When commodity prices slumped, however, it became writ large how susceptible most African economies remain to the volatile commodity markets. With problems of their own, international banks began to roll back their African operations to what they deemed to be more realistic levels. And quite frankly, foreign banks were a little surprised by how hard it was to beat local ones.

That said, some remain firmly in place; more agile operations are the norm, though. The few global banks, which seemed determined, are treading carefully nonetheless. In November 2011, JP Morgan, an American bank, started offering some services in South Africa and announced it planned to open representative offices in Nigeria and Kenya. That chief executive Jamie Dimon was still talking about JP Morgan’s plans for Kenya in January 2018, seven years after, speaks to the mixed case for international banks in Africa. Credit Suisse preceded JP Morgan in South Africa, setting up an office in Jan 2011. Barclays also moved its Africa headquarters to the continent from the United Arab Emirates in 2012, buying a controlling stake in ABSA, a South African bank; albeit its optimism was short-lived: it recently sold the African business. Another was China’s ICBC, opening an office in South Africa in November 2011.

What was the major attraction? Developed economies were either in recession or growing very slowly and yields were extremely low or negative. But here was a continent with more than 1 billion people, with millions unbanked and much more underbanked. Adding to that, it seemed Africans were beginning to prosper: a supposedly growing middle class was much vaunted. But the main driver for most global banks’ resilience about their African vision was a desire to hold on to all of their clients’ businesses in every part of the world. Why should a client be allowed to go to another bank for its African business and risk losing it in the process, it was reasoned. It proved to be dearer than planned: The clients did not necessarily do frequent transactions for and with their African subsidiaries. Or better put, the volume of transactions was not so much that they could not be undertaken from the banks’ hub branches, a central African location or both.

Research suggest foreign banks do not always help the financial development of poor countries. According to an IMF working paper in 2006, in countries with more foreign banks, credit to the private sector and access to credit in general tend to be lower. Consequently, there is also usually slower credit growth. The paper argued foreign banks tend to be more beneficial to advanced countries. Thus, the Ethiopian government’s caution is not entirely out of place.

However, there are documented benefits for poor countries as well. Arguments in favour range from better economies of scale and supervision, more advanced technology, greater perception of safety by depositors, and lower corruption. Of course, with regards to corruption, there have been cases lately about the susceptibility of foreign banks too. But in general, these are the exceptions and not the norm. “Several studies find that foreign banks in lower income countries (LICs) lend predominantly to the safer and more transparent customers, such as multinational corporations, large domestic firms, or the government.” This remains largely the case. And when the specific case of African countries is explored, other studies still find that to be the case. Still, it is argued local banks become more efficient from copying the practices of their foreign competitors; by the adoption of better technology and banking practices, for instance. So, the Ethiopian case, when opened up, is not likely to be any different.

The author, Dr Rafiq Raji, is an adjunct researcher of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation. This article was specifically written for the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz.

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