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Egypt’s banks braced for pandemic impact

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Banque du Caire, one of Egypt’s state-owned banks, was days from announcing its long-anticipated initial public offering in March. Then coronavirus scuttled the plan to float up to a quarter of its shares on the Egyptian Exchange.

Tarek Fayed, chairman of the bank, which has undergone extensive restructuring in recent years, says a new date will depend on improvements in markets: “Hopefully it can be in 2021.”

The pandemic may have delayed the IPO which aimed to raise some $500m, but Mr Fayed remains upbeat about the performance of the bank, despite the slowing economy as a result of Covid-19.

“Our net operating revenue has increased by 24 and 25 per cent in the first six months of the year, which reassures us that we are able to meet our targets, but of course we have had to be cautious and set aside [extra] provisions,” he says.

Cairo restaurants are back in business, but at 20 per cent capacity © Ziad Ahmed/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Analysts and bankers say Egyptian lenders, which are generally cash-rich with low loans-to-deposit ratios, may find profits fall and bad loans rise.

But they expect banks to remain financially stable.

“We expect banks to increase provisions and for profits to be pressured, but we expect them to remain profitable,” says Constantinos Kypreos, lead analyst for Egyptian banks at Moody’s Investors Service, the rating agency.

“Banks have entered this crisis in relatively good shape following a multiyear restructuring, especially state-owned banks, which have good liquidity especially in local currency.”

Chart showing Egypt banks pre-provisions profit

Research published in September by EFG Hermes, the Cairo-based regional investment bank, says the seven listed banks it covers reported “solid and better than expected revenue and pre-provisions earnings” in the second quarter of 2020.

Elena Sanchez, managing director and head of banking research at EFG Hermes, says bank profits were down 14 per cent in the second quarter year on year, but that it was “a very decent performance”. She attributes the decline to higher provisions and a tax change introduced last year.

Elena Sanchez, managing director and head of banking research at EFG Hermes
Elena Sanchez of EFG Hermes

Unlike most economies in the region, which are forecast to contract in 2020, the Egyptian economy has been growing, though at a slower pace than predicted before the pandemic. GDP grew by 3.5 per cent in the fiscal year ending in June — below the 5.8 per cent predicted before the pandemic, the government said in September.

Mohamed Maait, the finance minister, says he expects growth to be between 2.8 and 3.5 per cent in the current fiscal year.

The Central Bank of Egypt launched in March a package of measures aimed at supporting business. These included a 3 per cent cut in interest rates and the postponement of corporate and personal loan repayments for six months.

A logo sits outside the headquarters of the National Bank of Egypt in Cairo, Egypt, on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012.
The Bank of Egypt cut interest rates by 3 per cent in March © Shawn Baldwin/Bloomberg

The CBE also waived fees on some bank transactions and increased credit limits for companies to fund operating expenses. It cut rates again twice later in the year by a total of 100 basis points.

Bankers and analysts say the deferral of repayments makes it difficult to estimate the size of non-performing loans.

“We have adopted a cautious approach towards provisions,” says Hussein Abaza, chief executive of Commercial International Bank, a listed lender and the biggest private-sector bank in Egypt.

Hussein Abaza of Commercial International Bank

“The last thing you want is to realise that you have underprovided for non-performing loans. I can confidently say that we have not had a single customer default, because of the debt standstill.”

After running models with likely scenarios of the pandemic’s impact on various sectors, CIB nearly quadrupled provisions, says Mr Abaza. “We want to be prepared for anything. We won’t be able to say if we over provided or underprovided until the middle of next year.”

“Most banks took very prudent provisions during the first half of the year in anticipation of potential credit quality stress after loan deferrals, which ended in mid-September,” says Ms Sanchez.

“The most important consideration is that they have enough capital to absorb higher provisions and to continue to provide credit to the economy; most banks are well-capitalised.”

She points out that despite the reduction of interest rates, Egyptian banks make a tidy profit lending to the government. “It is still an attractive rate and entails no credit risk nor consumption of capital,” says Ms Sanchez.

According to a Moody’s report in May, 36 per cent of banking sector loans were in government securities. The pandemic has brought Egypt’s tourism industry which accounts for almost 5 per cent of GDP, to a near-halt.

Industries that rely on exports, such as textiles, were also damaged by the pandemic, bankers say. Private-sector borrowing has been weak and most of it has been for operating expenses rather than capital expenditure, they say. Nevertheless, some sectors have benefited, Mr Fayed argues. “Pharma, food and beverage and technology companies have done well,” he says.

“We have not stopped funding our clients, but we have been very cautious when we extend new loans. We have supported customers in sectors that have not been impacted by Covid.”



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Toyota faces Thai bribery probe over tax dispute

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Toyota is under investigation in Thailand over allegations that consultants hired by the world’s largest carmaker tried to bribe local officials in a tax dispute, according to Thai authorities, court documents and a person with knowledge of the matter.

The probe followed a filing last month in which Toyota revealed that it had reported “possible anti-bribery violations” related to its Thai subsidiary to the US Department of Justice and Securities Exchange Commission.

Toyota is one of the biggest foreign investors in Thailand, where it makes a large range of cars, vans and pick-up trucks for the local market and for export. The country is Toyota’s biggest manufacturing hub in south-east Asia. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, car sales had been strong in a market, where it has a 31 per cent share.

This month, Thailand’s Court of Justice said in a statement that it would take action against any of its judges found to have taken bribes. The statement, which the court described as a move to “clarify facts” in a news report on a foreign website, directly referenced a tax dispute involving Toyota.

“If the Court of Justice has received information or explicitly found that any judge committed an act of corruption to their duty, whether it is about bribery or not, the Court of Justice will resolutely investigate and punish any action which dishonours judges, undermines the neutrality of the court, or causes society [to] lose faith in the Thai justice system,” it said.

According to the court, the case involved a tax dispute worth Bt10bn ($320m) between Toyota Motor Thailand and tax authorities over imports of parts for its Prius hybrid model. 

The affair dates back to 2015, when Toyota’s Thai subsidiary was accused by local customs authorities of understating taxes by claiming that the imported Prius vehicles were assembled from completely knocked down kits, or imported parts that were later assembled in Thailand.

CKDs would have been subject to a discounted tax rate under a Japanese-Thai free trade agreement, but if the cars were fully assembled before being imported they would have attracted a much higher rate. 

Toyota appealed against a decision by customs authorities to impose a higher duty in 2015, but lost. 

Thailand’s Court of Justice has said that it had accepted a petition to review the case, but had not yet begun hearing it.

In its regulatory filing last month, Toyota warned that the US investigations regarding its Thai subsidiary could result in civil or criminal penalties, but the company has not disclosed any detail on the allegations.

In a statement, Toyota said it was co-operating with the investigations and declined to comment on the tax dispute in Thailand. “We take any allegations of wrongdoing seriously and are committed to ensuring that our business practices comply with all applicable government regulations,” it said.

The SEC and the DOJ declined to comment.



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Boris Johnson cancels India trip after Covid cases surge in country

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UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s trip to India this month has been cancelled as the country battles a new variant and a surge in coronavirus cases that is overwhelming hospitals.

A joint statement by the British and Indian governments said the decision to scrap the visit scheduled for next week was prompted by the “current coronavirus situation”.

The trip, during which Johnson had hoped to discuss the prospects of a closer trading partnership with India, was initially planned to run for four days but had been scaled back. The two leaders will speak remotely instead, with plans to meet in person later this year.

The cancellation came as India’s capital city region has been put under lockdown and authorities have prohibited the use of oxygen except for essential services, as the country battles a surge in coronavirus cases that is overwhelming hospitals.

India continues to set single-day records of coronavirus cases, reporting more than 273,000 new infections and 1,619 deaths on Monday, with the number of new cases growing by an average of 7 per cent a day, one of the fastest rates in any big country.

The surge is believed to be linked to a new B.1.617 variant that was first discovered in the country.

British health officials are investigating whether the variant should be reclassified from a “variant under investigation” to a “variant of concern” following the discovery of 77 cases in the UK.

“To escalate it up the ranking we need to know that it’s increased transmissibility, increased severity, or vaccine-evading, and we just don’t have that yet, but we’re looking at the data on a daily basis”, Dr Susan Hopkins, a senior medical adviser at Public Health England, said on Sunday.

Officials in Delhi announced it would impose a strict lockdown for a week, following Mumbai and other cities that have already placed curbs on movement.

States are running short of beds, drugs and oxygen, leading the central government to restrict use of the gas. “The supply of oxygen for industrial purposes by manufacturers and suppliers is prohibited forthwith from 22/04/2021 till further orders,” the central government said.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi, said “oxygen has become an emergency” in the region because its quota had been diverted to other states. He warned there were “less than 100 ICU beds” available.

The new restrictions have been imposed even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata party have hosted huge political rallies and allowed religious festivals attended by tens of thousands of maskless people in recent weeks.

Amit Shah, India’s home minister, told the Indian Express newspaper that he was “concerned” about the variant and the “surge is mainly because of the new mutants of the virus”. But he was “confident we will win” over the disease and said there was not yet a need to impose a national lockdown.

Bed shortages in India have forced authorities to re-establish emergency coronavirus hospitals in banquet halls, train stations and hotels that had been shut down following the previous peak in September. Crematoriums in the state of Gujarat and Delhi are running 24 hours a day, while cemeteries are running out of burial spaces.

Coronavirus patients have also been struggling to access medicines. More than 800 injections of remdesivir, an antiviral drug commonly used in India as part of Covid-19 treatment, were stolen from a hospital in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, at the weekend.

India is also facing a vaccine supply crunch and has frozen international exports of jabs to meet domestic demand. New Delhi pledged on Friday to increase monthly production of Covaxin, a vaccine made by Indian manufacturer Bharat Biotech, to 100m from 10m by September. The government also said last week that it would fast-track the approval of foreign vaccines in an attempt to boost supply and cleared Russia’s Sputnik V for use in the country.

The majority of the more than 120m Indians that have been vaccinated have received the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab manufactured by Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer. The Serum Institute has struggled to increase its monthly capacity of more than 60m doses a month due to a fire at its plant earlier in the year and equipment supply shortages from the US.

Additional reporting by John Burn-Murdoch in London





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The limits of China’s taming of tech

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The record fine handed out this month to Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce giant, was a welcome step toward combating anti-competitive behaviour. The $2.8bn penalty put Alibaba and other tech companies on notice that creating siloed fiefdoms designed to trap customers and merchants within their ecosystems will not be tolerated.

It was addressing a longstanding problem. Many of China’s ecommerce companies operate “walled gardens” that prevent interactions with rival platforms. For example, Alibaba’s Taobao ecommerce app keeps users from paying for goods using the payment app of rival Tencent. Tencent’s social media app, WeChat, prevents clips from being shared directly from ByteDance’s video-sharing app. 

Last week China’s internet and market regulators signalled the seriousness of their intent. They gave tech companies one month to fix anti-competitive practices, telling them to conduct “comprehensive self-inspections” and “completely rectify” problems, following which they would need to publicly promise to abide by the rules. The aim is create a commercially open and competitive internet.

It is tempting to argue that regulators in the west could take a leaf out of China’s book. But to hold China up as an example of competitive best practice would be to ignore the elephant in the room. Although Beijing is giving its monopolistically-minded internet companies — which are almost all private enterprises — a rap on the knuckles, it shows no sign of applying the same standards to vast swaths of the economy that have been dominated by state-owned giants for decades. 

The market dominance of these behemoths of state capitalism is an issue that affects not only domestic competitors but also foreign multinationals that operate in China. A trenchant joint paper last week from the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, and the Rhodium Group, a consultancy, took aim at the increasingly unfair advantages that this system gives China.

While it is true that China has opened up sectors such as financial services to foreign capital in recent years and allowed foreign brands to win market share in luxury goods and pharmaceuticals, broad sectors of the economy remain fully or partially closed or to overseas investors. 

Often the barriers erected to block or stymie competition are informal. Authorities can deliberately favour domestic companies in public procurement, are more ready to grant approval for licenses, subject foreign firms to arbitrary inspections or require them to re-engineer products to meet idiosyncratic domestic standards.

Such drawbacks are not new. But they are taking on an extra urgency as Chinese companies become leaders in an increasing number of industries and the country’s technological prowess draws level with the US and Europe in a list of industries. The key problem now, says the ECFR/Rhodium report, is that Chinese multinationals are using the advantage of a protected home market to build up resources that they then deploy in competition with western counterparts abroad.

This sets the scene for friction. China should extend its anti-monopolistic scrutiny from its own privately owned internet companies to several state-dominated sectors of its economy, taking care to open to foreign multinationals as much as domestic competitors. If it decides against doing this — as is likely — it will be furnishing Europeans and Americans with ammunition to argue against extending access to Chinese corporations in their own markets.



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