Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Sanusi and the banks: 100 days after

THE most significant development in the Nigerian financial landscape in the last 100 days was neither the expected action of the CBN on August 14, 2009 nor the far-reaching nature/severity of the pronouncements - as the market was expectant and agreed on the need for a change. The management of information and the consistent/sustained 'negative' news cycle have proven to be the most crucial factor in the market downturn. The last 100 days is replete with such gloom and doom that it is a 'miracle' the ASI has stayed above the 21,000 basis points.

But can all the problems be placed on the doorsteps of Regulators? Hector Sants, Chief Executive, FSA while delivering his speech to participants at the 2009 Securities & Investment Institute Conference, on May 7, 2009 said "From evidence available, it has become demonstrably clear that firstly, albeit with the benefit of hindsight, there are some management decisions that have revealed a degree of incompetence, and at times a rather cavalier approach regarding risk management; secondly shareholders and regulators must be careful not to place excessive reliance on senior management judgements; thirdly, the necessary challenge was missing from governance structures, in particular boards, and finally there may well be questions that can reasonably be asked about the openness and thus, arguably, the integrity of firms dealings with regulators, shareholders and their customers."

He could have been talking about the Nigerian operating environment here. This goes to show that what we are experiencing is a global phenomenon and we should quickly move away from the distracting focus on 'criminalising individuals' and embracing the task of market and nation building. Now that we understand that we have a shared problem, can we change the engagement rules? The CBN must rethink its engagement approach if the ultimate goal is to establish a game changer? To have a market, we must have participants. In our desire to get the banks to become virtuous and disengage from being 'facilitators of criminal enterprises' as they have been branded, we have all been made to pay for the changes needed.

Robert Preston, City Editor BBC while commenting on the cost of changes to get banks to become 'virtuous' without admitting the intrinsic cost of the democratic deficit that is being charged stated that "even if the banks are given long enough to reinvent themselves as more cautious, well capitalised, better balanced institutions, it would be very foolish to believe there won't be costs - and most of those costs will probably fall on us, their customers, rather than on the banks themselves and their shareholders".

He added, "If all banks were to increase their holdings of liquid assets, shrink their reliance on fee based income and lend less relative to their capital resources in one fell swoop, well there would be a collapse in lending to the real economy and we'd be in a fair old depression in no time at all - and the banks themselves would soon find themselves bust". Thus, it is obvious that the price we are being called upon to pay must not be indeterminate; for there is a fallacy of composition arising from all banks discovering virtue and prudence at the same time.

While some continue to push the argument that taking such steps will ultimately benefit the economy over the longer term and in the interest of the banks individually and collectively to strengthen their finances; not a few have now recognised that to do so in such a wholesale manner (leading to the freeze in the supply of credit) will do significant harm to the Nigerian economy. Quite frankly, we must find a middle road to balance the arguments for holding 'quality/safe liquid assets' (those low yield - less income assets considered less attractive to a banking industry long on greed and short on reality) on the one hand and riskier loans and engagements in the capital market on the other.

But can one truly blame the banks? Evidence indicates that they have had to provide services and amenities which the state has failed in its responsibility to do and they continue to shoulder and account for the semblance of developments we have seen and experienced in the last decade. The simply got carried away playing 'God'; and at a great cost to us all. We must devote our energies to resolving this debacle; for should we fail to reward the original providers of capital (investors) with relative returns to capital via dividends for the second year in a row by 2010, there would be far worse unintended consequences than imagined.

This market confidence crisis runs deeper than expressed. The impact of the post August 14, 2009 declaration celebrated with a massive media coverage is beginning to look like a circus show parade - the excitement only falters to deceive. Our banks now know, and the CBN should get it; that trust has been a key casualty in this unending story - that is why the newly appointed CEO's are sending back reports to the CBN with tales of unanticipated challenges.

The staff and customers see them more as impostors or usurpers depending on how deep the consequence of the actions taken and those to follow impact their lives. Their customers have been publicly disgraced and humiliated and the basis of trust turned to a negotiated issue depending on which side of the divide the EFCC chooses to swing. Morale is down and the affair between the banker and customer is facing a rocky season. With talks of new bond issues, there is the ever present fear that in forcing the banks to hold more capital, they will make the price we are paying go higher - in the form of higher interest charges and lower deposit rates.

The CBN must find a way out of the on-going intellectual hole it has connived to create, and we believe it is seriously looking at options open to it; starting with the decision to avoid a wholesale sanction on the whole banking system and the slow down in its me-against-them rhetoric. We are all in this together. Now, Investors in the NCM must confront the inevitable - recognise the cost they will and are paying for engaging in the only legitimate market for building wealth in the country - the capital market.

Our assessment of the situation is that there is no cheering news on the horizon, at this date, to encourage a different course of action. Quite frankly, it is pure fantasy to believe otherwise. Yet, the story does not have a sad ending. History has shown us that we cannot leave our cash-cows - the banks to self regulate. If we are going to achieve a turn around of the losses made in the market - we have to transmute from by-standers to active participants in the paradigm shift taking place. Each generation faces its own major crisis. This is ours, and we must rise up to the challenge.

Events in the capital market with a constant news stream of huge losses by the banks play to investors' big fear - the idea that banks have only recognised the losses they can afford to shoulder today, not the defaults that will arrive eventually. We can start here and receive assurances to that effect. We can do more than just sit down and moan. Finally, 2009 appears it could yet end as it began - with the markets staying south. We must thus set our sights and thoughts on 2010 and make the best of the opportunity to begin again, better informed and wiser. It is a heavy price to pay but one that we can intelligently use to rebuild.