Gabon expects growth in banking following economic challenges

Lenders in commodity-dependent Gabon were hit by the macroeconomic slowdown, but the outlook has since brightened, and with several new players looking to flex their muscles, lending to the private sector and households is expected to rise significantly. Gabon’s banking sector is heavily concentrated – a trait of many of the continent’s financial service industries – with the only privately owned local player in an outsized role. However, African banking groups have been rapidly growing their market share. Pushed down by macroeconomic headwinds, lending fell and distressed debt levels rose in 2015, but the sector showed signs of recovery in early 2016. The country has made substantial recent progress on financial inclusion, bolstered by moves to oblige civil servants to open bank accounts, and efforts to improve the availability of client information should help to expand lending in coming years.

Local Leader

The industry is currently made up of nine institutions, comprising a dominant local private bank, three state-owned institutions and a mix of African and international banking groups.

BGFIB ank Gabon – a unit of BGFI Holding, in which local conglomerate Compagnie du Komo is the largest individual stakeholder with 31% – is the top bank by lending, with a domestic market share of 44% in 2015, according to the Professional Association of Credit Establishments (Association Professionelle des Établissements de Crédit, APEC). It is also the largest local bank by assets, with CFA1.2trn (€1.8bn) in 2015, almost unchanged on the previous year and equivalent to 43.4% of total sector assets.

In addition to its domestic operations, BGFI is a major regional player, describing itself as the largest financial group in CEMAC, with units in 10 countries and group assets of CFA3trn (€4.5bn) in 2015. The institution continues to expand, having opened a Senegalese unit in August 2015. It is also active in other financial services segments in Gabon, including insurance, through a 60% stake in local insurer Assinco and a 35% share in domestic leader Ogar, as well as in non-bank lending and microfinance through its subsidiaries Finatra and LOXIA.

Public Sector

No other local players in the market are majority privately owned, but there are three state-owned institutions: Poste Bank, which in 2015 had a credit market share of 1.2%; Banque Gabonaise de Développement (BGD), with 3.8%; and Banque de l’Habitat de Gabon, with 0.1%. Despite their limited market share, these three public banks have specific development mandates. They currently face headwinds, though these are not systemic and are largely related to specific issues at each. The BGD effectively defaulted on CFA871m (€1.3m) of outstanding private debt that matured in 2014, prompting ratings agency Fitch to downgrade and later withdraw its credit rating when the issue came to light in 2016. After Poste Bank temporarily closed in October 2015, the government injected some CFA5bn (€7.5m) of new capital into it, guaranteed its deposits and imposed withdrawal limits. However, the bank has continued to face problems, with staff striking in July 2016 over unpaid wages.

The government is working to address these problems by appointing a temporary administrator charged with putting forward plans to restructure each institution. In its 2016 Article IV consultation report for Gabon, the IMF called for urgent action to reform the banks, though it described the wider financial system as generally sound. “The problems at the public banks do not pose a big threat to wider banking stability as they are relatively small and their impact on the market is weak,” Christian Gondjout, director of strategy at Banque Internationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie du Gabon (BICIG), told OBG.

Regional & International Players

The largest foreign-backed bank in Gabon is Union Gabonaise de Banque (UGB), which is controlled by Morocco’s Attijariwafa Bank through a 58.7% stake acquired in 2009, and which had a 2015 lending market share of 18.2%, making it the second-largest bank in Gabon. BICIG was the second-largest foreign bank and third-biggest lender overall, with a share of 12.9%, though it remains the second-largest institution by deposits, with 16.6%, compared to 15% for UGB. BICIG’s main backer is French banking major BNP Paribas, on a shareholding of 47%, followed by the Gabonese government with 27%. In early 2016 local press reports suggested that Moroccan lender Banque Populaire, which like Attijariwafa has built up a major presence in Africa, was in the frame to purchase BICIG. The country also hosts Citibank Gabon, a unit of Citigroup, which had a 2015 credit market share of 2.7% and a deposit market share of 5.8%.

In line with the aggressive expansion of African lenders in recent years, three sub-Saharan African banking groups have also entered the Gabonese market and have been rapidly growing, with their market share rising from 8.1% in 2011 to 16.9% in 2015. The largest of the three, with a 2015 lending market share of 7.6%, is Orabank Gabon, a unit of Orabank Group, which started out in Benin and arrived in Gabon in 2002. Next is the local subsidiary of Togo-based pan-African banking group Ecobank, which entered Gabon in 2009 and had a 6.3% share of the country’s lending market in 2015. The smallest of the three, on a lending share of 2.7%, is the local affiliate of Nigeria’s United Bank for Africa, which also arrived in 2009.

Lending Activity

The overall value of bank lending in 2015 was CFA1.566trn (€2.3bn), down by 5% year-on-year, according to APEC data. The 2014 figure was also down slightly on the previous year. Credit quality deteriorated, with non-performing loans (NPLs) rising to 9.6% of total outstanding credit, from 8.1% a year earlier and 2.8% in mid-2012.

Most lending consists of short- and medium-term loans, with long-term credit accounting for less than 2% of outstanding loans for the year, in part as a result of a lack of long-term deposits. Credit accounted for 58.5% of total sector assets of CFA2.679trn (€4bn) in 2015, up from CFA2.49trn (€3.7bn) a year earlier, according to the regional central bank, the Banque des Etats de l’Afrique Centrale (BEAC). Retail lending remained fairly stable during 2015, at CFA194.6bn (€291.9m), or 12.5% of outstanding loans; the overall contraction in credit stemmed instead from falling lending to business, which shrank by 8% to CFA998.1bn (€1.5bn). The drop has been attributed to broad challenges facing the economy, such as a reduction in government investment caused by the declining price of oil, as a large number of companies depend on government activities.

However, lending increased in the first quarter of the year to CFA1.581bn (€2.4m), thanks to a small rise in lending to business, and some banks continue to do well. “The oil price has recovered somewhat in 2016 and with it state revenues and investments, so I am optimistic,” Pierre-Marie Ntoko, secretary-general of APEC, told OBG. The planned creation of a regional credit bureau should also boost lending by giving banks a much wider array of information on potential clients (see analysis).

Arrears

A negative development for the sector that has emerged in recent years has been the accrual of large government arrears to contractors and other firms – a result of low oil prices and the subsequent drop in government revenues – which has helped to push up the NPL rate and reduce sector liquidity levels, leading some banks to cut back on lending. Several firms have suspended lending to the construction industry and to firms dependent on the government to minimise risks. However, the government has been aggressively working to reduce its arrears, boosting repayments from CFA42.9bn (€64.4m) in 2014 to CFA147.9bn (€221.9m) in 2015.

Non-Bank Lending

Three non-bank lenders provide leasing and consumer finance services in the country: Alios Finance Gabon, BICI-Bail (a unit of BICIG) and Finatra. The segment, which is dominated by Alios with a market share of 51%, has faced headwinds in recent years as a result of the economic downturn. Faissal Chahrour, CEO of Alios, told OBG that the company saw a 30% drop in turnover in 2015, on the back of a 20% contraction in 2014, and he expected business to shrink again in 2016 due to factors such as uncertainty related to the presidential election. “There are no signs at the moment of business taking off again in 2016,” he told OBG. Finatra also saw its lending and leasing activity contract by 34% and 41%, respectively, in 2015, with the firm having made debt recovery a priority.

The segment also remains under pressure as a result of a government decision in mid-2014 to suspend a scheme under which the authorities effectively guaranteed consumer and personal loans and repaid lenders by taking instalments directly from civil servants’ salaries, citing concerns about rising levels of indebtedness among public sector workers.

The move had a significant impact on the consumer finance sector, particularly since payments on debts taken out before the scheme was suspended have also been halted. “CFA18bn (€27m) of debts under the scheme remain unpaid, which has created cash flow problems,” Chahrour told OBG. In its 2015 annual report BGFI also noted that government moves to boost financial inclusion by obliging civil servants to open bank accounts have made such clients more likely to turn to their banks for their borrowing needs.

Financial Inclusion

Gabon has achieved major progress in raising financial inclusion levels. According to the World Bank, 33% of adults held a bank account in 2014, up from 19% three years earlier. The improvement is in large part a result of government efforts to push citizens to open bank accounts, including a requirement introduced in 2014 that civil servants receive their salaries (and pensions in the case of retirees) via bank transfer, and a similar move in 2015 in relation to student grants.

Mobile Money

The country has also seen the development of mobile banking and payment systems. Around 200,000 clients use such systems to make transactions worth a total of CFA20bn (€30m) a month, via four mobile money platforms. Three of these were developed by the country’s mobile operators in partnerships with local banks, while BICIG has developed a mobile banking platform of its own. The segment continues to develop, with telecoms operator Airtel having launched a near-field, communication-based contactless payment system in June 2016. “Mobile money services do not require individuals to have a formal relationship with banks. Users can add credit, pay for products or transfer funds through mobile accounts, limiting the effects of these new technologies on the sector,” Roger Owono Mba, managing director at BGD, told OBG.

Microfinance

The emergence of a microfinance sector is also helping to boost financial inclusion, with the country now hosting 10 licensed microfinance institutions. “The microcredit sector is developing slowly but is having an increasing impact,” Gondjout told OBG. However, the sector faces several problems. As with the banking industry, micro-institutions have been affected by the economic slowdown, with the NPL rate having risen to 24.1% in 2015 according to the IMF, from 14% at the start of 2013, which the fund said posed a serious threat to further improvements in financial inclusion.

Outlook

In the short term the fortunes of the banking sector will remain dependent on the wider economic situation, which is in turn heavily linked to the international price of oil. However, government reform efforts at public banks should help put the industry on a more stable long-term footing, and plans for a new payment incidents registry and credit bureau should also boost the sophistication of payment methods and credit provision in coming years.

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The Report: Gabon 2016

Banking & Financial Services chapter from The Report: Gabon 2016