Despite the Syrian government’s best efforts to promote an ongoing semblance of normality, the country’s banking sector - one of the least developped in the Middle East - remains a major area of concern.
Amid the daily turmoil in Syria, it comes as something of a surprise to see the financial statements of 12 of the country’s banks posted, quarter by quarter, on the website of the Damascus Securities Exchange (DSE). By the end of May, all 12 had published audited financial statements for 2012, complete with detailed accounting notes.
But despite the apparent normality projected by the DSE’s website (daily changes in stock prices stream across the home page; weekly trading reports are easily available and up to date), echoes of the civil war can be detected.
In recent weeks, three banks have had trading in their shares suspended because they did not provide the Exchange with reports on their Annual General Assembly meetings – it is hardly surprising that convening an annual meeting, to be attended by numerous prominent directors and shareholders, is difficult to arrange when large gatherings present easy targets for bombs. On 17 January, Bank Bemo Saudi Fransi informed the Exchange that it had transferred all funds in its Dair al-Zour branch to its head office in Damascus. (A few days later, rebel forces captured strategic positions around the city.) On 5 March the bank informed the Exchange that a convoy taking money to the Central Bank had been attacked by an armed gang, resulting in lost funds of S£25mn. Amid the acres of news that have been published about the conflict in Syria, little has been written about how the conflict has affected the financial system. Economic reporting tends to focus on the exchange rate (which has depreciated by more than 100% since the start of the conflict) and the level of the Central Bank of Syria’s foreign exchange reserves (now probably down to around $2bn-3bn).
Banking Activity Has Declined DramaticallyCash, of course, is playing a much greater role in the economy than before. Banking activity is at a minimum as banks run down existing credit facilities while continuing to fund basic imports such as food and medicine. Banks say that they are able to get dollars as well as local currency to stock their ATMs (in areas under government control), although money exchangers are playing an increasingly important role in the distribution of cash.
Banks’ financial statements should give a reasonable impression of the broad trends in a country’s financial system. Those published in Syria – one of the least developed banking systems in the Middle East, even before the civil war – need to be treated with considerable care, although the figures published by subsidiaries of overseas banks are likely to be more reliable since overseas head offices are subject to supervision and auditing standards that are more robust than those applied in Syria. With that caveat in mind, the financial statements of the 12 banks that report to the DSE show an aggregate 28% decline in loans extended in the two years to the end of 2012 and a 29% decline in customers’ deposits. In both cases the figures under-state the effective shrinkage in the banking system. Syrian banks report their financial results in Syrian pounds but have, at least in the past, extended some loans and taken some deposits in foreign currency.
A 50% devaluation in the Syrian pound will increase the reported value of a foreign currency loan by 50% on a bank’s local currency-denominated balance sheet. Without that effect, the banks’ loan portfolios would have shown a much greater decline.
As the crisis has deepened, banks have been converting foreign currency loans into local currency loans in the hope of improving their borrowers’ ability to repay. Again, the accounting treatment around such transactions has a big effect on the banks’ balance sheets, inflating the apparent size of their loan portfolios. Well-placed observers comment that the assets and liabilities of the banking system have fallen dramatically since the end of 2012.
Syrian Banks’ Exposure To Key Foreign Banks Now MinimalThe decline of international lending and borrowing by Syrian banks can be seen in figures published by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), an institution that tracks overseas exposures of banks in the major world economies. According to the BIS, banks in major economies had placed $264mn with banks in Syria (including the Central Bank) at the end of 2009. This figure halved by the end of 2010 and at the end of 2012 was down to $42mn. Placements by Syrian banks (including the Central Bank) with banks in the major economies stood at $16.31bn at the end of 2009, remained steady through 2010 before falling to $2.33bn at the end of 2012. The fall in placements by Syrian banks reflects both the repatriation and spending of much-needed foreign currency, as well as the redeployment of funds out of the major international banking systems and into others where the reach of international sanctions is less keenly felt.
The Syrian banking system was one of the smallest in the Middle East even before the civil war. Assets of $47.7bn at the end of 2010 represented 2.1% of the assets of commercial banks in the Arab Middle East. Private sector deposits of $23.5bn represented about 2.2%. This was a little more than Oman and Tunisia. Private sector credit was equivalent to 23% of Gross Domestic Product – a very low figure in a region where banks dominate financial intermediation.
Non-Performing Loans Double or TrebleIncome and net profit figures of the 12 listed banks have been fluctuating wildly as a result of revaluations of assets and as a result of loan loss provisioning. All 12 of the listed banks reported a doubling of non-performing loans (NPLs) in 2012 and in some cases a trebling or even quadrupling. Eight banks showed NPLs as more than 20% of their total loan portfolio.
Three of the 12 listed banks declared net losses for 2012, but income statements carry little meaning in the current Syrian environment. Quite apart from the exchange rate, which can turn revenue streams into losses, or vice versa, from one reporting period to another, the physical destruction of a client’s businesses can render loans which were performing yesterday uncollectable today.
(Although the exchange rate has depreciated considerably during the last two years, it is interesting to note that the unofficial rate shows big fluctuations and at times can show significant appreciation as well as depreciation. The collapse of a country’s exchange rate during a time of civil war cannot be assumed. For example, the Lebanese pound remained around $1=LL3 for the first seven years of the Lebanese civil war and only started to slide after the Israeli invasion of 1982, with the really big devaluations happening in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As any seasoned Lebanese banker will tell you, militias expect to be paid in cash, and usually in dollars, so civil wars bring a lot of foreign currency into a country, regardless of whether the official sector is running low on its own foreign reserves.)
The State-Owned Banks Dominate the Banking SystemThe 12 listed banks account for about a quarter of banking assets and liabilities in Syria. The state-owned banks dominate the system but their financial statements for recent years are not available. The Central Bank of Syria’s public disclosure of aggregate banking statistics peters out in early 2011. Statistics for year-end 2010 show aggregated assets for the 20 banks at $47.7bn (converting the Central Bank’s Syrian pound figures into dollars at a rate of $1=S£45.79). State banks account for 71% of this. Note that not all private sector banks are listed on the DSE - Cham Bank and al-Baraka Syria are not.
Physical Safety and Hard Cash Crucial for Banking ActivityLooking ahead, the most obvious threats to the continuation of banking services in Syria are physical – the destruction of bank branches or security threats that prevent banks restocking their ATMs or prevent their staff from going to work. (In mid-June, the website of Arab Bank Syria announced that banking services had been discontinued at eight of its branches (out of 19), most of them in the south western corner of Syria, near the Lebanese border.)
The availability of physical cash in government-controlled areas will be another challenge for the banks. Much will depend on the willingness of the regime’s foreign backers to facilitate the printing of local-currency bank notes and the provision of foreign currency notes. (It is assumed that rebel-held areas will continue to receive cash dollars from their foreign benefactors.)
The state-owned banks will continue to support local industries, providing loans and not calling-in bad debts. They will be able to do this because the Central Bank of Syria will not enforce its own regulations. And because state-owned banks account for such a large part of the banking system, a significant part of the economy will be able to continue to operate as if all is well and everyone is paying everyone else on time. Again, it is when banking gets “physical” – for example, when wages have to be paid in cash, or foreigners paid in Dollars or Euros – that problems arise. If confidence in the regime declines, then, in regime- controlled areas, cash will become even more important than it is now.
*Andrew Cunningham has spent more than 25 years writing, training and consulting on banking and finance, both in the Middle East and in Europe and the U.S.
Darien Middle East advises clients on international financial regulation and best practices in risk management and corporate governance. The firm was founded in 2010 by Andrew Cunningham and is based in London. The firm publishes regular briefings on financial markets under the title, Darien Analytics.