Zim: Banks face ownership showdown

Now that Zimbabwe's largest foreign investors have fallen into line, the question banks face is how, and no longer whether, Empowerment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere will localise their ownership.

Foreign-owned banks that would be affected are Barclays, Standard Chartered, Standard Bank's Stanbic, MBCA, partly owned by Nedbank, and Ecobank.

However, some banks are unwilling to sell and have threatened to leave the country if forced to comply. A senior bank executive said international banks would pull out if they lost control of their business. They would not allow their brands to be used by institutions they did not control.

"A mine's assets are in the ground and its ability to extract resources. These can be quantified. But a bank's asset is its brand. Once control of the local bank is lost, that bank simply ceases to be part of the recognised global brand, and public confidence vanishes, resulting in failure of that bank."

Officials in the empowerment ministry involved in structuring the empowerment deals for banks say one of the strategies being mooted is to force banks to put up money to fund black businesses and farms as well as selling shares to locals.

Kasukuwere last year rejected Standard Chartered's proposal to sell only 10% of its local operation.

Boosted by his success in forcing large mines to give up controlling stakes, Kasukuwere this week dared foreign banks either to comply with empowerment regulations or leave.

"We have the money. We can pay for their [foreign banks'] assets," Kasukuwere said.

Spotlight on the banking industry
Last year, banks found a shield behind central bank governor Gideon Gono and Finance Minister Tendai Biti, who both came out strongly against Kasukuwere's threats to banks.

The row died down while Kasukuwere turned his sights on the mines. But now that that sector has been completely "indigenised", he is turning his sights on the banks, which insist they should be treated differently.

"I would like to encourage other companies, particularly in the banking sector, to comply with our national laws as noncompliance will no longer be tolerated," Kasukuwere said at the signing ceremony of the Zimplats empowerment deal recently.

"Defiance and arrogance will not be tolerated, as companies must respect the law and desist from provoking the state. 

"There will be no sacred cow spared, no stone unturned to ensure that the policy is fully implemented," he said.

A year ago, there was speculation about whether mining giant Zimplats would sell 51% of its businesses to locals, with some predicting that a compromise would ultimately be reached on a lower threshold.

Speculation among bank executives has now turned to how banks are likely be localised and many are looking at how the empowerment deal with Old Mutual was structured for clues as to how financial services could be treated.

As part of the deal, the company set aside a total of 25% – 10% for staff, 9% for pensioners, 2.5% for a youth development fund and 3.5% for black investors. 

Old Mutual also had to spend money on a low-cost housing estate and pay into a government-administered national housing fund. 

Insiders at Old Mutual say negotiations will soon resume on the remaining 26%.

At the heart of Zanu-PF's pursuit of foreign banks is a belief that they deliberately refuse to fund farmers resettled under its land reform campaign and emerging black businesses.

Before the launch of "fast-track land reform" in 2000, 80% of all bank lending went into agriculture, according to a report last year by the African Development Bank. But farm loans now account for only 22% of all bank lending.

Hit by a liquidity crisis because of a poor-performing economy, the banks have little to lend and are reluctant to lend money to farmers who do not have title to the land that they can put up as security.

Who benefits from the empowerment deals?

Zimbabwe's empowerment laws aim to benefit a broad base of "previously disadvantaged" people by selling stock to workers, communities and black investors.

The beneficiaries must be black Zimbabweans.

The law defines an "indigenous Zimbabwean" as any person who was disadvantaged before independence on the basis of race.

The law states that 51% must be sold to locals but it leaves it to the empowerment minister to decide how to distribute that stake.

In deals struck with the government so far, beneficiaries have been communities, workers and staff, with the larger chunks going to a government trust.

This is where critics see politically linked investors pushing themselves to the front of the queue.

Investors can sell only to "designated entities", such as the state empowerment fund, which transfers stock to approved shareholders.

Empowerment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere has said it is "unacceptable" for foreign investors to pick their own empowerment partners. The national indigenisation and economic empowerment board picks "suitable" investors.

Communities hold mining shares worth more than $1-billion, which shows that the "greatest beneficiaries of the programme are not well-to-do individuals but broad masses", Kasukuwere says.

The community trusts are run jointly by the company and local leaders, among them traditional chiefs, district administrators and MPs.

In the Zimplats deal, valued at $971-million, staff and communities received 10% each. The empowerment fund received 31%. But investors will not pay for the shares upfront. Zimplats provides them with "vendor financing" at 10%, repayable from 85% of future dividends. In addition, Zimplats is also providing $10-million for community projects.

The list of beneficiaries is longer in some deals. Old Mutual set aside 25% for staff, pensioners, policyholders, a youth fund and black investors. Policyholders got 10%, workers received 9% and the rest was placed in a youth development fund, which received a $10-million grant.

The company put up an additional $1-million, agreed to spend $15-million on 1 500 new houses in Harare's Budiriro township and contributed $40-million towards a housing fund. A 3.5% stake will be set aside for private partners, who are likely to be imposed on Old Mutual.


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Jason Moyo
Guest Author

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