By Arab News
By Frank Kane*
Every autumn, Citibank, the American banking giant, gathers together a group of journalists from Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at its headquarters in London’s Canary Wharf, and treats them to two days of on-the-record briefings on how Citi sees the world.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited for the past two years, and have to commend the bank on its initiative. I don’t think any other big financial institution embraces the letter of transparency and disclosure in such a way. Plenty pay lip service to such principles, but Citi comes good in practice.
This year’s event was dominated, inevitably, by the twin specters of Trump and Brexit, and I have to say the overall tone was quite pessimistic. Although Citi is confident of its own business — which has been through the post-crisis wringer and come out in good shape on the other side — it is not so optimistic about geopolitical, economic and trade prospects. Uncertainty lurks at every turn.
There is plenty to be worried about in the Middle East, what with the effect of low oil prices on regional economic growth and trade, as well as the ongoing threats to security in the region. But, for Citi, one bright spot is Saudi Arabia.
Sure, the bank’s analysts are under no illusion as to the challenges the Kingdom faces from low oil prices, and in implementing the national economic transformation required in the new environment.
Farouk Soussa, the bank’s chief Middle East economist, said that he struggled to see a stimulus for the Saudi economy when government spending was shrinking.
Non-oil GDP is down 2 percent in 2016 and will fall a further 1.5 percent next year, he said. Mr. Soussa expects a significant budget deficit in the Kingdom over the next three years.
But this is nowhere near a financial crisis, contrary to some of the gloomier prognoses. Saudi Arabia has lots of revenue streams and financial buffers, Mr. Soussa said, and deep reserves of capital. However, there will be more emphasis on borrowing and other forms of capital raising to preserve national resources.
Inevitably, some of this capital will come from foreign sources, and a regime to allow this to happen has already been initiated. Access to the Tadawul has been increased, with the stringent rules on foreign investors eased. Saudi Arabia now has one of the most permissive foreign investment regimes in the region, Mr. Soussa said.
Raising money in the global banking system is what Citi does for a living, so it’s no surprise that it sees Saudi Arabia as an opportunity. It has already played a big role in two capital raising exercises this year — as part of a 15-strong syndicate of banks that helped raise a $10 billion loan for the Kingdom in April, and as one of the three global coordinators, along with HSBC and JP Morgan Chase, that organized the record-breaking $17.5 billion bond issue in October.
Because of the confidentiality clauses involved in the bond issue, Citi executives at the London summit were constrained as to what they could say about Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, they were enthusiastic about Middle East capital markets and the bank’s role in them.
“We expect to see growing business in the Middle East, particularly from the oil exporting countries where capital raising is picking up momentum,” said Jim Cowles, chief executive of the EMEA region.
Phil Drury, head of EMEA capital markets origination for Citi, said: “We are very focused on the region and so we can be helpful to issuers there.”
All of which begs the question: will there be a role for Citi in the forthcoming Saudi Aramco IPO, seen as a crucial phase of the Kingdom’s transformation plan?
This is not as straightforward as you might think. To act as an adviser on an Aramco flotation, Citi would have to be authorized by the Capital Market Authority (CMA). It has not been licensed by the CMA since 2004, when it sold its stake in Samba Financial Group, a decision branded a “mistake” since then, and implicitly recognized as such in 2010 when Citi tried unsuccessfully to get a new license.
It seems a no-brainer. As its role in this year’s capital raisings has shown, Citi can do a job for Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom can make use of Citi’s global banking expertise.
Rival banking executives I’ve spoken to since the London summit are convinced Citi is close to a formal return to Saudi Arabia via a CMA “authorized persons” license.
I’ve no idea if the bank has even applied for one, but if not, it should consider it, seriously and urgently.
*Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. He can be reached on Twitter @frankkanedubai