Banking: To have and to have not in central Asia
Given the different macroeconomic and political backdrops, the region’s banking sectors are characterized by sharply differing business fundamentals and prospects. Guy Norton looks at some winners and losers.
IN ESSENCE THE story of the various banking sectors in central Asia is about the haves and the have-nots. In oil-rich states such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which have the most developed economies, the banks generally have money. By contrast, in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have yet to develop fully fledged market economies, the banks are generally strapped for cash. How else to explain the fact that you can get 18% interest on a three-month dollar deposit account at your average high street bank in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital? Those adventurous souls willing to take on the added risk of the exposure to the Tajikistani somoni can look forward to being even more handsomely rewarded – to the tune of 22% or so.
Whether that ranks as a savvy investment or a reckless punt is open to question, but the fact that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is a shareholder in Tajikistan’s leading lender, Agroinvestbank – whose website labels itself a responsible bank – should give would-be depositors a modicum of comfort. Or should it? Lest we forget, the EBRD was also a stakeholder in Kazakhstan’s one-time leading bank, BTA, which last year reported $14 billion of losses, mostly as a result of alleged fraudulent behaviour by the bank’s former management; almost went bankrupt before it was taken over by the Kazakh government in an emergency nationalization; and recently left investors wearing savage 80% haircuts on their Eurobond holdings after a controversial restructuring of its nearly $17 billion of liabilities.