Nigeria stands out for punishing its banks at a time when most other countries are giving lenders extra leeway to fight the economic fallout of the coronavirus, according to Fitch Ratings.
“The Central Bank of Nigeria has been highly interventionist,” Mahin Dissanayake, senior director for Europe, Middle East and Africa bank ratings at Fitch, said in an interview.
But there are some positives. Having about 21 major banks serve a population of about 200 million in a $450 billion economy gives lenders a solid market position, he said. This strong revenue-generating capacity enables lenders to absorb the higher cost of risk even when income from interest charges on loans deteriorate.
Where peers like South Africa and Kenya followed the global trend of giving banks more room to lend, Nigeria hasn’t budged. Instead, it stuck with a cash reserve ratio that compels lenders to park 27.5% of their deposits with the central bank at zero interest as it seeks to curb the money supply and keep inflation in check.
Failure to meet the threshold results in the regulator debiting banks’ accounts with the shortfall. The central bank also dips into the accounts when lenders fail to extend 65% of their deposits as loans, a measure that was introduced to stimulate credit.
That and other penalties push the effective hit on capital to between 40% and 50%, Dissanayake said. “The CRR is unique and hugely punitive” because the cash could’ve been put to better use than lying idle with the central bank.
The rules “are aimed at two different monetary policies,” he said. “They are conflicting.”
Anya Duroha, the chief executive officer of Lagos-based Nova Merchant Bank Ltd., expressed some sympathy for the central bank, which he said was “trying to solve all kinds of problems in the economy.”
A spokesman for Nigeria’s central bank didn’t respond to a text message seeking comment that he requested.
Fitch revised its outlook for Nigerian banks to negative toward the end of last year as the economy started slowing and the central bank ramped up intervention.
“Nigerian banks compared to other markets operate in a volatile environment,” Dissanayake said. “The banks have to deal with economic shocks, short credit cycles and persistent problems in the oil sector. They also have to deal with policy actions, policy uncertainty and regulatory risks.”
The first half of the year saw banks book large trading and foreign-exchange reevaluation gains that shielded them from lower yields on government-bond holdings, slower loan growth and less client activity. But the fallout from the Covid-19 outbreak may show in the second half, weighing on 2020 earnings.
“On the revenue side, we forecast about a 20% decline,” Dissanayake said. “Profitability is going to decline, but the degree depends on the extent of loan-impairment charges recognized in the year and the size of trading and translation gains.”