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Monday, July 26, 2010

Doing the right thing - as oil money spills out of Ghanaian banks

One can visualize the situation, in which insecurity prevails and trust is a scarce commodity.

Energy analysts report that Crude Oil and Natural Gas are both at important junctures in Ghana and are poised for exciting moves. Opportunity is calling. We've just thrown open the doors to some of the multinational, well-capitalized and too-big-to-ignore banks to again test commonsense among Ghanaian owned and managed banks

Sadly, there is a local policy debate, really an ideological struggle between sometimes utopian idealists and mainly orthodox pragmatists. This is accompanied by much noise, where steely (if velvety) determination matters most. Other than this Big Theme staring us in the face, there are unknown future events capable of flooring us anew in our own backyard as far as the oil revenue is concerned.

Though playfully engaging with all and sundry, the policy orthodoxy seems intend on regaining and preserving some measure of strength for local banks and restoring government finances to health, with parastatals and private local banks required to deliver key financial services to the oil and its related businesses.

Probably tied up with this is the ideological policy struggle playing out daily, in which some individuals within the financial services industry favour returning to failed past practices by reducing trade protection, under-subsidizing struggling sectors, picking industrial winners (irrespective of their origin), and reducing systemic support, besides yet higher government spending. This spectacle can be intimidating, raising unsound economic ownership risk perceptions, potentially influencing economic agents negatively.

On these many scores pragmatism seems daily engaged with wishful thinking in ‘robust’ debate and the outcome often in doubt. Yet noise levels won’t necessarily determine ultimate choices. Common sense apparently remains the main currency, as do accepted global policy norms in all successful oil producing countries especially in Africa.

This clash, though, may cause some growth sacrifice if it inhibits risk-taking and replacement decisions. However, if pursued in the best interest of the state, not even a single (both local and multinational) will lose out.

The oil business plays well into the hands of banks and insurance companies with healthy balance sheets and other great financial essentials. This is how the oil business sustains itself. It is not going to be different on our shores. We need to reform ourselves especially within and among Ghanaian financial institutions. It is up to us (specifically leaders of local banks and insurance companies) to act tactically and show some shrewdness to be in the right position to contain much of what is to flow out of the oil and gas production. Some spinners and speculators with links to well capitalized multinational banks continue to downplay the need for some serious merger moves among local financial institutions. They often sound as though a rural bank in Ghana can meaningfully engage in the oil and gas industry knowing very well that not even a single local commercial and investment bank can on its own get a real deal out of the oil business.

The point here is not about protectionism. It has nothing to do with providing unleveled playground for non-Ghanaian banks and Insurance companies. It only seeks to place Ghana, the land on which the oil will flow and Ghanaians, the people who will have to grapple with the concomitant effects of oil production at the centre of the oil revenue.

It is a great feeling to see Nigerian financial institutions doing so well in Africa. Some Energy and Financial Analyst contend that this should have happened to Nigeria several decades ago. It did not happen due to one very important factor. It is well documented that as at the time Nigeria started oil and gas production, most of its banks and insurance companies had no clue that they could not derive any real benefits from the industry. So for many decades, they lived and operated as tiny, ill-resourced and small-cap separate entities. Then came the moment. They merged and used their synergy to win significant deals. This really transformed them into international brands. Today, their dominance on the continent is visible and appears unmatched. Their operations stretch as far as Europe, and the Middle East. A lesson has been learnt.

Ghanaian owned banks and insurance companies must learn from the Nigerian experience. It is indeed a rich experience. Rich to such an extent that it will place them in the same position Nigerian financial institutions find themselves in Africa and beyond.

The Ghana Stock Exchange all-share Index rose by nearly five percent (5%) in the third quarter of 2009 when news filtered through that two of the local banks (Fidelity & The Trust Bank) were in a serious merger talks. Most analysts hailed that as a positive sign of Ghana’s readiness to start its oil production on the right track. Sadly, that did not happen. There were similar talk among others in the same category but failed to produce any real deal on the ground.

This development within the financial services sector is starting to worry me a little. History-derived economic models show that the oil and gas production starts to change the behaviour of nations as it fails to strength its economic base. If Ghana’s oil and gas production is going to crunch the local banks and insurance companies more than normally, the fragile economic growth may be about to be derailed.

Our Ghanaian banks must find a common ground to merge and transform themselves into big corporate players else we may be witnessing the sad spectacle of “All the oil leaving Ghana wells and the dipsticks stretching as long as from the far east and the west. This situation is only avoidable if we seek to think as strategists, eschew infantile corporate rivalry and get together.

By Rocky Obeng, (Richard Ebbah Obeng)
Chief Financial Analyst (Trust Consult Gh.) & Associate (JP Morgan Chase, South Africa)

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