Biometric Payment Authentication (BPA) – Corporate Banking Transactions: Pakistan Perspective

1. Introduction

The term ‘authentication’, describes the process of verifying the identity of a person or entity. Within the domain of corporate e-banking systems, the authentication process is one method used to control access to corporate customer accounts and transaction processing. Authentication is typically dependent upon corporate customer users providing valid identification data followed by one or more authentication credentials (factors) to prove their identity.

Customer identifiers may be user ID / password, or some form of user ID / token device. An authentication factor (e.g. PIN, password and token response algorithm) is secret or unique information linked to a specific customer identifier that is used to verify that identity.

Generally, the way to authenticate customers is to have them present some sort of factor to prove their identity. Authentication factors include one or more of the following:

Something a person knows – commonly a password or PIN. If the user types in the correct password or PIN, access is granted

Something a person has – most commonly a physical device referred to as a token. Tokens include self-contained devices that must be physically connected to a computer or devices that have a small screen where a one-time password (OTP) is displayed or can be generated after inputting PIN, which the user must enter to be authenticated

Something a person is – most commonly a physical characteristic, such as a fingerprint. This type of authentication is referred to as “biometrics” and often requires the installation of specific hardware on the system to be accessed

Authentication methodologies are numerous and range from simple to complex. The level of security provided varies based upon both the technique used and the manner in which it is deployed. Multifactor authentication utilizes two or more factors to verify customer identity and allows corporate e-banking user to authorize payments. Authentication methodologies based upon multiple factors can be more difficult to compromise and should be considered for high-risk situations. The effectiveness of a particular authentication technique is dependent upon the integrity of the selected product or process and the manner in which it is implemented and managed.

‘Something a person is’

Biometric technologies identify or authenticate the identity of a living person on the basis of a physiological characteristic (something a person is). Physiological characteristics include fingerprints, iris configuration, and facial structure. The process of introducing people into a biometrics-based system is called ‘enrollment’. In enrollment, samples of data are taken from one or more physiological characteristics; the samples are converted into a mathematical model, or template; and the template is registered into a database on which a software application can perform analysis.

Once enrolled, customers interact with the live-scan process of the biometrics technology. The live scan is used to identify and authenticate the customer. The results of a live scan, such as a fingerprint, are compared with the registered templates stored in the system. If there is a match, the customer is authenticated and granted access.

Biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint, can be used as part of a multifactor authentication system, combined with a password (something a person knows) or a token (something a person has). Currently in Pakistan, mostly banks are using two-factor authentications i.e. PIN and token in combination with user ID.

Fingerprint recognition technologies analyze global pattern schemata on the fingerprint, along with small unique marks known as minutiae, which are the ridge endings and bifurcations or branches in the fingerprint ridges. The data extracted from fingerprints are extremely dense and the density explains why fingerprints are a very reliable means of identification. Fingerprint recognition systems store only data describing the exact fingerprint minutiae; images of actual fingerprints are not retained.

Banks in Pakistan offering Internet-based products and services to their customers should use effective methods for high-risk transactions involving access to customer information or the movement of funds to other parties or any other financial transactions. The authentication techniques employed by the banks should be appropriate to the risks associated with those products and services. Account fraud and identity theft are frequently the result of single-factor (e.g. ID/password) authentication exploitation. Where risk assessments indicate that the use of single-factor authentication is inadequate, banks should implement multifactor authentication, layered security, or other controls reasonably calculated to mitigate those risks.

Although some of the Banks especially the major multinational banks has started to use two-factor authentication but keeping in view the information security, additional measure needs to be taken to avoid any unforeseen circumstances which may result in financial loss and reputation damage to the bank.

There are a variety of technologies and methodologies banks use to authenticate customers. These methods include the use of customer passwords, personal identification numbers (PINs), digital certificates using a public key infrastructure (PKI), physical devices such as smart cards, one-time passwords (OTPs), USB plug-ins or other types of tokens.

However addition to these technologies, biometric identification can be an added advantage for the two-factor authentication:

a) as an additional layer of security

b) cost effective

Existing authentication methodologies used in Pakistani Banks involve two basic factors:

i. Something the user knows (e.g. password, PIN)

ii. Something the user has (e.g. smart card, token)

This paper research proposes the use of another layer which is biometric characteristic such as a fingerprint in combination to the above.

So adding this we will get the below authentication methodologies:

i. Something the user knows (e.g. password, PIN)

ii. Something the user has (e.g. smart card, token)

iii. Something the user is (e.g. biometric characteristic, such as a fingerprint)

The success of a particular authentication method depends on more than the technology. It also depends on appropriate policies, procedures, and controls. An effective authentication method should have customer acceptance, reliable performance, scalability to accommodate growth, and interoperability with existing systems and future plans.

2. Methodology

The methodologies applied in this paper build on a two-step approach. First, through my past experience working in Cash Management department of a leading multinational bank, implementing electronic banking solutions for corporate clients throughout Pakistan and across geographies.

Secondly, consulting and interviewing friends working in Cash Management departments of other banks in Pakistan and Middle East for better understanding of the technology used in the market; its benefits and consequences for successful implementations.

3. Implementation in Pakistan

Biometric Payment Authentication (BPA) i.e. biometric characteristic, such as a fingerprint for authorizing financial transactions on corporate e-Banking platform implementation in Pakistan will be discussed in this section. First the descriptive, then the economic benefit analysis for adopting the presented methodology.

As technology is very much advanced today, fingerprint scanners are now readily available on almost every laptop or a stand-alone scanning device may be attached to a computer. Also with the advent of smart phones, now the fingerprint scanner is available on phones as well (e.g. Apple iPhone, Samsung mobile sets etc)

In Pakistan, end users shouldn’t have trouble using a fingerprint-scanning device on a laptop or on a smart phone as all work which needs to be done has to be done by banks introducing this methodology.

Besides this Pakistan is a perfect location to implement biometrics based authentication, mainly because:

a. CNICs are issued after taking the citizen’s biometric information – especially fingerprints

b. Telco companies needs to maintain and validate an individual’s fingerprints before issuing a SIM card

These examples show that a large population Pakistan is already familiar and comfortable with biometrics (fingerprints) methodology. However, banks have to develop their e-banking portal or application in accordance with and by accepting fingerprints for corporate users. The e-banking portal would invoke the fingerprint device of the end user for either login or authenticating financial transactions. Enrollment can be performed either remotely through first time login into e-banking platform after user has received setup instructions and passwords or at the bank’s customer service center.

This article suggests banks in Pakistan to move multifactor authentication through PIN and; fingerprints. Fingerprints are unique and complex enough to provide a robust template for authentication. Using multiple fingerprints from the same individual affords a greater degree of accuracy. Fingerprint identification technologies are among the most mature and accurate of the various biometric methods of identification.

Now let’s discuss the economic benefits of using PIN and; fingerprints instead of token devices for authentications. And before we deep dive into the statistics, first just look into the current process of token inventory ordering to its delivery to the end user and then its maintenance if any token is lost or faulty.

Mostly banks in Pakistan order and import tokens from a US based company called ‘VASCO Data Security International Inc.’. Once order is placed, the VASCO ships the token to the respective ordering bank and the bank receives the tokens after clearing the custom duties. Banks settles the invoices of VASCO by sending back the amount through outward remittance along with the courier charges. Banks then initialize the token and upon customer written request issues the token to an end user. The token is couriered to the end user and training is conducted via phone or physical visit of the bank’s representative to the customer office. Any lost or faulty token are replaced with new ones and again couriered to end users. Tokens are returned back to banks if any end user resigns their organization or is being moved into some other role that doesn’t involve banking related operations or use of e-banking platform.

Theoretically it seems pretty simple, but practically these are very time consuming activities and cost is associated to each and every step mentioned above.

Now, let’s do some cost calculation which are associated to the above activities and build some statistics so that cost benefit analysis can be done.

Currently, some of the banks in Pakistan, locally, have introduced fingerprint recognition technologies to authenticate ATM users and are in the phase of eliminating the need for an ATM card which will eventually help banks in cost saving of replacing lost or stolen cards.

Cost calculations are approximations and not to be taken as true cost for any budgeting.

3.1. Descriptive Statistics

The descriptive statistics for token inventory ordering to its delivery to the end user and then its maintenance if any token is lost or faulty (statistics built on roughly 1000 tokens consumption per year per bank) are shown in the below statistics.

Descriptive Statistics

Tokens Cost (1000 tokens) 15,000USD (1,569,000PKR)

Custom Duty 4,610USD (482,206PKR)

Courier to End User 922USD (96,441PKR)

Training Cost 7376 (771,530PKR)

Total 27908USD (2,919,177PKR)

The above stats shows that, approximately 28000USD (amount in USD rounding off to thousands) is spent on tokens by a single bank which can easily be saved if the token is replaced by fingerprints. It’s not only cost saving for a bank but also ease off banks in administration and maintenance.

Forex interbank rates as of December 23, 2016 http://www.forex.com.pk

4. Change Management Grid

Stage One: “Coming to Grips with the Problem”

Mind-set (Thinking/Understanding)

a. Currently banks are paying lots of cost on physical token purchasing which can easily be eliminated by using biometric methodology such as fingerprints.

Motivation (Emotional/Intuitive Dynamics)

a. The current old methodology of token ordering takes time and cost till it reach banks. Then specific training needs to be conducted for end users for token device activation and usage. Maintenance is another huge activity for banks. As biometric scanners are easily available on laptops and smarts phone therefore this new change is easily achievable without any huge cost. Fingerprint authentication will ease end users from remembering too many password and they have not to carry the physical devices along with them all the time.

Behavior (Capability)

a. Banks in Pakistan needs to be visited and proper presentations will be conducted to brief their I.T. team with this easy to and; secure technology, finance team for the cost benefits and to their operations team about reducing their operation maintenance.

b. Demos will also be arranged to show in live how this new technology assist banks.

c. End user will have to use fingerprint to login or authenticate transactions instead of using physical tokens.

Stage Two: “Working through the Change”

Mind-set (Thinking/Understanding)

a. Biometric authentication will help banks to reduce cost and reduce operational hassle. This technology will also ease off end users with their day to day e-banking activities. Proper training to the bank concerned team will be conducted. End user will also be guided with the fingerprint enrollment.

Motivation (Emotional/Intuitive Dynamics)

a. Banks has to invest first to adopt this new technology but this will eventually help them to reduce the recurring cost and operational maintenance.

b. End users will no more have to carry any gadgets and will perform banking activities with a touch of a finger.

Behavior (Capability)

a. Post implementation reviews will help banks about the feedback of their customer whom have started using the new technology and client experience will help banks to enhance their product.

b. With fingerprint technology, corporate customer will no more have to pay any additional cost for requesting tokens.

Stage Three: “Attaining and; Sustaining Improvement”

Mind-set (Thinking/Understanding)

a. Banks to hold Client experience forums which will assist them on customer feedbacks and also give new ideas on any future enhancements.

b. Banks to update Departmental Operating Instructions (DOI) for employees, emphasizing on their roles and responsibilities across this new technology.

Motivation (Emotional/Intuitive Dynamics)

a. Banks can launch reward campaign for employees who will successfully migrate the e-banking users from token to fingerprints technology.

b. Likewise some promotion of fee waivers can also be offered to customers for availing this technology.

Behavior (Capability)

a. Training and; retraining to be conduct for any new bank staff or existing staff to emphasize the benefits of biometric authentication.

b. Customer can be retrained or refreshed about this technology by send regular product brochures and short videos on trainings.

c. Quarterly feedback will be conducted across all customers to assess their knowledge for the biometric authentication and gather new ideas on future enhancements.

5. Monitoring / Evaluating

Banks being a service oriented industry always focus on ‘Customer First’. Through client experience forums customer feedbacks will be attained and issues, if any, faced will be addressed through keen follow-ups and final feedback on will be taken from customer upon resolution.

Post implementation review will give a clearer picture of the new biometric methodology implemented and will also get further view points for future enhancements.

6. Conclusion

This study aims to examine the replacement of physical token usage of corporate e-banking platform users with the end users fingerprints for their login into e-banking channel and financial transactions authentication. Findings of this study reveal that this new technology will not be only beneficial for the banks in cost and; maintenance perspective but will also ease corporate end users with a peace of mind of not remembering too many passwords or carrying the physical token wherever they roam.

Charting the Waters at Cordell Bank

Until 1978, no diver had explored the Cordell Bank. This extraordinary place is now a National Marine Sanctuary. There’s an interesting history behind how this part of the ocean off the coast of California, northwest of San Francisco became a sanctuary.

The bank was discovered by George Davidson while conducting surveys along California’s north coast in 1853. Sixteen years later, in 1869, a more extensive survey was conducted by Edward Cordell, after whom the bank was named. What follows is some of the experiences shared by the first divers to view the bank.

At 150 feet, air bubbles slide out of my regulator sounding like gravel being poured from a metal bucket. We are 20 miles from the nearest shore on a ridgetop of a large Pacific seamount named the Cordell Bank and the scene below is incredibly bright. Anemone, hydrocoral, sponges, and algae cover everything in sight, in many places growing on top of each other.

While collecting some of these organisms, we are suddenly flushed with a euphoric giddiness. We try to smile, but numb lips and the regulator make the effort that much sillier. Struggling to control the narcosis, we keep collecting and exploring. All too soon, however, my buddy waves a thumbs-up in front of my mask. Now, where’s the ascent line? A flashing strobe catches my eye and I swim toward it. The line’s there, so we follow our bubbles – but not to the surface. At 10 feet, we both grab the regulators of full scuba tanks. The decompression wait seems eternal as we can hardly wait to tell the others about our dive to where no one has been before.

These experiences were shared with the author from Robert Schmeider, Ph.D., of Walnut Creek, California, who was obsessed with the exploration of Cordell Bank. In 1977, while studying a chart of northern California’s coastline, this atomic physicist became intrigued by Cordell Bank, which is 20 miles (32 km) due west of Point Reyes and to the northwest of San Francisco. The chart showed there was at least one shallow place with a depth of 20 fathoms or 120 feet (37 meters). It could be dived using regular scuba tanks, so Schmeider assumed it had been. But when he asked a few diving friends if they had ever been there, he discovered none had. So he talked to people with the Coast Guard, the Navy, the California Academy of Sciences, the University of California at Berkeley, the Department Fish and Game, the Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others. After a couple of months, Bob realized to his amazement, no one knew much about the bank at all. The idea of exploring Cordell Bank soon became a serious goal.

But Bob expected many dangers. Deep-diving can always be dangerous, especially with compressed air scuba diving due to the possibility of nitrogen narcosis and decompression problems. Additionally, he knew the water was cold, and a fairly stiff current of one or two knots ran in the area. Two knots is nearly impossible to do any work in. To make matters even worse he expected to encounter lots of sharks, including great whites since Cordell Bank lies about midway between Tomales Bay and the Farallon Islands, both places where great whites are known to congregate.

The fisherman in Bodega Bay knew the Bank well as an excellent fishing area, so Bob lined up a boat and skipper from there. After extensive discussions with several of his regular diving partners, he announced his plan to divers in the Sierra Club’s Loma Prieta chapter from the San Francisco Bay area in October of 1977. He knew exploring the bank would require a large support group. At an organizational meeting held in the U.S. Geological Survey chambers in Menlo Park, the group elected a divemaster and all but one of the 40 people attending pitched in $40 a piece to kick off Cordell Bank Expeditions.

After a few practice dives at Monterey and at the Farallon Islands, Bob felt his group was ready to go to Cordell Bank. Unfortunately, he ran into numerous difficulties. Most importantly, a number of divers had dropped out of the group, so Bob had trouble gathering enough divers for a trip. Finally, on October 20, 1978, with just five divers, Bob made it to Cordell Bank.

As Bob recalls, “What we saw on that day absolutely astonished us. We were totally unprepared for the light level. Not only was it not dark, it was incredibly light. After I made the first dive with a buddy, I told the other drivers not to take their lights, as they simply would not need them. It was so light you could almost read. And we had been to a depth of close to 150 feet.”

“There were enormous aggregates of 12-inch (30 cm) fish swimming around above the pinnacle. To us, it seemed an incredible snowstorm of fish. When we finally broke through the fish on our way down, our entire field of vision was just filled with this miraculous sight. We could see colors – reds and oranges and yellows – and the rocks were covered, just inundated, with organisms. Sponges, especially Corynactics (Strawberry anemone), pink hydrocoral, hydroids, and a lot of large-bladed algae. It looked as if someone had landscaped it. We were just overwhelmed.”

On the first dive, they collected nearly 50 species, including at least one new genus of algae and one new species. By working closely with a number of professional biologists at the University of California at Berkeley, the California Academy of Sciences, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Geological Survey, the Smithsonian, and other institutions, they sorted and identified their new collections until the list included more than 400 species.

After that first dive, made possible by the Sierra Club divers and by grants from such organizations as the San Francisco Foundation and the National Geographic Society, the Cordell Bank Expeditions evolved into a member-supported, systematic, data-gathering organization that bought its own research vessel, the Cordell Explorer, which was retired in 2014. They bought a LORAN-C receiver and carried out depth surveys back and forth across certain areas, measuring depths and recording positions. From that data, they were able to generate their own set of charts. Those charts became a major help in carrying out more successful dives, as they could more reliably find the pinnacles and ridges they wanted to dive. In the summer of 1985, Bob and a colleague were able to obtain state-of-the-art hydrographic survey data on the Bank as a result of a project conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). That survey covered the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the coast that the U.S. claims control over. Cordell Bank may well be the best-surveyed feature off the coast of North America.

Aside from collecting specimens and surveying, the expedition also used 35-millimeter photography, plus Super 8-millimeter, 16-millimeter, and videotape cinematography. Some of their photographs have been useful in identifying species that didn’t show up in their collections and in showing physical features the divers may not have noticed during their dives.

They have found this seamount is roughly elliptical and, at the 50-fathom depth, it is 9-1/2 miles long by 4-½ miles wide (15.3 x 7.25 km). It lies right on the edge of the continental shelf and is the northernmost such shallow place all the way to Canada. The bank is a distinct plateau with its flat top rising to the 30- to 35-fathom depth. Atop this plateau, at least four cliffy ridge systems, two in the north and two in the south, and several pinnacles reach to diveable depths. In fact, the shallowest point the expedition has found is about 19 fathoms (114 feet or 35 meters) and is part of a ridge system in the northeast. Geologically, it is considered a piece of the ancient Sierra Nevada that was sheared off by the Pacific Plate, thus explaining its granite composition.

Growing on this 19-fathom peak is a dense, whitish cap of barnacles and red algae. Below this, from 20 to 25 fathoms (36.6 to 45.7 meters), the sessile community grades to nearly foot-thick piles of sponges, anemones, including the common Strawberry Anemone Corynactis californica, California Hydrocoral Allopora californica, hydroids, and tunicates. Space is the limiting factor. The organisms are very brightly colored with reds, yellow, white, and pinks. At 30 fathoms (55 meters), the community thins to a few large, widely spaced creatures, mainly sponges, urchins, and anemone. By 35 fathoms (64 meters), bare rock dominates the scene. Around 200 feet in various places, brilliant white sediments of almost a hundred percent shell fragments accumulate.

The Cordell Bank community is very healthy showing little evidence of disease or death because the California Current brings clean, clear, cold (50 to 55 degrees F. or 10 to 13 degrees C.) water, with a high nutrient content, upwelling to the relatively shallow bank. When the disruptive El Niño current occurs off California’s coast, the water temperatures at the bank rise to over 60 degrees F. or 15.6 degrees C. The sun’s rays penetrate this water so deeply divers can take photographs using available light at 150 feet (46 meters). Visibility is sometimes as good as 100 feet (30.5 meters). Because of the water’s clarity and nutrient load, photosynthesizing organisms support a vast and complex food chain up to large fish, birds, and mammals.

Cordell Bank has long been known as a superb fishing area. Groups of rockfish congregate around the pinnacles, sometimes so thickly, divers report whiteout conditions. Besides rockfish, sport fishermen regularly catch lingcod, yellowtail, salmon, albacore, and shark. Oddly enough, the divers have yet to see great white sharks, in spite of the fact that the great white’s favorite prey, seals and sea lions, are at the bank. They have, however, seen blue and mako sharks.

Like rockfish, seabirds often congregate around the pinnacles, and it was just such gatherings that enabled the expedition to initially home in on shallow points to dive. On surveying and diving trips since 1978, volunteer observers from the California Marine Mammal Center and San Francisco State University have recorded many sightings of seabirds and mammals at or near Cordell Bank. They’ve seen 33 species of seabirds including black-footed albatross, northern fulmar, surf scoter, south polar skua, common murre, pigeon guillemot, tufted puffin, and brown pelican. The previously endangered brown pelican was particularly noteworthy because it was sighted on about two-thirds of the trips.

The observers also recorded fourteen kinds of marine mammals. Of special interest were two endangered cetaceans, the humpback and blue whales. Both species feed at the bank. The team’s most exciting encounter with blues occurred on October 10, 1982, when a pair approached from off the port bow, surfaced 30 yards away, visibly swam under the ship, and surfaced again several hundred yards astern. Marc Webber and Steven Cooper, reporting for the group, felt the number of blue whale sightings “represents a substantial number of records for this species over the continental shelf in the Cordell Bank area, and along with probable observation of feeding suggest this area is an important autumn habitat for this species.” Also of particular interest were sightings of northern elephant seals whose pelagic habits have only recently become better understood. Other observed mammal species were Minke whale, Dall’s porpoise, harbor porpoise, orca, Pacific white-sided dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, Northern right whale dolphin, California sea lion, Steller sea lion, northern fur seal, and harbor seal. These have all been autumnal observations. The expedition has restricted their trips to the autumn because the weather is most predictable at that time and because the California and Davidson currents more or less cancel each other out, which makes diving more practical.

The greatest mysteries Bob and his divers have encountered are a number of large, cylindrical holes that lie right on the sharpest, highest parts of the region. Some holes appear to be man-made, but others look natural. Hearsay has it the holes were made by the U.S. Navy during the 1960’s in a project related to submarine detection. Bob’s expedition was once followed for nearly an hour by an unidentified submarine. In spite of his security clearance, Bob has been totally unsuccessful in learning anything from the Navy about any of this.

Cordell Bank is now a national marine sanctuary. The Sanctuary Programs Division (SPD) of NOAA, which is in charge of the sanctuaries program held its first informational hearing on the bank in San Francisco on April 25, 1984, and published a draft Environmental Impact Statement and other documents.

Bob is optimistic about Cordell Bank’s future. He believes, “It’s incumbent upon those of us who wish to preserve certain areas of our environment like museums, to set up the legislation to protect those areas. We don’t give any thought whatsoever to commercially developing Yosemite because it’s become part of our national environment, our cultural heritage. And our marine sanctuaries will become the same way. I hope and believe that 50 or 100 years from now, areas like Cordell Bank, which had long since been designated marine sanctuaries, will be part of our national heritage and will be considered inviolate.”

Offshore Banking Services

Banking is one of the most important sectors of the world economy as it influences investment, consumption and other business activities. Furthermore, banking has a substantial impact on the circulation of money and thus influences economic growth. Offshore banking provides a unique opportunity to individuals, business people and companies to access the international market and implement their business and investment plans since offshore banking encompasses stronger privacy and security features. That is to say, the activities you launch through your offshore private banking are more confidential and secure. It should be underlined that you will be able to offer the same privacy to your customers together with other related benefits.

The procedures you need to follow in order to open an offshore bank account are not complex. In other words, every individual may open an offshore bank account within few hours. Note that each offshore banking jurisdiction has its own requirements. Among the most popular offshore banking centres are the Cayman Islands, Seychelles, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Bahamas, Gibraltar and Netherlands Antilles.

BASIC REQUIREMENTS:

As it has been mentioned before, opening an offshore bank account is rather simple. The procedures you need to follow in order to open an offshore bank account are similar to the procedures you follow in order to open a bank account in your home country. First of all, offshore banks will ask for your personal details: name, date of birth, address, citizenship, occupation and submit a copy of your passport, identity card or any other identification document issued by a governmental authority. Second of all, you will have to verify you residence address by presenting a utility bill or any other document. It should be mentioned that all the submitted documents must be certified.

Some considerable benefits of offshore banking are:

Minimised political risk. In many cases, the biggest threat is not the market risk but the governments, i.e. capital controls measures and bail-ins.
Asset protection.
Currency diversification. Holding foreign currencies leads to the minimisation of the risks you confront.
More options for your business and investment plans.

JURISDICTIONS:

Cayman Islands:

One of the major advantages of the Cayman Islands is the political stability. The annual license fee is 9.000 US dollars. The international banking infrastructure is well-developed with many facilities. Another considerable advantage of the Cayman Islands is the zero taxation on international banking income. Nevertheless, the state’s approach toward international private banks owned by non-banker is poor. Despite the fact the Cayman Islands have well-developed banking structures, the poor attitude towards international banks owned by non-bankers discourages many investors and business people to launch offshore banking activities in the Cayman Islands.

Seychelles:

The major advantage of Seychelles is confidentiality since state authorities have no direct access to bank information without a Court order. Note that Seychelles has double tax treaties with Barbados, Botswana, China, Cyprus, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, Oman, Qatar, South Africa, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Vietnam. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that Seychelles has signed Tax Information Exchange Agreements only with the Netherlands.

Saint Vincent and Grenadines:

The country maintains a degree of flexibility and confidentiality that many bank owners prefer. In particular, confidentiality regarding the incorporation and the launch of business of an International Banking License has been ensured by the Confidential Relationships Preservation (International Finance) Act 1996 and by the International Banks Act 1996. Among the major advantages of Saint Vincent and Grenadines is the absence of exchange control restrictions to offshore transactions and stamp duties. Furthermore, there are no corporate taxes, no income tax, no withholding tax, no capital gain tax and no estate/inheritance/succession duties.

The country has political stability, well-developed international banking infrastructures and skillful labour force.

The International Banks Act 1996 issues the following licenses:

Class I Offshore Banking License: The Licensee is involved in offshore banking activities outside the country. The minimum class requirement for Class I license is 500.000 US dollars.
Class II Offshore Banking License: The Licensee is engaged in offshore banking with individuals or groups detailed described in a written undertaking. The minimum class requirement for Class I license is 100.000 US dollars.

Bahamas:

Bahamas is considered one of the most attractive international banking centres in the world because of its excellent communications systems and the frequent air and sea connections with the USA. In addition, the country has a well-developed banking secrecy legislation. It should be taken into account that there are no taxes on international banking income.

There are two types of licenses, the unrestricted and restricted license. The unrestricted license can be obtained by private individual given that they can prove that they have a considerably high net worth. On the other point of view, restricted licenses are granted to financial institutions. Note that a restricted license enables the holder to offer banking and trust services exclusively to a particular class of associated individuals or businesses.

Gibraltar:

Gibraltar is a full member of the European Union. Therefore, banks incorporated in Gibraltar operate under the same legal framework as the banks in the UK. Nevertheless, Gibraltar has some additional advantages such as the efficient and effective bureaucratic procedures. Moreover, banks may operate completely free of tax.

Eastern European Banking Model

A traditional banking model in a CEEC (Central and Eastern European Country) consisted of a central bank and several purpose banks, one dealing with individuals’ savings and other banking needs, and another focusing on foreign financial activities, etc. The central bank provided most of the commercial banking needs of enterprises in addition to other functions. During the late 1980s, the CEECs modified this earlier structure by taking all the commercial banking activities of the central bank and transferring them to new commercial banks. In most countries the new banks were set up along industry lines, although in Poland a regional approach has been adopted.

On the whole, these new stale-owned commercial banks controlled the bulk of financial transactions, although a few ‘de novo banks’ were allowed in Hungary and Poland. Simply transferring existing loans from the central bank to the new state-owned commercial banks had its problems, since it involved transferring both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ assets. Moreover, each bank’s portfolio was restricted to the enterprise and industry assigned to them and they were not allowed to deal with other enterprises outside their remit.

As the central banks would always ‘bale out’ troubled state enterprises, these commercial banks cannot play the same role as commercial banks in the West. CEEC commercial banks cannot foreclose on a debt. If a firm did not wish to pay, the state-owned enterprise would, historically, receive further finance to cover its difficulties, it was a very rare occurrence for a bank to bring about the bankruptcy of a firm. In other words, state-owned enterprises were not allowed to go bankrupt, primarily because it would have affected the commercial banks, balance sheets, but more importantly, the rise in unemployment that would follow might have had high political costs.

What was needed was for commercial banks to have their balance sheets ‘cleaned up’, perhaps by the government purchasing their bad loans with long-term bonds. Adopting Western accounting procedures might also benefit the new commercial banks.

This picture of state-controlled commercial banks has begun to change during the mid to late 1990s as the CEECs began to appreciate that the move towards market-based economies required a vibrant commercial banking sector. There are still a number of issues lo be addressed in this sector, however. For example, in the Czech Republic the government has promised to privatize the banking sector beginning in 1998. Currently the banking sector suffers from a number of weaknesses. A number of the smaller hanks appear to be facing difficulties as money market competition picks up, highlighting their tinder-capitalization and the greater amount of higher-risk business in which they are involved. There have also been issues concerning banking sector regulation and the control mechanisms that are available. This has resulted in the government’s proposal for an independent securities commission to regulate capital markets.

The privatization package for the Czech Republic’s four largest banks, which currently control about 60 percent of the sector’s assets, will also allow foreign banks into a highly developed market where their influence has been marginal until now. It is anticipated that each of the four banks will be sold to a single bidder in an attempt to create a regional hub of a foreign bank’s network. One problem with all four banks is that inspection of their balance sheets may throw up problems which could reduce the size of any bid. All four banks have at least 20 percent of their loans as classified, where no interest has been paid for 30 days or more. Banks could make provisions to reduce these loans by collateral held against them, but in some cases the loans exceed the collateral. Moreover, getting an accurate picture of the value of the collateral is difficult since bankruptcy legislation is ineffective. The ability to write off these bad debts was not permitted until 1996, but even if this route is taken then this will eat into the banks’ assets, leaving them very close to the lower limit of 8 percent capital adequacy ratio. In addition, the ‘commercial’ banks have been influenced by the action of the national bank, which in early 1997 caused bond prices to fall, leading to a fall in the commercial banks’ bond portfolios. Thus the banking sector in the Czech Republic still has a long way to go.

In Hungary the privatization of the banking sector is almost complete. However, a state rescue package had to be agreed at the beginning of 1997 for the second-largest state bank, Postabank, owned indirectly by the main social security bodies and the post office, and this indicates the fragility of this sector. Outside of the difficulties experienced with Postabank, the Hungarian banking system has been transformed. The rapid move towards privatization resulted from the problems experienced by the state-owned banks, which the government bad to bail out, costing it around 7 percent of GDP. At that stage it was possible that the banking system could collapse and government funding, although saving the banks, did not solve the problems of corporate governance or moral hazard. Thus the privatization process was started in earnest. Magyar Kulkereskedelmi Bank (MKB) was sold to Bayerische Landesbank and the EBDR in 1994, Budapest Bank was bought by GE Capital and Magyar Hitel Bank was bought by ABN-AMRO. In November 1997 the state completed the last stage of the sale of the state savings bank (OTP), Hungary’s largest bank. The state, which dominated the banking system three years ago, now only retains a majority stake in two specialist banks, the Hungarian Development Bank and Eximbank.

The move towards, and success of privatization can be seen in the balance sheets of the banks, which showed an increase in post-tax profits of 45 percent in 1996. These banks are also seeing higher savings and deposits and a strong rise in demand for corporate and retail lending. In addition, the growth in competition in the banking sector has led to a narrowing of the spreads between lending and deposit rates, and the further knock-on effect of mergers and small-hank closures. Over 50 percent of Hungarian bank assets are controlled by foreign-owned banks, and this has led to Hungarian banks offering services similar to those expected in many Western European countries. Most of the foreign-owned but mainly Hungarian-managed banks were recapitalized after their acquisition and they have spent heavily on staff training and new information technology systems. From 1998, foreign banks will be free to open branches in Hungary, thus opening up the domestic banking market to full competition.

As a whole, the CEECs have come a long way since the early 1990s in dealing with their banking problems. For some countries the process of privatization still has a long way to go but others such as Hungary have moved quickly along the process of transforming their banking systems in readiness for their entry into the EU.

How and Why to Open a Bank Account in Hong Kong

Hong Kong today remains one of the best offshore banking jurisdictions. It offers a great combination of bank secrecy, corporate secrecy, a financially and politically stable environment, and strong banks. But perhaps most importantly, it’s a secure offshore investment haven for those who want to diversify out of sinking western currencies into booming Asian markets, and China in particular.

So how can you go about opening an offshore bank account in Hong Kong? Do you have to travel there? This article will answer these questions and give you some practical hints and tips. But first some background.

A Successful Free Market Experiment For East and West Alike

Hong Kong, in my opinion, is the only practical example in the world of a major city that has been developed from scratch and run as something of an offshore, free market experiment – first by the British, then by the Chinese.

The main Island (and later Kowloon and the New Territories, parts of the mainland) was a British colony for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During this time it grew from a fishing village and opium trading hub, into a city-state of seven million people. It became known as a free-wheeling, free market paradise for capitalists, with an economy characterized by low taxation, free trade and no government interference in business.

In 1997 the British returned sovereignty over Hong Kong to China. The former colony became one of China’s two Special Administrative Regions (SARs), the other being Macau. Many people were initially doubtful about one of the world’s capitalist bastions being run by a communist power, and at the time a lot of investors pulled out, many taking their dynamic business acumen heading to places like Singapore and Vancouver.

However, the “one country, two systems” model adopted by Beijing to coincide with free market reforms and the growth of China into an economic superpower has proven very successful. The Basic Law of Hong Kong, the equivalent of the constitution, stipulates that the SAR maintains a “high degree of autonomy” in all matters except foreign relations and defence. The SAR today operates as a major offshore finance center, discreetly oiling the wheels of commerce between East and West.

These days, rather than being put off by the Chinese influence, most international investors who are attracted to Hong Kong are coming precisely because of this Chinese connection. Hong Kong is the point of access to Chinese trade, without the legal and cultural difficulties of doing business in mainland China.

Those who do not trust their own governments are reassured by the fact that under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s foreign relations are run from Beijing. While most offshore jurisdictions humbly submit to demands from the USA and other western countries, in the case of China, the relationship is definitely reversed. Hong Kong does have a number of Tax Information Exchange Agreements (see below) but these are sensibly policed and do not allow for fishing expeditions.

Offshore Banking in Hong Kong

The region’s population is 95 percent ethnic Chinese and 5 percent from other groups, but English is very widely spoken and is the main language in businesses like banking.

One thing I like about using Hong Kong for offshore bank accounts is the same argument I have used for Panama and Singapore: it’s a ‘real’ country with real trade going on. The Hong Kong dollar is the ninth most traded currency in the world. Compare this to doing business on a small island or other remote banking jurisdiction, where everybody knows your only reason for doing business there is offshore banking. It also means that there is no problem doing your banking in cash, if you so wish.

For now the HKD, the local dollar, still tracks very closely the US dollar, but this appears to be changing as the Chinese Yuan circulates freely in Hong Kong, both in cash and in bank deposits. We think this represents an excellent opportunity to diversify funds out of the US dollar now, gaining exposure to Chinese growth in the meantime. (Of course, you can also hold HKD in banks in other parts of the world too)

Bank accounts in Hong Kong are almost all multi-currency by default, allowing all major local and international currencies to be held under one account number and exchanged freely and instantly within the account at the click of a mouse.

There is no capital gains tax, no tax on bank interest or stock market investments, and no tax on offshore sourced income. This, combined with a welcoming attitude to non-resident clients in the banks (including US citizens by the way, who are generally unwelcome in traditional offshore banking havens like Switzerland), and strong cultural and legal respect for financial privacy, makes Hong Kong one of Asia’s best offshore banking jurisdictions.

For those who want to establish a small offshore account under reporting limits, or simply to have the bank account established in view of future business, Hong Kong is also attractive given the low minimum deposits demanded by the major banks there. The minimum bank account balance can be as low as HK$ 3,000. Of course, you can’t expect red carpet, VIP private banking at this level – but you get a perfectly good functioning bank account with all the technological trimmings.

Offshore Corporate Bank Accounts in Hong Kong – Do’s and Don’ts

Typically, offshore clients choose to open accounts using corporations, as opposed to personal accounts. This not only offers greater privacy, but also flexibility and can – depending of course on how things are structured – offer significant tax and asset protection advantages.

Accounts can easily be opened both for pure offshore companies like Panama, BVI, Nevis or Marshall Islands, or for local Hong Kong companies that are set up using nominee directors and shareholders.

When contacting local corporate service providers in Hong Kong, you’ll find that most of these corporate service providers will recommend you use a Hong Kong company to open the account. The reason they do this is that it’s simpler and more profitable for them. They can incorporate a local company at low cost, opening the bank account is smoother and faster with a local company, and they can carry on billing nominee director fees every year. But it may not be the right thing for you.

Whilst it is true that Hong Kong companies do not have to pay any tax provided they do not make any local source income, administering such a company is not so simple. For example, Hong Kong companies are required to file audited accounts every year. They must file pages and pages of documents to convince the Inland Revenue Department (HKIRD) that they don’t have any local business, and, from practical experience, the HKIRD is getting much stickier about this. Long-established companies are normally left unmolested but newly established companies can expect a lot of compliance work in their first few years. Again, this suits the Hong Kong corporate service providers who charge handsomely for such services.

Another factor to consider is Controlled Foreign Corporation (CFC) legislation in your home country. (For an explanation see Wikipedia ) Many clients choose to set up LLCs as they can be treated as passthrough entities, vastly simplifying reporting requirements in some countries like the USA. Hong Kong corporations are not LLCs and cannot be treated as passthroughs for tax purposes.

My advice – assuming you don’t intend to do any business in Hong Kong besides banking and perhaps the occasional trip to visit your money – would be to open the account in the name of a company from a foreign offshore tax haven. It’s a little more work and expense at the beginning, and the bank might ask you more questions, but it will save you a lot of money and headaches in the long term. If you want a local look and feel for your company, numerous virtual office services are available.

Hong Kong Tax Information Exchange Agreements

Contrary to what you will read on some out-of-date websites, Hong Kong has signed a number of Tax Information Exchange Agreements (TIEAs). However, the HKIRD is at pains to point out that fishing expeditions are not going to be tolerated.

The HKIRD has issued Practice Note 47, available on the internet, which usefully explains how the HKIRD seek to achieve a balance between the requirements of compliance with the OECD requirements, whilst providing checks and balances to protect the rights of businesspeople.

The HKIRD are professionals and should be well positioned to deal with TIEA requests properly and justly in accordance with the treaties and guidelines. I am confident not going to allow their ‘clients’ rights to be trampled on.

Regulation of Banks in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s Banking Ordinance was revamped in 1986. It has since undergone several amendments to improve prudential supervision. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) was formed in 1993 as a one-stop financial regulator, responsible for everything from banks to stored value anonymous debit cards.

The SAR maintains a three-tier system of deposit-taking institutions, comprising licensed banks, restricted license banks, and deposit-taking companies. Only licensed banks may operate current and savings accounts, and accept deposits of any size and maturity. RLBs are only allowed to accept deposits of HK$500,000 and above, while DTCs are only permitted to accept deposits of a minimum of HK$100,000 with original maturity of not less than three months.

Both these latter categories provide an opportunity for overseas banks to conduct wholesale, investment or private banking activities in Hong Kong without having to jump through the hoops of applying for a full banking license. In addition, some foreign banks have chosen to open representative offices in Hong Kong, which are not allowed to take deposits but can assist in opening accounts at other offices within their groups.

As Hong Kong is an international financial centre, it is an explicit policy of the HKMA that the regulatory framework in Hong Kong should conform as much as possible with international standards, in particular those recommended by the Basel Committee.

Hong Kong’s five largest banks, in terms of total assets, are as follows:

– Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC)

– Bank of China (Hong Kong)

– Hang Seng Bank Ltd

– Standard Chartered Bank

– Bank of East Asia Ltd.

A full list of updated Hong Kong banks can be found on Wikipedia.

Visiting Hong Kong to Open a Bank Account

If you are visiting Hong Kong to open your account, it can normally be opened the same day provided you have made some arrangements with a local service provider, or directly with the bank, in advance. This is assuming you use one of the major banks, that nearly everybody does. You can then simply visit the bank, sign documents and receive the bank account number immediately. This will be a full multi-currency account and you will typically receive a digital token for internet banking, a password and a debit card.

The documents required for opening offshore bank account are:

1) Formation documents (in the case of corporate accounts. Apostilles are required in the case of foreign corporate accounts – your offshore provider will know how to obtain these.)

2) Bank forms and business plan/expected activity (a corporate service provider will normally supply these as part of the service)

3) Passport copies of each director, signatory and shareholder (take special note of this requirement if you are using nominee directors – if the persons are not present, copies will have to be notarized.)

4) Proof of address (such as updated bill statement which shows up your name and address) and signed (of each director and shareholder)

A bank reference is generally required if you are dealing direct with the bank. If you go through a corporate service provider, they normally write a reference so you do not need to supply a bank reference. However, if you can obtain a bank reference it is better.

Opening an account without visiting Hong Kong

It is also perfectly possible to open accounts without visiting Hong Kong (known as ‘remote account opening’) though this process tends to take substantially longer as banks will ask a lot more questions. In this case, your bank or service provider will generally e-mail you the forms, that you will need to print out and sign.

Depending on the bank, there may well be certain special instructions about how and where to sign – for example, HSBC in Hong Kong will typically request that you have your signature witnessed in the HSBC Bank nearest to you. As with all foreign bank accounts, you should be sure to use the same signature that appears in your passport, otherwise the documents will be rejected.

In the case of remote account opening the bank will normally courier the password, debit card, and token direct to your address in your home country. Then you need to activate them via the bank’s website.

Conclusion

Hong Kong competes very favorably with Singapore, the other Asian banking jurisdiction we favor. If you have not yet diversified your offshore holdings into Asia, you should seriously consider doing so. I hope this article will be helpful in this regard.

Royal Entrepreneurship – The Case of Royal Bank Zimbabwe Ltd Formation

The deregulation of the financial services in the late 1990s resulted in an explosion of entrepreneurial activity leading to the formation of banking institutions. This chapter presents a case study of Royal Bank Zimbabwe, tracing its origins, establishment, and the challenges that the founders faced on the journey. The Bank was established in 2002 but compulsorily amalgamated into another financial institution at the behest of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe in January 2005.

Entrepreneurial Origins
Any entrepreneurial venture originates in the mind of the entrepreneur. As Stephen Covey states in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, all things are created twice. Royal Bank was created first in the mind of Jeffrey Mzwimbi, the founder, and was thus shaped by his experiences and philosophy.

Jeff Mzwimbi grew up in the high density suburb of Highfield, Harare. On completion of his Advanced Level he secured a place at the University of Botswana. However he decided against the academic route at that time since his family faced financial challenges in terms of his tuition. He therefore opted to join the work force. In 1977 he was offered a job in Barclays Bank as one of the first blacks to penetrate that industry. At that time the banking industry, which had been the preserve of whites, was opening up to blacks. Barclays had a new General Manager, John Mudd, who had been involved in the Africanisation of Barclays Bank Nigeria. On his secondment to Zimbabwe he embarked on the inclusion of blacks into the bank. Mzwimbi’s first placement with Barclays was in the small farming town of Chegutu.

In 1981, a year after Independence, Jeff moved to Syfrets Merchant Bank. Mzwimbi, together with Simba Durajadi and Rindai Jaravaza, were the first black bankers to break into merchant banking department. He rose through the ranks until he was transferred to the head office of Zimbank – the principal shareholder of Syfrets – where he headed the international division until 1989.

The United Nations co-opted him as an advisor to the Reserve Bank in Burundi and thereafter, having been pleased by his performance, appointed him a consultant in 1990. In this capacity he advised on the launch of the PTA Bank travellers’ cheques. After the consultancy project the bank appointed him to head the implementation of the programme. He once again excelled and rose to become the Director of Trade Finance with a mandate of advising the bank on ways to improve trade among member states. The member states were considering issues of a common currency and common market in line with the European model. Because the IFC and World Bank had unsuccessfully sunk gigantic sums of funds into development in the region, they were advocating a move from development finance to trade finance. Consequently PTA Bank, though predominantly a development bank, created a trade finance department. To craft a strategy for trade finance at a regional level, Mzwimbi and his team visited Panama where the Central Americans had created a trade finance institution. They studied its models and used it as a basis to craft the PTA’s own strategy.

Mzwimbi returned to Zimbabwe at the conclusion of his contract. He weighed his options. He could rejoin Barclays Bank, but recent developments presented another option. At that time Nick Vingirai had just returned home after successfully launching a discount house in Ghana. Vingirai, inspired by his Ghanaian experience, established Intermarket Discount House as the first indigenous financial institution. A few years later NMB was set up with William Nyemba, Francis Zimuto and James Mushore being on the ground while one of the major forces behind the bank, Julias Makoni, was still outside the country. Makoni had just moved from IFC to Bankers’ Trust, to facilitate his ownership of a financial institution. Inspired by fellow bankers, a dream took shape in Mzwimbi’s mind. Why become an employee when he could become a bank owner? After all by this time he had valuable international experience.

The above experience shows how the entrepreneurial dream can originate from viewing the successes of others like you. The valuable experiences acquired by Mzwimbi would be critical on the entrepreneurial journey. An entrepreneurial idea builds on the experiences of the entrepreneur.
First Attempts

In 1990 Jeff Mzwimbi was approached by Nick Vingirai, who was then Chairman of the newly resuscitated CBZ, for the CEO position. Mzwimbi turned down the offer since he still had some contractual obligations. The post was later offered to Gideon Gono, the current RBZ governor.

Around 1994, Julias Makoni (then with IFC), who was a close friend of Roger Boka, encouraged Boka to start a merchant bank. At this time Makoni was working at setting up his own NMB. It is possible that, by encouraging Boka to start, he was trying to test the waters. Then Mzwimbi was seeing out the last of his contract at PTA. Boka approached him at the recommendation of Julias Makoni and asked him to help set up United Merchant Bank (UMB). On careful consideration, the banker in Mzwimbi accepted the offer. He reasoned that it would be an interesting option and at the same time he did not want to turn down another opportunity. He worked on the project with a view to its licensing but quit three months down the line. Some of the methods used by the promoter of UMB were deemed less than ethical for the banking executive, which led to disagreement. He left and accepted an offer from Econet to help restructure its debt portfolio.

While still at Econet, he teamed up with the late minister Dr Swithun Mombeshora and others with the intent of setting up a commercial bank. The only commercial banks in the country at that point were Standard Chartered, Barclays Bank, Zimbank, Stanbic and an ailing CBZ. The project was audited by KPMG and had gained the interest of institutional investors like Zimnat and Mining Industry Pension Fund. However, the Registrar of Banks in the Ministry of Finance, made impossible demands. The timing of their application for a licence was unfortunate because it coincided with a saga at Prime Bank in which some politicians had been involved, leading to accusations of influence peddling. Mombeshora, after unsuccessfully trying to influence the Registrar, asked that they slow down on the project as he felt that he might be construed as putting unnecessary political pressure on her. Mzwimbi argues that the impossible stance of the Registrar was the reason for backing off that project.

However other sources indicate that when the project was about to be licensed, the late minister
demanded that his shareholding be increased to a point where he would be the majority shareholder. It is alleged that he contended this was due to his ability to leverage his political muscle for the issuance of the licence.

Entrepreneurs do not give up at the first sign of resistance but they view obstacles in starting up as learning experiences. Entrepreneurs develop a “don’t quit” mind-set. These experiences increase their self -efficacy. Perseverance is critical, as failure can occur at any time.

Econet Wireless
The aspiring banker was approached, in 1994 by a budding telecommunication entrepreneur, Strive Masiyiwa of Econet Wireless, to advise on financial matters and help restructure the company’s debt. At that time Mzwimbi thought that he would be with Econet probably for only four months and then return to his banking passion. While at Econet it became apparent that, once licensed, the major drawback for the telecommunication company’s growth would be the cost of cell phone handsets. This presented an opportunity for the banker, as he saw a strategic option of setting up a leasing finance division within Econet that would lease out handsets to subscribers. The anticipated four months to licensing of Econet dragged into four years, which encompassed a bruising legal struggle that finally enabled the licensing against the State’s will. Mzwimbi’s experience with merchant banking proved useful for his role in Econet’s formation. With the explosive growth of Econet after an IPO, Mzwimbi assisted in the launch of the Botswana operations in 1999. After that, Econet pursued the Morocco licence. At this stage, the dream of owning a bank proved stronger than the appeal of telecoms. The banker faced some tough decisions, as financially he was well covered in Econet with an assured executive position that would expand with the expansion of the network. However the dream prevailed and he resigned from Econet and headed back home from RSA, where he was then domiciled.

His Econet days bestowed on him a substantial shareholding in the company, expanded his worldview and taught him vital lessons in creating an entrepreneurial venture. The persistence of Masiyiwa against severe government resistance taught Mzwimbi critical lessons in pursuing his dream in spite of obstacles. No doubt he learnt a lot from the enterprising founder of Econet.

Debut Royal Bank
On his return in March 2000, Mzwimbi regrouped with some of his friends, Chakanyuka Karase and Simba Durajadi, with whom he had worked on the last attempt at launching a bank. In 1998 the Banking Act was updated and a new statutory instrument called the Banking Regulations had been enacted in the light of the UMB and Prime Bank failures.

These required that one should have the shareholders, the premises and equipment all in place before licensing. Previously one needed only to set up an office and hire a secretary to acquire a banking license. The licence would be the basis for approaching potential investors. In other words it was now required that one should incur the risk of setting up and purchasing the IT infrastructure, hire personnel and lease premises without any assurance that one would acquire the licence. Consequently it was virtually impossible to invite outside investors into the project at this stage.

Without recourse to outside shareholders injecting funds, and with minimal financial capacity on the part of his partners, Mzwimbi fortuitously benefited from his substantial Econet shares. He used them as collateral to access funds from Intermarket Discount House to finance the start up – acquired equipment like ATMs, hired staff, and leased premises. Mzwimbi recalls pleading with the Central Bank and the Registrar of Banks about the oddity of having to apply for a licence only when he had spent significant amounts on capital expenditure – but the Registrar was adamant.

Finally, Royal Bank was licensed in March 2002 and, after the prerequisite pre-opening inspections by the Central Bank, opened its doors to the public four months later.

Entrepreneurial Challenges
The challenges of financing the new venture and the earlier disappointments did not deter Mzwimbi. The risk of using his own resources, whereas in other places one would fund a significant venture using institutional shareholders’ capital, has already been discussed. This section discusses other challenges that the entrepreneurial banker had to overcome.

Regulatory Challenges and Capital Structure
The new banking regulations placed shareholding restrictions on banks as follows:

*Individuals could hold a maximum of 25% of a financial institution’s equity
*Non-financial institutions could hold a maximum of 10% only
*A financial institution however could hold up to a maximum of 100%.

This posed a problem for the Royal Bank sponsors because they had envisaged Royal Financial Holdings (a non-financial corporate) as the major shareholder for the bank. Under the new regulations this could hold only 10% maximum. The sponsors argued with the Registrar of Banks about these regulations to no avail. If they needed to hold the shares as corporate bodies it meant that they needed at least ten companies, each holding 10% each. The argument for having financial institutions holding up to 100% was shocking as it meant that an asset manager with a required capitalisation of $1 million would be allowed by the new law to hold 100% shareholding in a bank which had a $100 million capitalisation yet a non-banking institution, which may have had a higher capitalisation, could not control more than 10%. Mzwimbi and team were advised by the Registrar of Banks to invest in their personal capacities. At this point the Reserve Bank (RBZ) was simply involved in the registration process on an advisory basis with the main responsibility resting with the Registrar of Banks. Although the RBZ agreed with Mzwimbi’s team on the need to have corporations as major shareholders due to the long term existence of a corporation as compared to individuals, the Registrar insisted on her terms. Finally, Royal Bank promoters chose the path of satisficing- and hence opted to invest as individuals, resulting in the following shareholding structure:

*Jeff Mzwimbi – 25%
*Victor Chando – 25%
*Simba Durajadi- 20%
*Hardwork Pemhiwa- 20%
*Intermarket Unit Trust – 2% (the only institutional investor)
*Other individuals – less than 2% each.
The challenge to acquire institutional investors was due to the restrictions cited above and the requirement to pump money into the project before the licence was issued. They negotiated with TA Holdings, which was prepared to take equity holding in Royal Bank.

So tentatively the sponsors had allocated 25% equity for Zimnat, a subsidiary to TA Holdings. Close to the registration date, the Zimnat negotiators were changed. The incoming negotiators changed the terms and conditions for their investment as follows:

*They wanted at least a 35% stake
*The Board chairmanship and chairmanship of key committees – in perpetuity.

The promoters read this to mean their project was being usurped and so turned TA Holdings down. However, in retrospect Mzwimbi feels that the decision to release the TA investment was emotional and believes that they should have compromised and found a way to accommodate them as institutional investors. This could have strengthened the capital base of Royal Bank.

Credibility Challenges
The main sponsors and senior managers of the bank were well known players in the industry. This reduced the credibility gap. However some corporate customers were concerned about the shareholding of the bank being entirely in the hands of individuals. They preferred the bank risk to be reduced by having institutional investors. The new licensing process adversely affected access to institutional investors. Consequently the bank had institutional shareholders in mind for the long term. They claim that even the then head of supervision and licensing at RBZ, agreed with the promoters’ concern about the need for institutional investors but the Registrar of Banks overruled her.

Challenges of Explosive Growth
The strategic plan of Royal Bank was to open ten branch offices within five years. They planned to open three branches in Harare in the first year, followed by branches in Bulawayo, Masvingo, Mutare and Gweru within the next year. This would have been followed by an increase in the number of Harare branches.

From their analysis they believed that there was room for at least four more commercial banks in Zimbabwe. A competitor analysis of the industry indicated that the government controlled Zimbank was the major competitor, CBZ was struggling and Stanbic was not likely to grow rapidly. The bigger banks, Barclays and Standard Chartered, were likely to scale down operations. The promoters of the bank project had observed in their extensive international experie nce that whenever the economy was indigenised in Africa, these multinational banks would dispose of their rural branches. They were therefore positioning themselves to exploit this scenario once it presented itself.

The anticipated opportunity presented itself earlier than expected. On an international flight with the Standard Chartered Bank CEO, Mzwimbi, confirmed his interest in a stake of the bank’s disinvestments which was making rounds on the rumour mill. Although surprised, the multinational banker agreed to give the two month old entrepreneurial bank the right of first refusal on the fifteen branches that were being disposed of.

The deal was negotiated on a lock, stock and barrel basis. When the announcement of the deal was made internally, some employees resisted and politicised the issue. The Standard Chartered CEO then offered to proceed on a phased basis with the first seven banks going through, followed by the others later. Due to Mzwimbi’s savvy negotiating skills and the determination by Standard Chartered to dispose of the branches, the deal was successfully concluded, resulting in Royal Bank growing from one branch to seven outlets within the first year of operation. It had exceeded their projected growth plan.

Due to what Mzwimbi calls divine favour, the deal included the real estate belonging to the bank. Interestingly, Standard Chartered had failed to get bank buildings on lease and so in all small towns they had built their own buildings. These were thus transferred within the deal to Royal Bank. Inherent in the deal was an inbuilt equity from the properties since the purchase price of $400 million was heavily discounted.

Shortly after that, Alex Jongwe, the CEO of Barclays Bank, approached Royal Bank to offer a similar deal to the Standard Chartered acquisition of rural branches. Barclays offered eight branches, of which Royal initially accepted six. Chegutu and Chipinge were excluded, since Royal already had a presence there.

However after failing to dispose of those two branches, Barclays came back and asked Royal “to take them for a song”. Mzwimbi accepted these for two strategic reasons, namely the acquisitions gave him physical assets (the buildings) that he could lease out to anyone who decided to expand into those areas and secondly, that created a monopoly in those towns. With time, the fortuitous inclusion of real estate into the deal increased the wealth of Royal Bank as the prices of properties skyrocketed with hyperinflation.

One of the major key drivers of the Zimbabwean economy is agriculture. After the failed Land Donors Conference in 1998 and the subsequent land reform programme, it was evident to the established banks that commercial farming would be significantly affected.

They sought to quit the small towns since their major clients were commercial farmers. Strategically to acquire these branches when the major source of their revenue was under threat would have required that Royal Bank should have put in place an alternative source of revenue from farming. It is not clear whether this had been considered during these acquisitions.

The acquisition increased Royal’s branch network to 20 and the staff complement by 50. Incidentally, the growth created problems of managing the system as well as cultural issues. The highly unionised Standard Chartered employees were antagonistic to management as compared to the trusting Royal culture. This acquisition resulted in potential culture challenges. Management controlled this by introducing Norton and Kaplan’s Balanced Scorecard system in an effort to manage the cultural clashes of the three systems.

The Challenge of Financing Acquisition
A major challenge in acquisitions is the financing structure. During licensing the Registrar of Banks refused to accept the nearly $200 million that had been spent by the promoters of Royal Bank as capital. She insisted that this be recognised as pre-operating expenses and therefore wanted to see fresh capital amounting to $100 million. The change of rules posed a challenge for Mzwimbi’s team. However, being an astute deal maker he strategically conceptualised an arrangement whereby the $170 million worth of equipment purchased be accounted for as belonging to Royal Financial Holdings and made available to Royal Bank on a lease basis. This would then be sold to the bank as it grew. The RBZ was appraised of this decision and accepted it, and even noted in the inspection report the amount of expenditure spent pre-operatively by the promoters. The remainder of the pre-operative expenses were converted into nonvoting non-convertible preference shares of Royal Bank.

In January 2003 commercial bank capitalisation was increased to $500 million by the regulator and hence there was a need for recapitalisation. This coincided with the branch acquisition deals. At this stage the Royal Bank team decided to partially fund the acquisition through a conversion of the preference shares into ordinary shares and partially from fresh capital injected by the shareholders. Since the bank was now performing well, it purchased the capital equipment, owned by Royal Financial Holdings, which it had been leasing. This deal included the redistribution and balancing of shareholdings in Royal Bank to conform to the statutory requirements. Retrospectively it may be viewed as a strategic blunder to have moved the equipment into the bank ownership. Considering the “sale” of Royal Bank assets to ZABG, if these and the real estate had been warehoused into RFH the take-over may have been difficult. This highlights the failure sometimes by entrepreneurs to appreciate the importance of asset protection mechanisms while still small.

However the RBZ accused the shareholders of using depositors’ funds for the recapitalisation of the bank. Partly this is due to a misunderstanding that RFH is the holding company of Royal Bank and so sometimes accounts flowing from Royal Financial Holdings were accounted by RBZ investigators as Royal Bank funds. These allegations formed part of the allegations of fraud against Mzwimbi and Durajadi when they were arrested in September 2004. Subsequently the courts cleared them of any fraudulent activities in January 2007.

Managerial Challenges
Retrospectively, Mzwimbi views his managerial team as being excellent apart from some “weaknesses in the finance department”. He assembled a solid team from various banking backgrounds. The most significant ones became founding shareholders like Durajadi Simba at treasury, the late Sibanda in charge of the lending department. Faith Ngwabi-Bhebhe, then with Kingdom, helped lay a solid foundation of human resource systems for the bank.

However, they had a challenge finding a financial director. The new statutory instrument required that CVs of all corporate officers be made available for vetting when the licence was applied for. Without a licence one could not promise someone in current employment a job and submit his CV as this would reflect badly on the promoters. Eventually they hired a chartered accountant without banking experience. Initially they thought this was a stop-gap measure.

With the unanticipated growth, they forgot to revisit this department to strengthen it. Because of these weaknesses the bank continued to face challenges in the treasury department, despite the gallant efforts of the financial director. Strangely, when other executive directors were arrested the FD was left untouched and yet all the issues at stake arose from treasury activities. It would appear in retrospect that the FD was intimidated into providing incriminating evidence for the others. She too was threatened with arrest.

Successful entrepreneurial ventures in a growth phase need both strong leaders and strong managers. It’s not enough to have strong leadership skills. As Ed Cole said, “It’s easier to obtain than to maintain.” The role of strong managers is to create the capacity to maintain what strong entrepreneurial leaders acquire. Interestingly a new field of research, Strategic Entrepreneurship now recognises the need for both entrepreneurial and strategic management competences for successful ventures.

Strategic Growth Plans
Royal Bank’s strategic intent was to create a full house of financial services. The plan included a commercial bank, a discount house, an insurance company, a building society and an asset management service. However the vision was later refined and the plans for a discount house were dropped, since a strong commercial bank with a powerful dealing room would serve the same purpose. A strong asset manager would also relieve the need for a discount house.

With the significant branch network, the commercial bank was solid but needed a presence in a few major centres e.g. Masvingo and Gweru. In Gweru they could not locate suitable premises.

In Masvingo, after a struggle they were offered premises which had previously been earmarked for Trust Bank. With Trust Bank facing challenges, it abandoned Masvingo. However, Royal was placed under a curator when it was about to move in.

Royal Bank courted Finsreal Asset Managers for a potential acquisition since there were synergies and shared beliefs. It had a solid corporate customer base and very good growth prospects since an astute entrepreneur led it. Unfortunately the deal was aborted at the last minute when the owner opted out. After the Finsreal flop, Mzwimbi and his team pursued the asset manager through organic growth. They developed their own company -Regal Asset Managers – during the last quarter of 2003. At this stage the capital requirements and licensing process of asset managers was fairly easy. Asset managers were quite profitable, with minimal regulatory controls. Regal Asset Managers completed two good deals, namely: a management buyout of Screen Litho, a printing concern, and a big deal for First Mutual at its demutualisation.

The Screen Litho deal had been offered to venture capitalists but their demands were excessive. That is when Regal Asset Managers was set up and concluded a funding deal through Royal Financial Holdings (RFH), resulting in RFH holding 99% of Screen Litho which was to be off- loaded once management was in a solid financial position. Screen Litho is performing very well and hence this investment has proven successful. The entrepreneurial Mzwimbi thus diversified his financial portfolio through this deal.

Central Banks, Financial System and the Creation of Money (and Deficit)

In the market economy, the financial system gives money from the positive savers (i.e. depositors) to the negative savers (i.e. people with shortage of funds which need loans to buy property etc.). Furthermore, the financial systems facilitate non-cash payments. from individuals or legal entities.

The financial system has by law a monopoly of services. Only banks can accept deposits, only insurance companies can provide insurance services and mutual funds management can be done better by a large bank rather than by an individual investor.

How money is created

In the past, one of the reasons the ancient Greek states were strong was the ability to create their own currency. In the times of Pericles, the silver Drachma was the reserve currency of that era. The same applied for the golden currency of Philippe from Macedonia. Each of these currencies could have been exchanged with a certain amount of gold.

Nowadays, Fed creates USD and ECB Euro which both is fiat money I.e money with no intrinsic value that has been established as real money by government regulation and we, therefore, have to accept it as real money. Central banks circulate coins and paper money in most countries that they are just 5%-15% of the money supply, the rest is virtual money, an accounting data entry.

Depending on the amount of money central banks create, we live in a crisis or we have economic development. It should be noted that central banks are not state banks but private companies. The countries have given the right of issuing money to private bankers. In turn, these private central banks lend the states with interest and therefore, have economic and of course, political power. The paper money circulated in a country is actually public debt i.e. countries owe money to the private central bankers and the payment of this debt is ensured by issuing bonds. The warranty given by the government to private central bankers for debt repayment is the taxes imposed on people. The bigger public debt is the bigger the taxes, the more common people suffer.

The presidents of these central banks cannot be fired by the governments and do not report to the governments. In Europe, they report to ECB which sets the monetary policy of EU. ECB is not controlled by the European Parliament or the European Commission.

The state or borrower issues bonds, in other words, it accepts that it has an equal amount of debt to the central bank which based on this acceptance creates money from zero and lends it with interest. This money is lent through an accounting entry however, interest rate does not exist as money in any form, it is just on the loan contract obligations. This is the reason why global debt is bigger than real or accounting debt. Therefore, people become slaves since they have to work to get real money to pay off debts either public or individual debts. Very few ones manage to pay off the loan but the rest get bankrupted and lose everything.

When a country has its own currency as it is the case of the USA and other countries, it can “oblige” central bank to accept its state bonds and lend the state with interest. Therefore, a country bankruptcy is avoided since the central bank acts as a lender of last resort. ECB is another case since it does not lend Eurozone member-states. The non-existence of a Europe safe bond leaves the Eurozone countries at the mercy of the “markets” which by being afraid of not getting their money back they impose high interest rates. However, quite recently the European safe bonds have gained ground despite the differences in Europe policymakers whereas the Germans are the main cause for not having this bond since they do not want national obligations to be single European ones. There is also another reason (probably the most serious one) which is that by having this bond, Euro as a currency would be devaluated and Germany’s borrowing interest rates would rise.

In the USA things are different since the state borrows its own currency (USD) from Fed so local currency is devaluated and therefore state debt is devaluated. When a currency is devaluated the products of a country become cheaper without reducing wages but imported products become more expensive. A country which has a strong primary (agriculture) and secondary (industry) sector can become more competitive by having its own currency provided that it has its own energy sources i.e. it should be energy sufficient. Banks with between $16 million and $122.3 million in deposits have a reserve requirement of 3%, and banks with over $122.3 million in deposits have a reserve requirement of 10%. Therefore, if all depositors decide to take their money from the banks at the same time, banks cannot give it to them and bankrun is created. At this point, it should be mentioned that for each USD, Euro etc deposited in a bank, the banking system creates and lends ten. Banks create money each time they give loans and the money they create is money that appears on the computer screen, not real money deposited in the bank’s treasury that lends it. However, the bank lends virtual money but gets real money plus interest from the borrower.

As Professor Mark Joob stated no-one can escape from paying interest rates. When someone borrows money from the bank, s/he has to pay interest rates for the loan but all who pay taxes and buy goods and services pay the interest rate of the initial borrower since taxes have to be collected to pay the interest rates of the public debt. All companies and individuals that sell goods and services have to include the cost of loans in their prices and this way the whole society subsidizes banks although part of this subsidy is given as interest rate to depositors. Professor Mark Joob goes on and writes that the interest rate paid to the banks is a subsidy to them since the fiat/accounting money they create is considered as legal money. This is why bankers have these large salaries and this is why the banking sector is so huge, it is because the society subsidizes banks. Concerning interest rates, poor people usually have more loans than savings whereas rich people have more saving than loans. When interest rates are paid, money is transferred from poor to the rich therefore, interest rates are favourable for wealth accumulation. Commercial banks gain from investments and from the difference between interest rates for deposits and interest rates for loans. When interest rate is added regularly to the initial investment, it brings more interest since there is compound interest which increases exponentially initial capital. Real money by itself is not increased since this interest rate is not derived from production. Only human labour can create interest rate of increasing value but there is a downward pressure for salaries cost and at the same time increase of productivity. This happens because human labour needs to satisfy the demands of exponentially increased compound interest.

The borrower has to work to get the real money, in other words, banks lend virtual money and get real money in return. Since the lent money is more than the real one, the banks should create new money in the form of loans and credits. When they increase the quantity of money there is growth (however, even in this case with the specific banking and monetary system debt is also increased) but when they want to create a crisis, they stop giving loans and due to the lack of money a lot of people bankrupt and depression starts.

This is a “clever trick” created by the bankers who have noticed that they can lend more money than the one they have since depositors would not take their money, altogether and at the same time, from the banks. This is called fractional reserve banking. The definition given by Quickonomics for fractional reserve banking is the following: “Fractional reserve banking is a banking system in which banks only hold a fraction of the money their customers deposit as reserves. This allows them to use the rest of it to make loans and thereby essentially create new money. This gives commercial banks the power to directly affect money supply. In fact, even though central banks are in charge of controlling money supply, most of the money in modern economies is created by commercial banks through fractional reserve banking”.

Are savings protected?

In the case of Italian debt as in the case of Greek debt, we have heard from politicians (actually paid employees by the bankers) that they want to protect people’s savings. However, are these savings protected in this monetary and banking system? The answer is a simple NO. As mentioned, the banks have low reserves in cash. This is the reason that they need their customers’ trust. In case of a bankrun there would face liquidity problems and they would bankrupt. There are deposit guarantee schemes that reimburse, under EU rules, that protect depositors’ savings by guaranteeing deposits of up to €100,000 but in case of chain reactions, commercial banks need to be saved by the governments and central banks act as lenders’ of last resort.

Is My Money Safe? On The Soundness Of Our Banks

Banks are institutions wherein miracles happen regularly. We rarely entrust our money to anyone but ourselves – and our banks. Despite a very chequered history of mismanagement, corruption, false promises and representations, delusions and behavioural inconsistency – banks still succeed to motivate us to give them our money. Partly it is the feeling that there is safety in numbers. The fashionable term today is “moral hazard”. The implicit guarantees of the state and of other financial institutions moves us to take risks which we would, otherwise, have avoided. Partly it is the sophistication of the banks in marketing and promoting themselves and their products. Glossy brochures, professional computer and video presentations and vast, shrine-like, real estate complexes all serve to enhance the image of the banks as the temples of the new religion of money.

But what is behind all this? How can we judge the soundness of our banks? In other words, how can we tell if our money is safely tucked away in a safe haven?

The reflex is to go to the bank’s balance sheets. Banks and balance sheets have been both invented in their modern form in the 15th century. A balance sheet, coupled with other financial statements is supposed to provide us with a true and full picture of the health of the bank, its past and its long-term prospects. The surprising thing is that – despite common opinion – it does. The less surprising element is that it is rather useless unless you know how to read it.

Financial Statements (Income – aka Profit and Loss – Statement, Cash Flow Statement and Balance Sheet) come in many forms. Sometimes they conform to Western accounting standards (the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, GAAP, or the less rigorous and more fuzzily worded International Accounting Standards, IAS). Otherwise, they conform to local accounting standards, which often leave a lot to be desired. Still, you should look for banks, which make their updated financial reports available to you. The best choice would be a bank that is audited by one of the Big Six Western accounting firms and makes its audit reports publicly available. Such audited financial statements should consolidate the financial results of the bank with the financial results of its subsidiaries or associated companies. A lot often hides in those corners of corporate ownership.

Banks are rated by independent agencies. The most famous and most reliable of the lot is Fitch-IBCA. Another one is Thomson BankWatch-BREE. These agencies assign letter and number combinations to the banks, that reflect their stability. Most agencies differentiate the short term from the long term prospects of the banking institution rated. Some of them even study (and rate) issues, such as the legality of the operations of the bank (legal rating). Ostensibly, all a concerned person has to do, therefore, is to step up to the bank manager, muster courage and ask for the bank’s rating. Unfortunately, life is more complicated than rating agencies would like us to believe. They base themselves mostly on the financial results of the bank rated, as a reliable gauge of its financial strength or financial profile. Nothing is further from the truth.

Admittedly, the financial results do contain a few important facts. But one has to look beyond the naked figures to get the real – often much less encouraging – picture.

Consider the thorny issue of exchange rates. Financial statements are calculated (sometimes stated in USD in addition to the local currency) using the exchange rate prevailing on the 31st of December of the fiscal year (to which the statements refer). In a country with a volatile domestic currency this would tend to completely distort the true picture. This is especially true if a big chunk of the activity preceded this arbitrary date. The same applies to financial statements, which were not inflation-adjusted in high inflation countries. The statements will look inflated and even reflect profits where heavy losses were incurred. “Average amounts” accounting (which makes use of average exchange rates throughout the year) is even more misleading. The only way to truly reflect reality is if the bank were to keep two sets of accounts: one in the local currency and one in USD (or in some other currency of reference). Otherwise, fictitious growth in the asset base (due to inflation or currency fluctuations) could result.

Another example: in many countries, changes in regulations can greatly effect the financial statements of a bank. In 1996, in Russia, to take an example, the Bank of Russia changed the algorithm for calculating an important banking ratio (the capital to risk weighted assets ratio). Unless a Russian bank restated its previous financial statements accordingly, a sharp change in profitability appeared from nowhere.

The net assets themselves are always misstated: the figure refers to the situation on 31/12. A 48-hour loan given to a collaborating firm can inflate the asset base on the crucial date. This misrepresentation is only mildly ameliorated by the introduction of an “average assets” calculus. Moreover, some of the assets can be interest earning and performing – others, non-performing. The maturity distribution of the assets is also of prime importance. If most of the bank’s assets can be withdrawn by its clients on a very short notice (on demand) – it can swiftly find itself in trouble with a run on its assets leading to insolvency.

Another oft-used figure is the net income of the bank. It is important to distinguish interest income from non-interest income. In an open, sophisticated credit market, the income from interest differentials should be minimal and reflect the risk plus a reasonable component of income to the bank. But in many countries (Japan, Russia) the government subsidizes banks by lending to them money cheaply (through the Central Bank or through bonds). The banks then proceed to lend the cheap funds at exorbitant rates to their customers, thus reaping enormous interest income. In many countries the income from government securities is tax free, which represents another form of subsidy. A high income from interest is a sign of weakness, not of health, here today, there tomorrow. The preferred indicator should be income from operations (fees, commissions and other charges).

There are a few key ratios to observe. A relevant question is whether the bank is accredited with international banking agencies. The latter issue regulatory capital requirements and other defined ratios. Compliance with these demands is a minimum in the absence of which, the bank should be regarded as positively dangerous.

The return on the bank’s equity (ROE) is the net income divided by its average equity. The return on the bank’s assets (ROA) is its net income divided by its average assets. The (tier 1 or total) capital divided by the bank’s risk weighted assets – a measure of the bank’s capital adequacy. Most banks follow the provisions of the Basel Accord as set by the Basel Committee of Bank Supervision (also known as the G10). This could be misleading because the Accord is ill equipped to deal with risks associated with emerging markets, where default rates of 33% and more are the norm. Finally, there is the common stock to total assets ratio. But ratios are not cure-alls. Inasmuch as the quantities that comprise them can be toyed with – they can be subject to manipulation and distortion. It is true that it is better to have high ratios than low ones. High ratios are indicative of a bank’s underlying strength of reserves and provisions and, thereby, of its ability to expand its business. A strong bank can also participate in various programs, offerings and auctions of the Central Bank or of the Ministry of Finance. The more of the bank’s earnings are retained in the bank and not distributed as profits to its shareholders – the better these ratios and the bank’s resilience to credit risks. Still, these ratios should be taken with more than a grain of salt. Not even the bank’s profit margin (the ratio of net income to total income) or its asset utilization coefficient (the ratio of income to average assets) should be relied upon. They could be the result of hidden subsidies by the government and management misjudgement or understatement of credit risks.

To elaborate on the last two points: a bank can borrow cheap money from the Central Bank (or pay low interest to its depositors and savers) and invest it in secure government bonds, earning a much higher interest income from the bonds’ coupon payments. The end result: a rise in the bank’s income and profitability due to a non-productive, non-lasting arbitrage operation. Otherwise, the bank’s management can understate the amounts of bad loans carried on the bank’s books, thus decreasing the necessary set-asides and increasing profitability. The financial statements of banks largely reflect the management’s appraisal of the business. This is a poor guide to go by.

In the main financial results’ page of a bank’s books, special attention should be paid to provisions for the devaluation of securities and to the unrealized difference in the currency position. This is especially true if the bank is holding a major part of the assets (in the form of financial investments or of loans) and the equity is invested in securities or in foreign exchange denominated instruments. Separately, a bank can be trading for its own position (the Nostro), either as a market maker or as a trader. The profit (or loss) on securities trading has to be discounted because it is conjectural and incidental to the bank’s main activities: deposit taking and loan making.

Most banks deposit some of their assets with other banks. This is normally considered to be a way of spreading the risk. But in highly volatile economies with sickly, underdeveloped financial sectors, all the institutions in the sector are likely to move in tandem (a highly correlated market). Cross deposits among banks only serve to increase the risk of the depositing bank (as the recent affair with Toko Bank in Russia and the banking crisis in South Korea have demonstrated).

Further closer to the bottom line are the bank’s operating expenses: salaries, depreciation, fixed or capital assets (real estate and equipment) and administrative expenses. The rule of thumb is: the higher these expenses, the worse. The great historian Toynbee once said that great civilizations collapse immediately after they bequeath to us the most impressive buildings. This is doubly true with banks. If you see a bank fervently engaged in the construction of palatial branches – stay away from it.

All considered, banks are risk traders. They live off the mismatch between assets and liabilities. To the best of their ability, they try to second guess the markets and reduce such a mismatch by assuming part of the risks and by engaging in proper portfolio management. For this they charge fees and commissions, interest and profits – which constitute their sources of income. If any expertise is attributed to the banking system, it is risk management. Banks are supposed to adequately assess, control and minimize credit risks. They are required to implement credit rating mechanisms (credit analysis), efficient and exclusive information-gathering systems, and to put in place the right lending policies and procedures. Just in case they misread the market risks and these turned into credit risks (which happens only too often), banks are supposed to put aside amounts of money which could realistically offset loans gone sour or non-performing in the future. These are the loan loss reserves and provisions. Loans are supposed to be constantly monitored, reclassified and charges must be made against them as applicable. If you see a bank with zero reclassifications, charge off and recoveries – either the bank is lying through its teeth, or it is not taking the business of banking too seriously, or its management is no less than divine in its prescience. What is important to look at is the rate of provision for loan losses as a percentage of the loans outstanding. Then it should be compared to the percentage of non-performing loans out of the loans outstanding. If the two figures are out of kilter, either someone is pulling your leg – or the management is incompetent or lying to you. The first thing new owners of a bank do is, usually, improve the placed asset quality (a polite way of saying that they get rid of bad, non-performing loans, whether declared as such or not). They do this by classifying the loans. Most central banks in the world have in place regulations for loan classification and if acted upon, these yield rather more reliable results than any management’s “appraisal”, no matter how well intentioned. In some countries in the world, the Central Bank (or the Supervision of the Banks) forces banks to set aside provisions against loans of the highest risk categories, even if they are performing. This, by far, should be the preferable method.

Of the two sides of the balance sheet, the assets side should earn the most attention. Within it, the interest earning assets deserve the greatest dedication of time. What percentage of the loans is commercial and what percentage given to individuals? How many lenders are there (risk diversification is inversely proportional to exposure to single borrowers)? How many of the transactions are with “related parties”? How much is in local currency and how much in foreign currencies (and in which)? A large exposure to foreign currency lending is not necessarily healthy. A sharp, unexpected devaluation could move a lot of the borrowers into non-performance and default and, thus, adversely affect the quality of the asset base. In which financial vehicles and instruments is the bank invested? How risky are they? And so on.

No less important is the maturity structure of the assets. It is an integral part of the liquidity (risk) management of the bank. The crucial question is: what are the cash flows projected from the maturity dates of the different assets and liabilities – and how likely are they to materialize. A rough matching has to exist between the various maturities of the assets and the liabilities. The cash flows generated by the assets of the bank must be used to finance the cash flows resulting from the banks’ liabilities. A distinction has to be made between stable and hot funds (the latter in constant pursuit of higher yields). Liquidity indicators and alerts have to be set in place and calculated a few times daily. Gaps (especially in the short term category) between the bank’s assets and its liabilities are a very worrisome sign.

But the bank’s macroeconomic environment is as important to the determination of its financial health and of its creditworthiness as any ratio or micro-analysis. The state of the financial markets sometimes has a larger bearing on the bank’s soundness than other factors. A fine example is the effect that interest rates or a devaluation have on a bank’s profitability and capitalization. The implied (not to mention the explicit) support of the authorities, of other banks and of investors (domestic as well as international) sets the psychological background to any future developments. This is only too logical. In an unstable financial environment, knock-on effects are more likely. Banks deposit money with other banks on a security basis. Still, the value of securities and collaterals is as good as their liquidity and as the market itself. The very ability to do business (for instance, in the syndicated loan market) is influenced by the larger picture. Falling equity markets herald trading losses and loss of income from trading operations and so on.

Perhaps the single most important factor is the general level of interest rates in the economy. It determines the present value of foreign exchange and local currency denominated government debt. It influences the balance between realized and unrealized losses on longer-term (commercial or other) paper. One of the most important liquidity generation instruments is the repurchase agreement (repo). Banks sell their portfolios of government debt with an obligation to buy it back at a later date. If interest rates shoot up – the losses on these repos can trigger margin calls (demands to immediately pay the losses or else materialize them by buying the securities back). Margin calls are a drain on liquidity. Thus, in an environment of rising interest rates, repos could absorb liquidity from the banks, deflate rather than inflate. The same principle applies to leverage investment vehicles used by the bank to improve the returns of its securities trading operations. High interest rates here can have an even more painful outcome. As liquidity is crunched, the banks are forced to materialize their trading losses. This is bound to put added pressure on the prices of financial assets, trigger more margin calls and squeeze liquidity further. It is a vicious circle of a monstrous momentum once commenced.

But high interest rates, as we mentioned, also strain the asset side of the balance sheet by applying pressure to borrowers. The same goes for a devaluation. Liabilities connected to foreign exchange grow with a devaluation with no (immediate) corresponding increase in local prices to compensate the borrower. Market risk is thus rapidly transformed to credit risk. Borrowers default on their obligations. Loan loss provisions need to be increased, eating into the bank’s liquidity (and profitability) even further. Banks are then tempted to play with their reserve coverage levels in order to increase their reported profits and this, in turn, raises a real concern regarding the adequacy of the levels of loan loss reserves. Only an increase in the equity base can then assuage the (justified) fears of the market but such an increase can come only through foreign investment, in most cases. And foreign investment is usually a last resort, pariah, solution (see Southeast Asia and the Czech Republic for fresh examples in an endless supply of them. Japan and China are, probably, next).

In the past, the thinking was that some of the risk could be ameliorated by hedging in forward markets (=by selling it to willing risk buyers). But a hedge is only as good as the counterparty that provides it and in a market besieged by knock-on insolvencies, the comfort is dubious. In most emerging markets, for instance, there are no natural sellers of foreign exchange (companies prefer to hoard the stuff). So forwards are considered to be a variety of gambling with a default in case of substantial losses a very plausible way out.

Banks depend on lending for their survival. The lending base, in turn, depends on the quality of lending opportunities. In high-risk markets, this depends on the possibility of connected lending and on the quality of the collaterals offered by the borrowers. Whether the borrowers have qualitative collaterals to offer is a direct outcome of the liquidity of the market and on how they use the proceeds of the lending. These two elements are intimately linked with the banking system. Hence the penultimate vicious circle: where no functioning and professional banking system exists – no good borrowers will emerge.

Bankers’ Banks- The Role of Central Banks in Banking Crises

Central banks are relatively new inventions. An American President (Andrew Jackson) even cancelled its country’s central bank in the nineteenth century because he did not think that it was very important. But things have changed since. Central banks today are the most important feature of the financial systems of most countries of the world.

Central banks are a bizarre hybrids. Some of their functions are identical to the functions of regular, commercial banks. Other functions are unique to the central bank. On certain functions it has an absolute legal monopoly.

Central banks take deposits from other banks and, in certain cases, from foreign governments which deposit their foreign exchange and gold reserves for safekeeping (for instance, with the Federal Reserve Bank of the USA). The Central Bank invests the foreign exchange reserves of the country while trying to maintain an investment portfolio similar to the trade composition of its client – the state. The Central bank also holds onto the gold reserves of the country. Most central banks have lately tried to get rid of their gold, due to its ever declining prices. Since the gold is registered in their books in historical values, central banks are showing a handsome profit on this line of activity. Central banks (especially the American one) also participate in important, international negotiations. If they do not do so directly – they exert influence behind the scenes. The German Bundesbank virtually dictated Germany’s position in the negotiations leading to the Maastricht treaty. It forced the hands of its co-signatories to agree to strict terms of accession into the Euro single currency project. The Bunbdesbank demanded that a country’s economy be totally stable (low debt ratios, low inflation) before it is accepted as part of the Euro. It is an irony of history that Germany itself is not eligible under these criteria and cannot be accepted as a member in the club whose rules it has assisted to formulate.

But all these constitute a secondary and marginal portion of a central banks activities.

The main function of a modern central bank is the monitoring and regulation of interest rates in the economy. The central bank does this by changing the interest rates that it charges on money that it lends to the banking system through its “discount windows”. Interest rates is supposed to influence the level of economic activity in the economy. This supposed link has not unequivocally proven by economic research. Also, there usually is a delay between the alteration of interest rates and the foreseen impact on the economy. This makes assessment of the interest rate policy difficult. Still, central banks use interest rates to fine tune the economy. Higher interest rates – lower economic activity and lower inflation. The reverse is also supposed to be true. Even shifts of a quarter of a percentage point are sufficient to send the stock exchanges tumbling together with the bond markets. In 1994 a long term trend of increase in interest rate commenced in the USA, doubling interest rates from 3 to 6 percent. Investors in the bond markets lost 1 trillion (=1000 billion!) USD in 1 year. Even today, currency traders all around the world dread the decisions of the Bundesbank and sit with their eyes glued to the trading screen on days in which announcements are expected.

Interest rates is only the latest fad. Prior to this – and under the influence of the Chicago school of economics – central banks used to monitor and manipulate money supply aggregates. Simply put, they would sell bonds to the public (and, thus absorb liquid means, money) – or buy from the public (and, thus, inject liquidity). Otherwise, they would restrict the amount of printed money and limit the government’s ability to borrow. Even prior to that fashion there was a widespread belief in the effectiveness of manipulating exchange rates. This was especially true where exchange controls were still being implemented and the currency was not fully convertible. Britain removed its exchange controls only as late as 1979. The USD was pegged to a (gold) standard (and, thus not really freely tradable) as late as 1971. Free flows of currencies are a relatively new thing and their long absence reflects this wide held superstition of central banks. Nowadays, exchange rates are considered to be a “soft” monetary instrument and are rarely used by central banks. The latter continue, though, to intervene in the trading of currencies in the international and domestic markets usually to no avail and while losing their credibility in the process. Ever since the ignominious failure in implementing the infamous Louvre accord in 1985 currency intervention is considered to be a somewhat rusty relic of old ways of thinking.

Central banks are heavily enmeshed in the very fabric of the commercial banking system. They perform certain indispensable services for the latter. In most countries, interbank payments pass through the central bank or through a clearing organ which is somehow linked or reports to the central bank. All major foreign exchange transactions pass through – and, in many countries, still must be approved by – the central bank. Central banks regulate banks, licence their owners, supervise their operations, keenly observes their liquidity. The central bank is the lender of last resort in cases of insolvency or illiquidity.

The frequent claims of central banks all over the world that they were surprised by a banking crisis looks, therefore, dubious at best. No central bank can say that it had no early warning signs, or no access to all the data – and keep a straight face while saying so. Impending banking crises give out signs long before they erupt. These signs ought to be detected by a reasonably managed central bank. Only major neglect could explain a surprise on behalf of a central bank.

One sure sign is the number of times that a bank chooses to borrow using the discount windows. Another is if it offers interest rates which are way above the rates offered by other financing institutions. There are may more signs and central banks should be adept at reading them.

This heavy involvement is not limited to the collection and analysis of data. A central bank – by the very definition of its functions – sets the tone to all other banks in the economy. By altering its policies (for instance: by changing its reserve requirements) it can push banks to insolvency or create bubble economies which are bound to burst. If it were not for the easy and cheap money provided by the Bank of Japan in the eighties – the stock and real estate markets would not have inflated to the extent that they have. Subsequently, it was the same bank (under a different Governor) that tightened the reins of credit – and pierced both bubble markets.

The same mistake was repeated in 1992-3 in Israel – and with the same consequences.

This precisely is why central banks, in my view, should not supervise the banking system.

When asked to supervise the banking system – central banks are really asked to draw criticism on their past performance, their policies and their vigilance in the past. Let me explain this statement:

In most countries in the world, bank supervision is a heavy-weight department within the central bank. It samples banks, on a periodic basis. Then, it analyses their books thoroughly and imposes rules of conduct and sanctions where necessary. But the role of central banks in determining the health, behaviour and operational modes of commercial banks is so paramount that it is highly undesirable for a central bank to supervise the banks. As I have said, supervision by a central bank means that it has to criticize itself, its own policies and the way that they were enforced and also the results of past supervision. Central banks are really asked to cast themselves in the unlikely role of impartial saints.

A new trend is to put the supervision of banks under a different “sponsor” and to encourage a checks and balances system, wherein the central bank, its policies and operations are indirectly criticized by the bank supervision. This is the way it is in Switzerland and – with the exception of the Jewish money which was deposited in Switzerland never to be returned to its owners – the Swiss banking system is extremely well regulated and well supervised.

We differentiate between two types of central bank: the autonomous and the semi-autonomous.

The autonomous bank is politically and financially independent. Its Governor is appointed for a period which is longer than the periods of the incumbent elected politicians, so that he will not be subject to political pressures. Its budget is not provided by the legislature or by the executive arm. It is self sustaining: it runs itself as a corporation would. Its profits are used in leaner years in which it loses money (though for a central bank to lose money is a difficult task to achieve).

In Macedonia, for instance, annual surpluses generated by the central bank are transferred to the national budget and cannot be utilized by the bank for its own operations or for the betterment of its staff through education.

Prime examples of autonomous central banks are Germany’s Bundesbank and the American Federal Reserve Bank.

The second type of central bank is the semi autonomous one. This is a central bank that depends on the political echelons and, especially, on the Ministry of Finance. This dependence could be through its budget which is allocated to it by the Ministry or by a Parliament (ruled by one big party or by the coalition parties). The upper levels of the bank – the Governor and the Vice Governor – could be deposed of through a political decision (albeit by Parliament, which makes it somewhat more difficult). This is the case of the National Bank of Macedonia which has to report to Parliament. Such dependent banks fulfil the function of an economic advisor to the government. The Governor of the Bank of England advises the Minister of Finance (in their famous weekly meetings, the minutes of which are published) about the desirable level of interest rates. It cannot, however, determine these levels and, thus is devoid of arguably the most important policy tool. The situation is somewhat better with the Bank of Israel which can play around with interest rates and foreign exchange rates – but not entirely freely.

The National Bank of Macedonia (NBM) is highly autonomous under the law regulating its structure and its activities. Its Governor is selected for a period of seven years and can be removed from office only in the case that he is charged with criminal deeds. Still, it is very much subject to political pressures. High ranking political figures freely admit to exerting pressures on the central bank (at the same breath saying that it is completely independent).

The NBM is young and most of its staff – however bright – are inexperienced. With the kind of wages that it pays it cannot attract the best available talents. The budgetary surpluses that it generates could have been used for this purpose and to higher world renowned consultants (from Switzerland, for instance) to help the bank overcome the experience gap. But the money is transferred to the budget, as we said. So, the bank had to do with charity received from USAID, the KNOW-HOW FUND and so on. Some of the help thus provided was good and relevant – other advice was, in my view, wrong for the local circumstances. Take supervision: it was modelled after the Americans and British. Those are the worst supervisors in the West (if we do not consider the Japanese).

Retail Banking – A New Way For Customer Service

With the Independent Commission on UK Banking recently issuing its long awaited report on the state of our current banking landscape, the opportunities contained within it to improve retail banking customer service have been seemingly ‘lost in the noise’ – with our government apparently wanting to deflect attention by kicking it into the long grass.

But there is no escaping headline issues that emerged from the final report of Sir John Vickers and colleagues, namely how do we cope with banks that are too big to fail and how do we stop the risk of speculative investment banking toxifying retail accounts?

Retail UK banking, in contrast to investment banking, should be a simple business in which the bank takes our savings, marks them up and lends them to others, or vice versa. But this simple process has become an unwieldy beast with almost everyone you talk to having a retail bank atrocity story.

A recently conducted study of 1,000 nationally representative retail bank customers, with almost 70% believing that banks don’t care very much about what the public think of them, over 75% rating the public image and reputation of the banks’ retail operations as mediocre to dreadful, and an eye-watering 86% thinking that the image and reputation of the banks will not improve or will actually decline over the next six months.

Two influences, linked but not identical, seem to be at work. The first factor is the momentum towards online banking and the spotlight that puts on the slow and ponderous ‘old way’ of doing things. Ask yourself which is preferable – accessing a bank account from the train, your own home or an office, or trudging round to the bank in the rain and joining a queue? Older customers feel less habituated to the online world but the young customers ‘voting with their feet’ adds considerable impetus to this inevitable online momentum.

Thirty years ago a very senior UK bank official remarked in an unguarded moment that High Street banking was hopelessly and irredeemably uneconomic – and nothing that’s happened in the intervening years has made that judgment less telling.

The cost of maintaining a local branch network has become a dead weight hung from the necks of banks. If bearing this burden produced contented customers there might be something to be said for it, but it simply fails to do so. Branch managers have largely been deprived of the power to make decisions on loans, thereby further reducing the reasons to bother visiting the branch. When did you last do so? First Direct has responded to this economic reality with the intelligent stratagem of not having any branches. Yet how have other banks responded?

The second factor is the way retail bank brands are built, maintained and developed. Various studies show that marketing slogans, for example, have very low recognition amongst the public and the only one that had any genuine customer awareness was HSBC’s ‘the World’s Local Bank.’ This slogan was launched in March 2002, showing that it takes a long time and costs a great deal of money to get any sort of traction and make an impact.

The customers now pay more attention to the testimony of other customers than they do to promotional campaigns, with enthusiastic customers and ‘brand ambassadors’ being the market builders of the future.

A new business model is consequently required for retail UK banking. The old business model was bank-centric where the bank saw itself as a central resource and the customer could approach the bank and humbly inquire whether any of its supplier-defined services met the customer’s needs. Motivated by incentives, bank staff tried to convince customers that products like Payment Protection Insurance met genuine needs. So much for ‘Customer Service’.

There is a clear demand for a customer-centric business model, but few banks appear to be working effectively to meet this demand. When used properly, ‘new media’ can create genuine conversations with their customers and, as that famous book ‘The Cluetrain Manifesto’ puts it, “the market becomes a conversation”.

Instead of their services being defined by what the bank wants to offer, they can be defined by what the customers need. The ‘bank to customer’ polarity is reversed and the customer becomes the market-maker of the future.

It all comes down to the culture of the banks themselves. In today’s globalised and commoditised world there is always ‘choice’ but retail banks have sidestepped this evolution because of customer inertia. The general perception is that it is simply too much hassle to change your bank account – and if you do then the next bank you move to will be no better.

This has resulted in a culture of complacency amongst UK banks. They’ve been too big and too powerful for too long to worry too much what the customer ACTUALLY thinks. But this will change.

There are new competitors like Metro Bank, dedicated to a customer-centric model, that are changing the game and there is little doubt that the tipping point will come soon.

The bank that will win this battle will be the one that changes its culture towards the agile, customer service centric ethos that is winning out in different sectors and industries across the world.

Of course this conversion is not going to be easy for the big banks to achieve. At board level the banks are often aware of what’s happening and what’s needed. But layers of die-hard middle management are convinced that the old bank-centric model has enough life left to see out their careers. One major UK bank told us that they already have a team working on customer conversations, and that our research was a day late and a dollar short. But one look at the detailed reports from their customers shows their efforts may be costly but are simply not working. Bank customers are keen – perhaps even desperate – to enunciate their real needs, provided the banks are ready to listen and respond.

Now that the Independent Commission on UK Banking has issued its final report there is a window of opportunity in bank customer service for those senior managers in retail banking who are savvy enough to see it. The question that needs to be answered is will it encourage the banks to hold meaningful conversations with that 86 percent of customers who think the reputation of the banks will fail to improve any time soon? Let’s hope so.