Better year may be ahead for Saudi bank shares

Updated 24 January 2013

Better year may be ahead for Saudi bank shares

DUBAI: A weak performance by bank shares was one of the big surprises of Saudi Arabia's stock market last year, but the shares may pick up this year as strong economic growth finally provides a general boost to profits.
Last year should have been ideal for bank shares. Saudi Arabia's economy expanded 6.8 percent, the population continued to grew, and bank lending surged; outstanding loans to the private sector jumped 14.9 percent from a year earlier in November, the fastest pace since March 2009.
Expansionary government spending, with a focus on welfare and infrastructure development, helped drive loan growth for banks listed on the stock market to 17.4 percent last year, investment bank EFG-Hermes estimated.
But share price performance was less than spectacular; the banking sector index was flat in 2012, underperforming a 6.0 percent rise by the overall market index.
Analysts said a range of factors pressured profit margins last year, including regulators' decision to encourage banks to make large provisions for loan losses in the third quarter as a precaution, and stiff competition between banks.
"Banks are going toward retail financing but one of the key characteristics of the segment is price competition," said Abdullah Alawi, head of research at Aljazira Capital in Jeddah. "That's one of the reasons top-line margins are being squeezed."
The pressure on margins could be seen in a mixed bag of earnings reported by Saudi banks over the past couple of weeks for the fourth quarter of 2012.
For example Riyad Bank, the country's third-largest listed bank by market capitalization, posted a rise in fourth-quarter net profit of just 4.1 percent from a year earlier, to SR 810 million ($ 216 million). It missed the average forecast of nine analysts surveyed by Reuters, who had predicted SR 822 million.
Net profit at Samba Financial Group, the second-largest listed bank, actually fell 7.8 percent, even though its loan portfolio expanded 18 percent. There are reasons to think this year will be kinder to bank shares, however.
One is that loan loss provisions tapered off last quarter as regulators apparently became satisfied with the banks' precautions. Now that the precautions have been taken, banks may be freer to offer more loans in the relatively risky but lucrative consumer sector.
The positive surprises in banks' fourth-quarter earnings often came from institutions with substantial exposure to retail consumer lending, including Bank Albilad and Saudi British Bank.
"Loan growth in 2013 will be in the low teens - that is already priced into share prices. But if margins improve, it will be a catalyst for the sector," said Mahmoud Akbar, a banking analyst at NCB Capital.
"The consumer lending side did very well in 2012, and building on that is still a possibility." A key constraint on banks could be regulatory limits on such loans, he added; the central bank limits most consumer lending to 33 percent of the borrower's salary.
But even if consumer lending growth slows, the volume which banks added to their overall loan portfolios in the past year should filter through to their bottom lines in coming months, analysts said.
"These loan growth trends are encouraging and suggest that the broader fundamental story for Saudi banks remains intact," sid Murad Ansari at EFG-Hermes.
Also, precisely because of their weak performance last year, bank shares are not pricey. The sector is trading at about 10.4 times analysts' estimates of earnings for this year, while the overall market index is at 11.3 times.
"Banks are not expensive - we're happy with the asset growth in the banking sector as a whole," said Farooq Waheed, senior portfolio manager at Riyad Capital.
"This year, we will see the full impact of that growth. We expect the sector to lead the market in 2013. There were some earnings disappointments but I think there is room for earnings growth."
Some investors may already be acting on such expectations. The banking sector of the stock market is up 4.4 percent so far in January, compared to a 2.9 percent gain for the overall index.

Telegram Russia ban spurs privacy debate

Updated 21 April 2018

Telegram Russia ban spurs privacy debate

  • Telegram has always attracted a mix of criticism and respect for its use of encryption to ensure its messages between users remain confidential.
  • A Moscow court decided last week to block the app in Russia because it refused to hand over encryption keys to authorities.

LONDON: Telegram, the messaging app that re-located from Russia to Dubai, has again fallen foul of the authorities in its mother country. So what is it about the social media platform that simultaneously has governments worldwide so concerned and freedom of speech advocates so agitated?
Telegram has always attracted a mix of criticism and respect for its use of encryption to ensure its messages between users remain confidential.
A Moscow court decided last week to block the app in Russia because it refused to hand over encryption keys to authorities — sparking fresh controversy around the app, which has previously been banned in countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Indonesia.
Telegram has been under close scrutiny in Russia since legislation was passed in mid-2016 that required communication companies to hand over encryption keys to the Federal Security Service (FSB), if requested.
There was also a move to place companies on a “register of information distributors,” which requires firms to store user online communications for a set period of time and hand over data to the authorities when needed.


Some of Russia’s large social networks are reportedly on the register and Telegram was pressurized to register in mid-2017. Other Western social media companies such as WhatsApp are not listed. WhatsApp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Weeks after joining the register, Telegram refused to agree to FSB requests for encryption keys, resulting in the Russian media watchdog Roskomnadzor seeking court approval this month to block the app.
On the day of the court decision, Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov tweeted: “Privacy is not for sale, and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed.” The company has also said it is technically impossible to transfer encryption keys.
It was not the Russian entrepreneur Durov’s first run-in with Russian authorities. Telegram — which was launched in 2013 — originally had its development team based in St. Petersburg, but had to leave the country due to local IT regulations. It is currently based in Dubai.
The messaging app prides itself in being the most secure and independent form of instant messaging that respects the need for privacy. Its “secret chats” option makes use of end-to-end encryption that ensures only users can read them. Messages cannot be forwarded and you can order messages to “self-destruct” within a set amount of time. It can also alert users if the recipient of the message takes a screenshot of the correspondence. So-called Telegram “Channels” can be used to broadcast public messages to a large audiences.
While WhatsApp — which is owned by Facebook — also provides end-to-end encryption, Telegram differentiates itself with claims it is faster and more secure.
Damir Gainutdinov is a legal analyst at Russian human rights group Agora, which represented Telegram in court. He has headed up its project on the defense of online freedom in Russia since 2010.
He told Arab News that the block placed on Russia was more of a power-play by the authorities.
“I think that Russian authorities believe that Telegram is a threat because they cannot control it.
“But I wouldn’t say that it is really the biggest threat. The attack on Telegram is more about showing that they can block any global service if they want,” he said.
Russia’s government has argued that the app helps to enable terrorist attacks in the country, saying that access to encrypted messages is a national security issue.
The FSB said a suicide bomber who killed 15 people on a St. Petersburg subway in April last year had used Telegram to plan the attack.
Voices from outside Russia have also criticized Telegram for not doing enough to clamp down on terrorists using the app. “Terrorists and extremist groups such as ISIS (Daesh) use encrypted applications like Telegram because it allows them to recruit new members, fundraise, incite to violence, and even coordinate terrorist activity without the threat of being discovered,” said executive director David Ibsen at the US-based non-government organization Counter-Extremism Project.
“ISIS also created public channels on Telegram to broadcast pro-ISIS news updates and disseminate other propaganda materials,” he told Arab News. Durov has been quoted as saying at a conference in 2015 that the right to privacy is more important to the company than “our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism.” Following the Paris attacks in 2015, Telegram did revise its policy on its public channels, but it has refused to take down private Daesh chats, according to Ibsen.
Social media sites are coming under increasing pressure from authorities worldwide to do more to limit the promotion of extremism online.
In a statement to Arab News, Twitter said it had permanently suspended 274,460 sites in the second half of last year — down more than 8 percent on the previous reporting period.
While Telegram is far from the only social media app to be criticized for its counter-terrorism policies, it is seen by some as the more reluctant player in the battle against online extremism. “Social media companies remove content regularly that violates their stated terms of service, and some of this includes extremist and terrorist videos, images and other propaganda,” said Ibsen. “However, despite the availability of technology that can identify and permanently prevent prohibited materials from being re-uploaded, the biggest social media platforms are not taking this vitally important step,” he said.
“Telegram has become a refuge app from the moment the preferred apps (Twitter in particular) started to clamp down on extremist content,” said Rik Coolsaet, a professor of international relations at Ghent University in Belgium who has written extensively on counter-terrorism efforts. “Its encryption offered a secure environment for terrorist recruiters and groomers, but at the same time limited their propaganda outreach, since it is more difficult to access. For that reason, Twitter remains their preferred app,” he added.
Russia is not the only country clamping down on Telegram. Iran restricted certain channels in December last year during the protests and there have been recent threats that restrictions could be reimposed. A estimated 40 million Iranians use Telegram’s channels and messaging services.
“In the case of Russia and Iran, the Telegram crackdown has much more to do with controlling the lives of its citizens than it does with preventing terrorist activity,” said Ibsen.
Telegram did not respond to Arab News’ request for comment.


We talk to leading world cyber terrorism expert Chris Sampson, co-author of “Hacking ISIS: How to Destroy the Cyber Jihad” and an analyst with the Terror Asymmetrics Project

Why are governments so worried about Telegram?
Telegram was launched as an encrypted messaging app. This meant that government agencies were less likely to be able to intercept messages passing across the Internet and read private conversations. However, in September 2015, Telegram also created an option for channels, which act like chat groups. This allowed like-minded individuals to essentially host a chat room. Unless the channel was set to public you couldn’t read what was discussed without being given an invitation link. Groups like ISIS began using these channels to share propaganda and information. Other groups use Telegram in much the same manner. Non-violent resistance groups around the world would also use the messaging app and channels to communicate so authorities in the countries they fear would be less likely to intercept their discussions.

Will clamping down on social media apps be effective?
As governments crack down and ban apps, others will rise and replace them with new features and focus on security from outside eyes. They will operate either within the legal construct or outside of it depending on the countries they seek to circumvent. Since laws around the world differ dramatically, what is legal in one country could be illegal in another. We’ve seen this already happen as countries sought to ban use of Telegram, WhatsApp or even Twitter. Inevitably the access to the technology remains the same and users find a way to use both encrypted messaging and social media platforms.

Does Russia’s action set a precedent?
Countries such as Indonesia, Iran, Afghanistan and others have banned Telegram. Brazil banned WhatsApp around the timing of the World Cup only to lift the ban. Such bans are largely ineffective because the majority of users are engaged in lawful communications yet want their privacy, those engaged in illegal and potentially violent activities make up a fraction of the userbase. The better solution is to know where nefarious users are lurking on the web and keep track of them in observable spaces. Banning the public’s access to messaging apps will always fail. Telegram and similar companies should deny government agencies the keys to encryption unless there is a reason given that would justify unlocking communications. If the governments are able to seize a phone and unlock it, they’ll already have access to a suspect’s communication if they haven’t erased the data.



Telegram, founded by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov in 2013, is an app that enables encrypted messaging, together with “self-destruct” messages. It is used by 200 million people worldwide. Authorities in a number of countries criticized it for providing secure communications channels for terrorists and criminals.