Ripples of discontent shake Gulf and Western investors in Africa

US Navy personnel at the opening ceremony of an oil terminal facility in Djibouti. A decision to terminate a contract that allowed Dubai’s DP World to operate the Doraleh container terminal is being watched closely by Gulf investors. (Reuters)
Updated 26 February 2018
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Ripples of discontent shake Gulf and Western investors in Africa

LONDON: Djibouti’s decision to terminate a contract that allowed Dubai’s DP World to operate the Doraleh container terminal has once again focused attention on resource nationalism in Africa.
It coincided with the Gabonese government’s seizure last week of the water and electricity distribution unit of French utility group Veolia in the country.
Both events may give Gulf investors pause for thought.
Djibouti’s ousting of DP World from Doraleh was linked to long-standing disagreements between the two sides and growing Chinese influence, London-based Chatham House told Arab News.
Ahmed Soliman, research associate of the Africa program at the geopolitical think-tank, said that the move was in part related to a deal between Djibouti and China Merchants Holdings in 2013 when the Chinese acquired a 23.5 percent stake in the Port de Djibouti for $185 million.
That transaction also gave the Chinese rights to two thirds of the Doraleh terminal, leaving DP World with a third. China later helped to bankroll a huge extension called the Doraleh Multipurpose Port to provide additional capacity for 8.2 million tons of non-containerised goods, he said.
A second issue harked back to February 2017 when Djibouti lost a long, drawn-out arbitration case that threw out claims that DP World made illegal payments to win the Doraleh concession.
Soliman told Arab News: “Given that arbitration case, you could say the relationship between DP World and the Djibouti government soured some years ago. Additionally, Djibouti is now able to look at a wider number of strategic alliances, particularly with the Chinese government, and China Merchants Holdings,” he said.
DP World is not the only company facing issues related to country risk in Africa.
French environmental services group Veolia said it was “examining the legal consequences” of the Gabonese government’s seizure last week of its water and electricity distribution unit, SEEG.
The government has complained for years about frequent water cuts in the capital Libreville and threatened to freeze Veolia’s concession.
But Paul Melly of Chatham House, whose brief includes Gabon, told Arab News: “The political climate in Gabon is edgy, after president Bongo’s highly contentious re-election in 2016 and just months before legislative elections where the opposition could aspire to major gains. Against this testing context, the president has sought to rebuild his popularity through a renewed focus on essential services and public services. This may explain his decision to take a tough line over SEEG.”
He added: “But in taking such a confrontational stance toward Veolia, the government does risk jeopardizing wider investor confidence in Gabon, even if a compromise outcome is eventually negotiated with the French utilities group.”
Country risk has long been viewed as an issue for investors in Africa, especially in the mining sector. Only last year, London-listed Acacia Mining found itself in conflict with the government of Tanzania over disputed tax payments. Barrick — Acacia’s largest shareholder — eventually agreed to cede 16 percent of Acacia’s three gold mines in Tanzania to the government and pay $300 million toward resolving the row.
This year, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the world’s biggest cobalt producer, has confirmed it will increase the royalties miners pay on exports of the metal to 5 percent from 2 percent, a move that is opposed by mining groups such as Randgold and Glencore. They claim the measure may deter future investment.
However, Anver Versi, editor of London-based Africa Business, told Arab News that he did not think there was an upswing in populist nationalism in Africa, describing Djibouti and Gabon as “localized” issues.
He told Arab News: “Djibouti is ranked quite high in the World Bank’s table of ‘ease of doing business.’ So it would fly in the face of what they have been doing for a long time, which is trying to attract international investment.”
He added: “Returns from Africa are excellent. Cobalt prices are sky-high and if you are a cobalt producer, you will want to be in the DRC. And if the royalties go up, I think that’s a price most companies would be prepared to pay, given the high price of cobalt.”
Versi said resource nationalism and an appetite for nationalization in Africa was more of an issue in past decades when a popular view was that nationalizing resources would create huge profits that would flood into the country, but it never happened, he said.
Nor does Versi envisage a sovereign debt crisis in Africa as interest rates rise.
He said Africa has turned the corner mainly because oil prices have gone up, “so that is going to change the picture in Nigeria, Ghana and Mozambique.”
On debt, Gambia and Liberia were talking to the IMF to try to reduce their debt burden.
“But it’s not crippling debt. Six out of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world were in Africa in 2017, so the curve is upwards, Versi said.


Slack primed as latest unicorn to make market debut

Updated 19 June 2019
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Slack primed as latest unicorn to make market debut

  • Slack is a cloud-based software company that markets online tools for information sharing and workflow management
  • Current customers include Nordstrom, Ford and HSBC and the company has more than 95,000 paid customers overall

NEW YORK: The 2019 parade of big new Wall Street entrants continues this week with the debut of Slack Technologies, underscoring investor hunger for new companies in spite of some high-profile stumbles.
Nearly halfway through the year, US markets are on track for one of the biggest IPO seasons ever in terms of money raised following a stream of offerings from former “unicorns,” private companies worth more than $1 billion.
Yet two of this year’s biggest names — Uber and Lyft — currently trade below their IPO price, along with Snapchat, which has lagged its initial price for most of the time since it went public in March 2017.
Still, there have also been plenty of prominent companies that have risen since their initial public offerings, including jeans company Levi’s, Tradeweb Markets, which builds electronic marketplaces, Zoom Video Communications, and mobile application and software system Pinterest.
The most dramatic jump has been in food company Beyond Meat, which now trades at more than six-fold its entering price.
“The public has a huge interest” in new companies, said JJ Kinahan, chief market strategist at TD Ameritrade, adding that the mixed performance of the 2019 ex-unicorn class is comparable to that of the broader market.
“There aren’t a lot of other choices besides IPOs for investors seeking growth,” said Gregori Volokhine, president of Meeschaert Financial Services, who attributes the rush of funds in part to central bank policies promoting liquidity.
“There’s an excess of underinvested funds worldwide,” he said.
In terms of sheer volume, the number of IPOs in 2019 so far — 93 — is roughly equal to last year’s figure, according to Dealogic.
But the funds raised, $34.5 billion, stand 13.6 percent above last year’s sum and the highest for the comparable period since 2000, according to Dealogic data.

Direct listing
A cloud-based software company that markets online tools for information sharing and workflow management, San Francisco-based Slack parts ways from the other big companies this year by opting for a direct listing instead of an IPO.
This approach, which was also employed by Spotify last year, cuts down on fees to investment bankers in IPOs. Although existing shares can be sold, a direct listing does not issue new shares, averting share dilution but also forgoing the new funds raised in an IPO.
The process can also be riskier in terms of share price volatility compared with an IPO, where underwriters line up investors in advance. In a direct listing, shares are exposed more directly to the open market.
Slack chief executive and co-founder Stewart Butterfield described the company’s technologies as a “brand new category of software” that replaces email in a company.
Current customers include Nordstrom, Ford and HSBC and the company has more than 95,000 paid customers overall.
“It turns email to messages and organizes them into team, project and topic based channels instead of individual in-boxes,” Butterfield said in a June 10 earnings conference call.
“It’s a team-first approach to communication, in contrast to email’s individual first approach. It creates a rich, searchable, permanent body of information that’s widely available across an organization, even for people who just joined the team.”
 

Unprofitable three years
The company, which is expected to be valued at around $17 billion when it enters the market on Thursday, reported revenues of $134.8 million in the quarter ending April 30, up 66.7 percent from the year-ago period.
But Slack, which has been unprofitable the last three years, reported a $33.3 million loss during the period, 34 percent more than last year’s loss.
Of course, many unprofitable companies have gone public and done well in markets for years. Yet the heavy losses and murky profit outlook at Uber and Lyft have been seen as factors in their lackluster performance since going public.
But investors remain keen on growth stories following the success of Amazon, Facebook and other tech giants that have emerged in recent decades.
A key beneficiary of this desire has been Beyond Meat, which has multiplied in value many times since going public May 3 at $25 and currently is priced at $168.92. The company has been seen as a main beneficiary of the growing alternative protein market, which some analysts think could top $100 billion in the coming decade or so.
Kinahan said in general investors have wised up after the early 2000s Internet bubble but that “it’s just unnatural” for stocks like Beyond Meat to move in an unbroken straight line upwards.
“There’s a healthy bit of skepticism in the market,” he said. “However, certain companies have maybe gotten a little ahead of themselves.”