INTERVIEW: ‘There is going to be pain and maybe some austerity’ — Saudi Citi chief

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Updated 10 May 2020

INTERVIEW: ‘There is going to be pain and maybe some austerity’ — Saudi Citi chief

  • CEO Carmen Haddad believes the Kingdom’s economy is robust and well resourced 

The coronavirus crisis has changed everything in the economic world as governments struggle to adapt to the new reality of collapsing growth and the likelihood of a Great Depression-type period ahead.

But some economies are better placed to handle a major downturn than others, according to Carmen Haddad, head of the US banking giant Citi in Saudi Arabia.

“Let’s put things into perspective, Saudi Arabia remains a G20 economy, and a very robust economy, the largest in the Middle East,” she told Arab News.

Her optimism is tempered by a realistic assessment that the Kingdom, along with every other economy in the world, will have to adapt as countries emerge from the crisis.

“I think there’s going to be pain, and maybe some austerity measures will be needed if this period extends. The government has taken several measures, including a 5 percent cut on its 2020 expenditure. This will probably come from entertainment and tourism sectors as the policymakers need to reallocate spending to ensure the right sectors receive funding,” she said.

“Maybe this will give some reflection on some of the projects. They have the opportunity to revisit the projects they have, especially the mega-projects that require huge capital expenditure.”

Citi has been busy in the Kingdom for many years, since it first opened up there in the 1950s, and recently has been part of the banking team that had helped Riyadh raise money on international capital markets, as well as advising on project financing, trade and other forms of corporate activity. Haddad is well placed to analyze the current economic and financial situation in which the Kingdom finds itself.

As well as the global economic downturn as a result of pandemic-related lockdowns, Saudi policymakers also have to reckon with the effects of the collapse in oil prices — still the government’s biggest source of revenue.

Haddad is aware of the challenges. “Saudi is largely an oil-based economy and possesses about 12.5 percent of the world’s proven reserves. Even with the implementation of the economic and social reforms under Vision 2030 and the plan to diversify away from being an oil-based economy, the non-oil revenue accounts for one-third of total revenues.

“This one-third now was only 13 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) five years ago, so the vision has been in execution mode for a few years. But considering the developments in crude oil supply demand dynamics and COVID-19, this has naturally had an impact on revenues as we saw the first-quarter  budget figures from the Ministry of Finance. We saw decline of 22 percent year on year. Expenditures were higher by 4 percent and there was a 9 per deficit,” she added.

The Kingdom has a number of policy options available to deal with the challenges, she believes.

“Regarding the deficits, the ratio of debt to GDP figure was 24 percent at the end of 2019, so even if you get to 30 percent by year end you still have a relatively robust and strong economy. I think the self-imposed debt ceiling increase from 30 percent to 50 percent will help during these times, until oil prices stabilize.

“They’ve been doing things very proactively. The Ministry of Finance recently announced the total impact of the current environment will be $29 billion on the 2020 budget deficit, so that means the forecast deficit has been revised to $79 billion, and it will be funded by debt and reserves.

“If you look at the debt issuance in the market by Saudi Arabia this year, it has been very well measured. They issued in January and then again in April — Saudi already raised $20 billion in debt between Eurobond and domestic sukuk.

“In the April issuance, Saudi raised a $7 billion multi tranche bond and it was 7.5 times oversubscribed. It was the largest order book from and emerging market sovereign this year, and a remarkable transaction from demand and pricing perspective,” she said. Citi was part of the finance team that advised on that bond issue.

The Kingdom has big reserves it can tap into, Haddad said. “The finance minister said it’s going to be painful and difficult, but I think Saudi has the capacity to manage. I think you have enough headroom to raise more debt and fund the deficit from local and international markets, and also tap into reserves from the government current account.

“Let’s not forget the reserves. The Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority (SAMA) announced a drop in the reserves to $475 billion, that’s down by $25 billion, but you know it’s expected there is going to be some pressure on reserves.

“If you look at the package of support for the banking system of $13 billion, aimed at easing the private sector, SMEs, and lending conditions. Those are very important steps that have been taken as well, and already reflected in the drop in the reserves.


BIO

BORN: Hamburg, Germany

EDUCATION:

  • Schooling in Baghdad and London
  • University of Richmond, UK
  • American International University, London

CAREER:

  • JP Morgan Chase, asset manager
  • Lehman Brothers, sales
  • Merrill Lynch, trading and brokerage
  • Citi private bank, KSA
  • Chief country officer, Citi Qatar
  • CEO, Citi KSA

“Overall, there are other reserves in the system that we don’t often look at. The Ministry of Finance has $130 billion of reserves and other government agencies like the Public Pension Agency, the General Organization for Social Insurance and the Public Investment Fund, we estimate they have a combined figure of around $500 billion in assets under management, of which $100 billion are in foreign liquid assets. So total reserves available are above $600 billion,” she said.

And there is the likelihood that oil prices will revive toward the end of the year as global demand recovers. Citi is looking at an average of $36 per barrel this year and $56 for 2021.

“Assuming that, we should be OK. Again, the debt appetite is there, reserves are high and the deficit is being managed, so hopefully this is going to be OK.  We need to look beyond 2020.  The IMF expects a bounce back in GDP in to 2.9 percent for next year,” she said.

Saudi Arabia, like other governments trying to tackle the pandemic shock, will have to take some hard decisions, Haddad said. “They may delay some projects that are not critical, given COVID and future challenges on certain sectors, like tourism.

“There will be huge changes in the way that we operate, so there may be some thought around what is a priority and what is not. Some of the mega-projects around entertainment and travel, for example — maybe those might be deferred or scaled back,” she said.

The pandemic crisis does not necessarily involve a complete halt to corporate and financial activity. “A lot of focus has been on privatization, but now it becomes even more important to accelerate the privatization agenda. Project financing or project-led funding for the public sector is important, as well as tapping into the export agency is also something that could be considered, the Export Credit Agency program. And then some optimization around certain portfolios. Tapping liquidity is increasing, so I’m sure there are other ways they can consider funding. So the focus there will be going forward and diversifying the funding base,” she said.

There could even be a buying opportunity for the Kingdom as foreign assets are going at bargain prices. The Public Investment Fund has already been active, snapping up opportunities in global leisure and energy sectors.

“The PIF has a lot of assets under their belt. They could go to the market and start looking for cheaper discounted prices to expand and enter the market today, especially the international market given their focus on the main pillars of investment.

“They have some liquidity to be able to buy at a cheaper price. They’ve done that and they can continue to do that. There’s some valuation dislocation happening in equity markets and from that there are opportunities for people who hold cash and have the ability to do that,” she said.

From her base in Dubai’s international financial center, Haddad is planning what she calls “phase two” of the reaction to the crisis, when Citi is thinking about getting back to some kind of post-pandemic reality.

“Although governments have announced some easing of restrictions, we are taken our own pace to ensure the safety of our people and coordinating with all stakeholders from government, the health ministry and regulators, to ensure we return to the workplace in a phased and measured approach, and need to make sure we get this right.

“We have not set out an exact timeline or dates because much depends on external factors. We are focused on the data, not the date, in our planning to return to office, and it will be done in multiple phases,” she said.

But she believes there will be permanent shifts in business practice as a result of the crisis.

“We have to understand that there is going to be a new normal. I don’t think I’ll be traveling as much, for sure,” she said.


INTERVIEW: Saudi finance exec talks about home ownership in the coronavirus era

Updated 1 min 47 sec ago

INTERVIEW: Saudi finance exec talks about home ownership in the coronavirus era

  • Saudi Real Estate Refinance Company CEO Fabrice Susini is confident mortgage demand will return

What a difference a pandemic makes. At the turn of 2020, Fabrice Susini, CEO of Saudi Real Estate Refinance Company (SRC), could look back on two years of significant progress toward the provision of affordable home ownership for the Kingdom’s aspirational young population.

Increased property ownership was one of the main aims of the plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil dependency, setting a target of 70 percent home ownership by 2030.

It was all going to plan. New mortgage issuance had been “staggering,” Susini said, and SRC had reached its target of facilitating 60 percent home ownership with months to spare.

“It was a very positive story,” he said, allowing him to work on the next phase of Saudi Arabia’s move toward being a home-owning economy — buying more mortgage portfolios from banks and other mortgage originators, injecting more liquidity into the housing market via domestic and international sukuk issuance, and offering new long-term fixed-rate mortgages to potential and actual home owners.

The economic lockdown that took increasing effect from March has changed the figures on which those plans were based. New mortgage applications, which has been running between SR20 million ($5.3 million) to SR50 million per week, dropped into single-digit millions as potential buyers were forced to stay at home rather than go viewing properties and took stock of their spending plans in light of the economic downturn that followed the pandemic outbreak.

“We expect to report a sharp drop for April and May. I would be surprised if the numbers remain the same,” Susini said. “But the fundamentals remain the same. It is still an underserved market, compared with the demands and needs of the young, dynamic population aspiring to home ownership. The process may be slowed by a couple of months, but the demographic is still there. There will be a slowdown but I’m sure a catch-up is coming and the forward movement will resume.”

One reason for his optimism is the action taken by the financial authorities to support the economy in its hour of need, especially the stimulus packages unveiled by the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) and the Finance Ministry.

“There has been a lot of support coming through for small to medium businesses and private companies, and that will balance and smooth out the process. I don’t see a big hit coming,” he said.

Effective monitoring and control of SAMA liquidity injections would ensure they reached the SME and private sector organizations they are mainly intended to help, he added.

“I’d be very surprised if any significant proportion was not properly channeled to the private sector and SMEs,” he said.


BIO

BORN: Rome, 1964

EDUCATION: 

  • Law degree, Paris X Nanterre University, France
  • Banking and finance degree, Sciences Po, Paris
  • Master’s degree, finance, Dauphine University, Paris
  • MBA, London Business School

CAREER

  • Relationship manager, Societe Generale
  • Analyst, Bayerische Landesbank
  • Global head of securitization, BNP
  • CEO, Saudi Real Estate Refinance Company

The mortgage industry in Saudi Arabia enjoys significant subsidies from the government for its products, and while some of these have been changed in recent week, reducing subsidies to mortgages for military and some civilian personnel, he does not see this as the beginning of a trend to remove subsidies for mortgages in the broader scope of SRC’s business.

“There is no danger to mortgage subsidies that I am aware of. The budget has been carried out, the resources are there. But of course we want to make sure that every riyal of subsidy is used to its most effective extent,” Susini said.

“When we saw the situation was becoming more challenging, the SAMA package was a great help by injecting liquidity into the financial system, but we also wanted to be more proactive ourselves in the relationship we have with our borrowers and our partners. We didn’t just want to wait until people were actually in difficulties before we acted,” he added.

The result was the “forbearance” plan for borrowers, by which SRC asked its mortgage partners to offer a three-month mortgage holiday to those who felt the need, and many took up the offer. “A big majority has gone for it. We see ourselves as a ‘citizen’ company and we do not just want to rely on the authorities. We asked ourselves what we can do in terms of citizenship and public policy initiatives,” Susini said.

There seems little prospect of a cascade of mortgage defaults as long as the current policy of government support continues, and SRC and mortgage originators persist with the policy of showing patience and understanding in difficult economic circumstances.

Nonetheless, prospective home owners are facing big challenges. Not only has the lockdown made the market mechanics of home-buying more difficult, with viewings almost impossible in the light of curfews and travel restrictions, but there is also the question of whether people will hesitate over such a life-changing decision. Will they want to buy a house or apartment while the pandemic continues to rage?

Susini thinks customers will learn to prioritize their financial decisions more carefully. “You might defer the purchase of a new car, but still want to buy a home. You would direct your choice toward those things you regard as more important. Home ownership is probably regarded as more essential,” he said.

The appetite of Saudi citizens for house purchase in the new circumstances will be better judged when SAMA and other financial bodies publish official figures in the near future, he said.

With regard to the overall health of the real estate market, Susini said that he has not seen a significant fall in property prices, but underlines the fact that SRC caters mainly for the affordable segment of the market, where big falls in value are less likely. He noted that apartments have been holding their value “quite well” in comparison with bigger units like townhouses and villas.

In an era when global interest rates are falling toward zero in many parts of the world, there could be an incentive for customers to go for the long-term fixed-rate deals SRC is offering.

“We’re seeing the need for more awareness of the benefits of fixed rates. Borrowers can grasp the benefit of remortgaging at rates that are significantly lower now than they were before. It is a choice for the borrower really. They can either own their home more quickly than before, or maintain their payments on more sensible terms. It can be beneficial for them whether rates are subsidized or not,” he said.

SRC reduced its lending rates for long-term fixed mortgages last month, is first cut this year following two rate reductions in 2019. Borrowers could now take advantage of a 5 percent rate on a 25-year mortgage, Susini said.

SRC is also working hard on the digital space, with online facilitators becoming more crucial to home purchase. The company is in the early stages of a study on fintech and digital mortgage origination, and some initiative could be forthcoming by the summer, he said.

“If you can talk of a silver lining from the current situation, it is that it is accelerating the digitization of financial processes. The payment processes are already quite well developed, but the sale of processes presents more of a challenge. The health ministry has organized some innovative processes around the digital market place, and the justice ministry has done good work on the digital origination of contracts.”

The strategy of including mortgage originators in the SRC set-up will continue, and Susini is holding talks with financial and corporate firms to bring more products under its portfolio. 

SRC is owned by the Public Investment Fund, the Kingdom’s $325 billion sovereign wealth fund, so it has access to finance at the highest level. But under Susini’s stewardship there has also been a willingness to raise money in local markets via domestic sukuk issues. Two have already been launched, and a third is lined up to take place in the summer.

After that, the company will be work on an international bond offering toward the end of the year, though he declined to say how much would be raised.

“We want to ensure we can continue to finance mortgages, to have sufficient tools and channels so that no bank or finance company is stopped from offering mortgages because of issues to do with capital ratios of liquidity,” Susini said.

He viewed recent downgrades by ratings agencies of banks’ creditworthiness or prospects as a “gray cloud” over liquidity.

“We want to be ready so that primary originators of mortgages have all the tools necessary to keep operating regardless of the problems they might face,” he added.