Africa continues to grow in importance as a market for European corporates. But while enviable growth rates and positive demographics are generating strong opportunities, corporates and their banking partners still face considerable challenges on the continent due to Africa’s cultural diversity and its regulatory and political inconsistencies. Christian Nägele, Head of Sub-Saharan Africa Region at UniCredit, explains how a bespoke approach to international trade is required
With strong long-term economic fundamentals, a young and growing population, and soon-to-be fastest urbanisation rates in the world – Africa is on the rise. But for European corporates looking to make their mark, overwhelming diversity in geography, culture and market maturity threaten to derail strategies that ignore these complexities. To unlock the most promising opportunities, corporates should look to banking partners that have comprehensive correspondent networks, offer tailored trade products and services, and keep an ear to the ground to provide expert local market knowledge. And, with a little luck, they might find themselves at the centre of the next African economic “hot spot”.
Of course, entering new markets in Africa is a daunting prospect. A dazzlingly diverse continent of 54 countries, over 3,000 ethnicities and 2,000 languages, it is home to an array of political, economic, cultural and geographic disparities. Even more-developed countries with lingua francas such as South Africa and Nigeria resist comparison. Success in one market by no means guarantees success in the other, while economic integration efforts are still a fair distance behind other regions of the world. Only in East Africa, for example, are tourist visas valid across multiple countries. In every other region, individual tourist and business visas are required for each country – just one factor that hinders corporates operating on the continent.
Low levels of European trade with Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the fledgling status of inter-African trade, mean that clear and consistent taxes and regulations are also lacking in many countries.Indeed, the less mature trading economies of Sub-Saharan Africa vary wildly in the reliability or stability of state institutions such as central banks, treasuries, regulators, law courts and public protection authorities. Aligning with the unique regulatory, market and cultural characteristics of their target markets is therefore vital for corporates looking to expand –a blanket approach to cross-border trade is not enough.
Expertise clearing a path forward
Corporates therefore need expert support, which is where banks can help. They can provide insider knowledge to monitor the progress of regulatory reform. They also understand local complexities and can help them develop strategies for managing risk and such obvious concerns as local currency liabilities.
Expanding into new African markets also invariably involves managing complex supply chains with unfamiliar parties across a fragmented continent. In such an environment, open account agreements are often insufficient as they require well-established client-supplier relationships within a robust legal framework, so trade finance solutions such as letters of credit become crucial to mitigating any risks.
And this isn’t just relevant to European companies mitigating counterparty risk in Africa. The strong brand recognition they enjoy at home may not extend to the African markets they enter, so a variety of guarantees such as performance bonds and prepayment bonds – as well as letters of credit and standby letters of credit – will be important for both sides to trade with confidence.
Smaller clients, meanwhile – and even larger ones, if they have no existing reputation or experience in a new region – may struggle to access local financing based on the strength of their credit profiles alone. In these cases, a partner bank with a wide correspondent network will be invaluable – working in tandem with local banks to secure otherwise unviable financing agreements.
Many banks are pulling out of such arrangements, shied by the rising costs of due diligence. Yet correspondent banking remains a crucial element of trade finance. Our policy at UniCredit, for example, is to maintain correspondent relationships with at least the top three banks in each of the major African economies where our clients operate – seeing this as essential to serving them in this region.
Invest early, win big
Indeed, growing in Africa – whether increasing import/export business, setting up a local subsidiary or entering new markets – is a priority for many corporates who recognise that, despite the challenges, the continent has vast potential. In particular, retail and automotive companies, along with infrastructure providers,are acting on rising demand. One example is the increasing preference for new, rather than second-hand, vehicles in many countries across the continent. German and Japanese auto companies already have factories in economic hubs such as South Africa for domestic consumption and overseas exports, but the opportunity is now there to sell their products right across the continent – provided they can negotiate the challenges.
Of course, while everyone wants the inside track on the next African economic “miracle” or “hot spot”, insights are hard to come by due to the constantly shifting economic, political and regulatory conditions. Angola and Nigeria have been recent success stories, for example, but low oil prices have reduced demand, taking swathes out of state reserves and drastically limiting the availability of foreign currency to pay for exports.
East Africa, more than any other region, is where we see the brightest prospects today. Ethiopia, for example, is attracting corporates with its strong growth, investment in infra structure and its large population.Meanwhile Rwanda – although smaller – has a fast-growing economy with an efficient transport and logistics network. While opportunities in the region – and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa – may be at nascent stages today, early movers stand to benefit the most from any future growth. Along the way, support from a trusted banking partner with a historical regional presence, a strong understanding of different local customs, and a trusted network of correspondent banks will be vital to navigating the trading terrain and striking rich in these markets of promise.
Economic recovery likely to prove a ‘stuttering’ affair
By Rupert Thompson, Chief Investment Officer at Kingswood
Equity markets continued their upward trend last week, with global equities gaining 1.2% in local currency terms. Beneath the surface, however, the recovery has been a choppy affair of late. China and the technology sector, the big outperformers year-to-date, retreated last week whereas the UK and Europe, the laggards so far this year, led the gains.
As for US equities, they have re-tested, but so far failed to break above, their post-Covid high in early June and their end-2019 level. The recent choppiness of markets is not that surprising given they are being buffeted by a whole series of conflicting forces.
Developments regarding Covid-19 as ever remain absolutely critical and it is a mixture of bad and good news at the moment. There have been reports of encouraging early trial results for a new treatment and potential vaccine but infection rates continue to climb in the US. Reopening has now been halted or reversed in states accounting for 80% of the population.
We are a long way away from a complete lockdown being re-imposed and these moves are not expected to throw the economy back into reverse. But they do emphasise that the economic recovery, not only in the US but also elsewhere, is likely to prove a ‘stuttering’ affair.
Indeed, the May GDP numbers in the UK undid some of the optimism which had been building recently. Rather than bouncing 5% m/m in May as had been expected, GDP rose a more meagre 1.8% and remains a massive 24.5% below its pre-Covid level in February.
Even in China, where the recovery is now well underway, there is room for some caution. GDP rose a larger than expected 11.5% q/q in the second quarter and regained all of its decline the previous quarter. However, the bounce back is being led by manufacturing and public sector investment, and the recovery in retail sales is proving much more hesitant.
China is not just a focus of attention at the moment because its economy is leading the global upturn but because of the increasing tensions with Hong Kong, the US and UK. UK telecoms companies have now been banned from using Huawei’s 5G equipment in the future and the US is talking of imposing restrictions on Tik Tok, the Chinese social media platform. While this escalation is not as yet a major problem, it is a potential source of market volatility and another, albeit as yet relatively small, unwelcome drag on the global economy.
Government support will be critical over coming months and longer if the global recovery is to be sustained. This week will be crucial in this respect for Europe and the US. The EU, at the time of writing, is still engaged in a marathon four-day summit, trying to reach an agreement on an economic recovery fund. As is almost always the case, a messy compromise will probably end up being hammered out.
An agreement will be positive but the difficulty in reaching it does highlight the underlying tensions in the EU which have far from gone away with the departure of the UK. Meanwhile in the US, the Democrats and Republicans will this week be engaged in their own battle over extending the government support schemes which would otherwise come to an end this month.
Most of these tensions and uncertainties are not going away any time soon. Markets face a choppy period over the summer and autumn with equities remaining at risk of a correction.
European trading firms begin coming to terms with the new normal
By Terry Ewin, Vice President EMEA, IPC
In recent weeks, the phrase ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ has received a large amount of usage. Management consultancies, industry associations and organisations, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have all used it in order to discuss how the current crisis, caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, presents an opportunity for new and worthwhile change.
The saying is also commonly used to indicate that the destruction and damage that is caused by a crisis gives organisations the chance to rebuild, and to do things that would not have previously been possible. This has the potential to impact financial trading firms, where projects that this time last year would not have made much sense now appearing to be as clear as day. In Europe, banks and brokers alike are beginning to think about what life will look like post-pandemic, and how their technology strategies may need changing.
We can think of three distinct phases when it comes to a crisis. Firstly, there is the emergency phase. This is followed by the transition period before we come to the post-crisis period.
Starting with the emergency phases, this is when firms are in critical crisis management mode. Plans are activated to ensure business continuity, and banks and brokers work to ensure critical functions can still take place so as to continue servicing their clients. With regards to the current crisis period, both large and small European banks and brokers were able to handle this phase relatively well, partly due to the fact that communications technology has reached the point where productive Work From Home (WFH) strategies are in place. For example, cloud-connectivity, in addition to the use of soft turrets for trading, has enabled traders from across the continent to keep working throughout lockdown. From our work with clients, we know that they were able to make a relatively smooth transition to WFH operations.
In relation to the current coronavirus crisis, we are in the second phase – the transition period. This is the stage when financial companies begin figuring out how best to manage the worst effects of the ongoing crisis, whilst planning longer-term changes for a post-crisis world. One thing to note with this phase, is that no one knows how long it will last. There is still so much we don’t know about this virus. As such, this has an impact on when it will be safe for businesses to operate in a similar way to how they were run in a pre-pandemic world. But with restrictions across Europe starting to be eased, there is an expectation that companies will start to slowly work their way towards more on-site trading. For example, banks are starting to look at hybrid operations, whereby traders come in a couple of times a week, and WFH for the rest of the week. This will result in fewer people in the office building, which makes it easier to practise social distancing. It also means that there is a continued reliance on the technology that enables people to WFH effectively.
Finally, we have the post-crisis period. In terms of the current crisis, this stage is very unlikely to occur until a vaccine has been developed and distributed to the masses. Although COVID-19 has caused mass economic disruption, many analysts are predicting a strong rebound once the medical pieces of the puzzles are put into place. It may not be entirely V-shaped, but the resiliency displayed by the financial markets thus far suggests that it will be healthy.
Currently, many European trading firms are taking what could be described as a two-pronged approach.
The first part of this consists of planning for the possibility of an extension to phase two. Medical experts have suggested that there could be some seasonality to the virus, with the threat of a second wave of COVID-19 cases in the Autumn meaning that the risk of new restrictions remains. If this comes to fruition, there would be a need for organisations to fine-tune their current WFH strategies and measures, and for them to take greater advantage of the cloud so as to power communications apps.
The second component consists of firms starting to think about the long-term needs of their trading systems. Simply put, they are preparing themselves for the third phase.
It is in this last sense, that the idea of never letting ‘a good crisis go to waste’ resonates most clearly.
Currency movements and more: How Covid-19 has affected the financial markets
The COVID-19 pandemic has been more than a health crisis. With people forced to stay indoors and all but the most essential services stopped for multiple weeks, economies have suffered and financial markets have crashed. Perhaps the most public and spectacular fall from grace during the early stages of the pandemic was oil. With travel bans in place around the world and no one filling up at the pumps, the price of oil plummeted.
Prior to global lockdowns, US oil prices were trading at $18 per barrel. By mid-April, the value had dropped to -$38. The crash was not only a shocking demonstrating of COVID-19’s impact but the first time crude oil’s price had fallen below zero. A rebound was inevitable, and many traders were quick to take long positions, which meant futures prices remained high. However, with stocks piling up and demand sinking, trading prices suffered. Unsurprisingly, it’s not the only market that’s taken a knock since COVID-19 struck.
Financial Markets Fluctuate During Pandemic
Shares in major companies have dipped. The Institute for Fiscal Studies compiled a round-up of price movements for industries listed by the London Stock Exchange. Tourism and Leisure have seen share prices drop by more than 20%. Major airlines, including BA, EasyJet and Ryanair have all been forced to make redundancies in the wake of falling share prices. The automotive industry has also taken a knock, as have retailers, mining and the media. However, in among the dark, there have been some patches of light.
The forex market has been a mixed bag. As it always is, the US dollar has remained a strong investment option. With emerging markets feeling the strain, traders have poured their money into traditionally strong currency pairs like EUR/USD. Looking at the data, IG’s EUR/USD price charts show a sharp drop in mid-March from 1.14 to 1.07. However, after the initial shock of COVID-19 lockdowns, the currency pair has steadily increased in value back up to 1.12 (June 25, 2020). The dominance of the dollar has been seen as a cause for concern among some financial experts. In essence, the crisis has highlighted the world’s reliance on it.
Currency Movements Divide Economies
In any walk of life, a single point of authority is dangerous. Indeed, if reliance turns into overreliance, it can cause a supply issue (not enough dollars to go around. More significantly, it could cause a power shift that gives the US too much control over economic policies in other countries. Fortunately, other currencies have performed well during the pandemic. Alongside USD and EUR, the GBP has also shown a degree of strength throughout the crisis. However, these positive movements haven’t been shared by all currencies.
The South African rand took a 32% hit during the early stages of the pandemic, while the Mexican peso and Brazilian real dropped 24% and 23%, respectively. Like the forex market, other sectors have experienced contrasting fortunes. Yes, shares in airlines and automotive manufacturers have fallen, but food and drug retailers have seen stocks rise. In fact, at one point, orange juice was the top performer across multiple indices. With the health benefits of vitamin C a hot topic, futures prices for orange juice jump up by 30%. The sudden surge had analysts predicting 60% gains as we move into a post-COVID-19 world.
Looking Towards the Future through Financial Markets
The future is always unknown and, due to COVID-19, it’s more uncertain than ever. However, the financial markets do provide an indication of how things may change. The performance of USD and EUR in the forex markets suggest there could be a lot more trade deals negotiated between the US and Europe. The surge in orange juice futures suggest that health and wellness will become a much more important part of our lives. Even though it was already a multi-billion-dollar industry, the realisation that a virus can alter the face of humanity has given more people pause for thought.
Then, of course, there’s the move towards remote working and socially distance entertainment. From Zoom to Slack, more people will be working and playing from home in the coming years. The world is always changing, but recent have events have made us appreciate this fact more than ever. The financial markets aren’t a crystal ball, but they can offer a glimpse into what we can expect in a post-COVID-19 world.
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