27 September 2010
Hussein Al-Uzri, Chairman and President of Trade Bank of Iraq assesses the potential of the Iraqi economy and the development of trade.
Read more: [Trade Bank of Iraq] [Iraq trade finance] [JP Morgan Iraq] [GE power MENA] [GE turbines Iraq] [Hussein Al-Uzri]
The entire world loves a stereotype, even when it is based on an assumption that is no longer true. When you watch television news or open the pages of a newspaper, the stereotype they like to show of Iraq is of a country still at war.
The reality is very different and much more hopeful. For a whole lot of reasons – not least its priceless oil riches - Iraq is becoming the world’s fastest emerging economy. Banks and businesses that have already made this discovery are well on the way to highly profitable deals and investments and trades.
Others are still allowing their perceptions to lag behind reality. They risk missing business opportunities by holding on to assumptions that were true once but are true no longer.
Anyone with a sense of history should in fact be surprised if Iraq continued to be disabled by war. All they have to do to get a reality check is to remember what happened to Japan, South Korea, Germany and indeed Vietnam.
All of those countries were devastated by terrible wars. Yet all recovered, grew and became the magnets they are today for investment and trade. None of them is any longer defined by the violence that once scarred their land. Iraq is now well advanced on the same voyage of recovery.
In fact, Iraq is much more favourably placed than any of them at a similar post-war stage. Yet, so far, Iraq’s revival is arguably the best kept secret in world finance.
Of course violence has not ceased altogether. But it is becoming more and more localised, as more and more cities and towns and rural areas re-establish normal life and a peaceful day to day existence. Indeed the level of violence in some cities in the Western world is now greater than the level in Iraq as a whole.
Not that the Iraqi authorities are ready to relax. They know there is still a long way to go before total normality is achieved. But the evidence of progress is all around – in the form of new power stations, new bank branches and new businesses, private as well as public.
One of the invaluable foundations of the recovery is the oil sector. This is, naturally, where many of the biggest new projects are to be found. The successful oil licensing agreements are already having a clear multiplier effect on the private sector as well as on government finances. The bidding round for gas field development contracts is due soon and will provide a similar boost.
All this is good news, especially for the world’s oil companies and oil support services. But the beneficial impact will spread much wider than just the energy sector. For, like most other oil and gas economies in the Middle East, Iraq is no longer content simply to export oil and spend the money on the import of goods and services.
The MENA region has changed so that downstreaming, infrastructure and diversification are becoming the rule rather than the exception. More than most of its neighbours, the New Iraq is emerging as an economy sparkling with opportunity.
Iraq’s traditional emphasis on education and on enterprise is serving it well. Big developments are coming on stream in the private sector as well as in the public sector. As an illustration, within two or three years, more power plants will be in the private sector than in the state sector. Inevitably, in an energy-hungry world, oil is the big magnet for international organisations. But Iraq is prudently diversifying into a growing number of other sectors. They include agriculture, minerals, infrastructure, construction and housing, health, telecoms – and even tourism, as more regions become peaceful and welcoming. Increasingly, Iraqi’s economic resurgence is broadly rather than narrowly based and less and less dependent on a single-sector cycle.
A point of difference with some other economies in the region is that Iraq is consciously developing a mixed economy in which the public sector and the private sector can each grow and can strengthen each other. What does all this mean for international banks and businesses? It means that there are big projects to bid for and big projects to be financed. Project finance is becoming of critical importance. International businesses that grasp this fact now can gain an early mover advantage in what is becoming the world’s fastest emerging economy.
Trade Bank of Iraq bridging the gap
But Iraq’s financial framework still has gaps in its structure. Trade Bank of Iraq (TBI) is the country’s international bank dedicated to play a role in bridging these gaps and linking Iraqi businesses and international institutions to their mutual advantage.
The TBI itself embodies the transformation in Iraq’s fortunes. It has been operating for seven years.
While this is a short period in the banking industry timeline, TBI’s achievements match those of a longer time scale. As a wholly state-owned bank it came into being with the crucial task of acting as the trade finance bank for the government to meet the immediate need for vital humanitarian commodities as well as essential infrastructure requirements of a country emerging from successive wars.
Today, only seven years later, it has a track record of success as an Iraqi bank that has matured into a successful and resilient international enterprise. Under its Chairman and President, Hussein Al-Uzri, TBI has grown and developed so to offer comprehensive banking services for businesses and individuals. It is the leading Iraqi model of modern banking. It sees its purpose as to be a catalyst to regenerate the national economy, strengthen the banking sector and be a force for modernization. It is developing a comprehensive range of banking services to enable Iraq and its expanding businesses to deal with their global partners efficiently and on equal terms.
Now its role is to facilitate increasingly sophisticated relationships between Iraqi businesses and international partners. For example, a major international beneficiary has been General Electric, and its domestic co-beneficiary has been the energy infrastructure business. JP Morgan partnered the Trade Bank of Iraq in a complex deal on a tight schedule to agree a $3 billion letter of credit for the purchase of power equipment for 7,000MW of multifuel gas turbines from General Electric.
In the past seven years, TBI has established relationships with a formidable network of global banks of high reputation. It works in partnership with 125 prime banks in 65 cities in 39 countries, more than any other bank in the Middle East.
Such relationships have made it possible for TBI to expedite the introduction of new services to the banking industry in Iraq. It has also concluded agreements with many export credit agencies, making TBI a valued partner for cross border trade with Iraq. There has been a flow of investment by TBI into state-of-the-art online, mobile and bank card systems. As a result, Iraq is well positioned to advance from a traditional cash economy to a future-oriented electronic banking system. This will have minimal reliance on conventional cheque books and paper-based banking.
The global banking crisis tested TBI’s robustness – and it emerged strong and confident. The bank’s latest efficiency ratios and key performance indicators have recorded higher levels. Moreover, the qualitative goals contained in its business plan have been achieved. Overall, for TBI business accelerated encouragingly during the global crisis, as did its customer confidence. Total deposits last year climbed to US$ 11.4 billion, an increase over the year of more than a third. Total assets reached around US$13 billion. Growth took place in almost every area of the operation, and especially in its credit functions.
Business turnover rose by more than 40 % to just short of US$14 billion. Savings deposits registered a growth of more than 92% while loans and advances increased by more than 78%. The percentage of bad debt provisions to gross credit declined by 3.59% from 5.95% in the previous year.
As a new player in the global banking market, Trade Bank of Iraq has established a major presence in a remarkably short time. In 2009 the bank issued 2,005 letters of credit while the issuance of letters of guarantee rose by more than 41%.
TBI has invested significantly in education and training in order to ensure a steady supply of technically competent staff to meet the expansion in business, both for new ATM and credit card services and for technology-intensive activities like data centres and corporate networks. Investment in technology is turning into reality the ambition of providing a “one stop shop” for financial services. Customers can now access their accounts from any branch, anywhere, no matter where they have physically opened their accounts.
The bank prides itself on being an equal opportunities employer and more than half of its staff are women. It focuses strongly too on the customer. Its customer relationship management operation is designed to make the right offer to the right client at the right time via the right channel. Looking ahead, TBI is making preparations for the launch of its Investment Banking Division, so it can play a part in restructuring companies and entire industrial sectors. This division will work in partnership with the proposed Development Fund to identify and invest in viable new projects. Leading international investment banks will be invited to join in.
TBI benefits from being located in one of the world’s great energy centres. Iraq’s recent contracts with major oil companies have the potential to expand oil revenues at a very satisfying pace. But Iraq will have to upgrade its refinery and export infrastructure in order to enable these deals to reach their full potential.
That is why TBI is so central to the country’s economic emergence. It is greatly helped by the Government’s determined pursuit of foreign investment to accelerate Iraq’s economic growth. Sensibly, the Government has shown itself ready to listen to banks and businesses and amend its rules to facilitate growth. Thus it has amended the National Investment Law, encouraged many international trade and investment events and also facilitated private participation in joint ventures with state-owned enterprises. It has also been encouraging greater local participation and cutting bureaucratic restraints.
As a result of activities such as these, economic growth is expected to further strengthen in 2010-2011 as foreign direct investment picks up, especially in a range of oil and infrastructure projects. Rising consumer demand is also likely to boost the wholesale and retail trades. The Government’s capital budget in 2010 is much larger than in 2009.
Consumer price inflation has stayed low since early 2008, as the appreciation of the dinar – overseen by the Central Bank - plus an improvement in the supply of basic items and, until recently, falling global commodity prices lowered import costs and kept down inflationary expectations. The Central Bank is also seeking to manage liquidity effectively through the introduction of an interbank market.
Entrepreneurial institutions such as the Trade Bank of Iraq are bringing new energy to a fast emerging market. On the track record so far of the New Iraq, and the historical record of countries like Germany, South Korea and Japan, Iraq’s best days lie ahead. The opportunities for foreign direct investors and for international banks seeking profitable correspondent relationships are too good to miss.