6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
To date, high returns on GoE debt have crowded out Egyptian investment in productive capacity. The large foreign inflows Egypt witnessed in 2018 have been mostly portfolio capital, which is highly volatile. Returns on GoE debt have begun to decrease, which could presage investment by Egyptian capital in the real economy
The Egyptian Stock Exchange (EGX) is Egypt’s registered securities exchange. There are more than 500,000 investors registered to trade on the exchange. Stock ownership is open to foreign and domestic individuals and entities. The GoE issues dollar-denominated and Egyptian pound-denominated debt instruments. The GoE has developed a positive outlook toward foreign portfolio investment, recognizing the need to attract foreign capital to help develop the Egyptian economy.
The Capital Market Law 95//1992, along with the Banking Law 88//2003, constitutes the primary regulatory frameworks for the financial sector. The law grants foreigners full access to capital markets, and authorizes establishment of Egyptian and foreign companies to provide underwriting of subscriptions, brokerage services, securities and mutual funds management, clearance and settlement of security transactions, and venture capital activities. The law specifies mechanisms for arbitration and legal dispute resolution and prohibits unfair market practices. Law 10//2009 created the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority (EFSA) and brought the regulation of all non-banking financial services under its authority. In 2017, EFSA became the Financial Regulatory Authority (FRA).
Settlement of transactions takes one day for treasury bonds and two days for stocks. Although Egyptian law and regulations allow companies to adopt bylaws limiting or prohibiting foreign ownership of shares, virtually no listed stocks have such restrictions. While a significant number of the companies listed on the exchange have been family-owned or dominated conglomerates, the exchange has gone through a period of major delisting of many companies that do not have sufficient shares or do not meet the management, fiscal, and transparency standards. Free trading of the remaining shares in many of these ventures is increasing, with a 110 percent increase in trade value and a 53 percent increase in trading volume from 2016 to 2017. Companies are delisted from the exchange if not traded for six months.
The Higher Investment Council extended the suspension of capital gains tax for three years, until 2020 as part of efforts to draw investors back. In 2017, the government implemented a stamp duty on all stock transactions with a duty of 0.125 percent on all buyers and sellers. Egypt’s stamp duty on stock exchange transactions includes for the first time a 0.3 percent levy for investors acquiring more than a third of a company’s stocks.
Foreign investors can access Egypt’s banking system by opening accounts with local banks, and buying and selling all marketable securities with brokerages. The government has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to maintaining the profit repatriation system to encourage foreign investment in Egypt, especially since the pound floatation and implementation of the IMF loan program in November 2016. The current system for profit repatriation by foreign firms requires sub-custodian banks to open foreign and local currency accounts for foreign investors (global custodians), which are exclusively maintained for stock exchange transactions. The two accounts serve as a channel through which foreign investors process their sales, purchases, dividend collections, and profit repatriation transactions using the bank’s posted daily exchange rates. The system is designed to allow for settlement of transactions in fewer than two days.
The Egyptian credit market, open to foreigners, is vibrant and active. Repatriation of investment profits has become much easier, as there is enough available hard currency to execute FX trades. Since the floatation of the EGP in November 2016, FX trading is considered straightforward, given the reestablishment of the interbank foreign currency trading system.
Money and Banking System
Benefitting from the nation’s increasing economic stability over the past two years, Egypt’s banks have enjoyed both ratings upgrades and continued profitability. Thanks to economic reforms, a new floating exchange system, and an Investment Law passed in 2017, the project finance pipeline is increasing after a period of lower activity. Banking competition is improving to serve a largely untapped retail segment and the nation’s challenging, but potentially rewarding, the SME segment. The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) has mandated that 20 percent of bank loans go to SMEs within the next two years). Also, with only about a quarter to a third of Egypt’s adult population owning or sharing an account at a formal financial institution (according to press and comments from contacts), the banking sector has potential for growth and higher inclusion, which the government and banks discuss frequently. A low median income plays a part in modest banking penetration. But the CBE has taken steps to work with banks and technology companies to expand financial inclusion.
Egypt’s banking sector is generally regarded as healthy and well-capitalized due in part to its deposit-based funding structure and ample liquidity—especially since the floatation and restoration of the interbank market. The CBE estimates that approximately 4.3 percent of the banking sector’s loans are non-performing in 2018. Still, since 2011, a high level of exposure to government debt, accounting for over 40 percent of banking system assets, at the expense of private sector lending, has reduced the diversity of bank balance sheets and crowded out domestic investment. Given the floatation of the Egyptian Pound and restart of the interbank trading system, Moody’s and S&P have upgraded the outlook of Egypt’s banking system to positive from stable to reflect improving macroeconomic conditions and ongoing commitment to reform.
38 banks operate in Egypt, including several foreign banks. The CBE has not issued a new commercial banking license since 1979. The only way for a new commercial bank, whether foreign or domestic, to enter the market (except as a representative office) is to purchase an existing bank. To this end, in 2013, QNB Group acquired National Société Générale Bank Egypt (NSGB). That same year, Emirates NBD, Dubai’s largest bank, bought the Egypt unit of BNP Paribas. In 2015, Citibank sold its retail banking division to CIB Bank. In 2016 and 2017, Egypt indicated a desire to partially (less than 35 percent) privatize at least one (potentially two) state-owned banks and a total of 23 firms through either expanded or new listings on the Egypt Stock Exchange, though no action has been taken as of early 2018. In March 2019, Egypt began its program to privatize 23 State-Owned Enterprises with a successful minority stake in the Eastern Tobacco Company.
According to the CBE, banks operating in Egypt held EGP 4.216 trillion in total assets at the end of first quarter of 2018, of which approximately 45 percent were held by the largest five banks (the National Bank of Egypt, Banque Misr, the Commercial International Bank, Qatar National Bank Al-Ahli, and the Banque Du Caire). Egypt’s three state-owned banks (Banque Misr, Banque du Caire, and National Bank of Egypt) control nearly 40 percent of banking sector assets.
The chairman of the EGX recently stated that Egypt is allowing, even encouraging, exploration of the use of blockchain technologies across the banking community. The FRA will review the development and most likely regulate how the banking system adopts the fast-developing blockchain systems into banks’ back-end and customer-facing processing and transactions. Seminars and discussions are beginning around Cairo, including visitors from Silicon Valley, in which leaders and experts are still forming a path forward. While not outright banning cryptocurrencies, which is distinguished from blockchain technologies, authorities caution against speculation in unknown asset classes.
Alternative financial services in Egypt are extensive, given the large informal economy, estimated to be from 30 to 50 percent of the GDP. Informal lending is prevalent, but the total capitalization, number of loans, and types of terms in private finance is less well known.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
There has been significant progress in accessing hard currency since the floatation of the EGP and reestablishment of the interbank currency trading system in November 2016. While the immediate aftermath saw some lingering difficulty of accessing currency, by 2017 most firms operating in Egypt reported having little difficulty obtaining hard currency for business purposes, such as importing inputs and repatriating profits. In 2016 the Central Bank lifted dollar deposit limits on households and firms importing priority goods which had been in place since early 2015. With net foreign reserves at an all-time high of over USD 44 billion (March 2019), accessing foreign currency is no longer an issue.
Funds associated with investment can be freely converted into any world currency, depending on the availability of that currency in the local market. Some firms and individuals report that the process takes time. But the interbank trading system works in general and currency is available as the foreign exchange markets continue to react positively to the government’s commitment to macro and structural reform.
The floating exchange rate operates on the principle of market supply and demand: the exchange rate is dictated by availability of currency and demand by firms and individuals. While there is some reported informal Central Bank window guidance, the rate generally fluctuates depending on market conditions, without direct market intervention by authorities. In general, the EGP has stabilized within an acceptable exchange rate range, which has increased the foreign exchange market’s liquidity. Since the early days following the floatation, there has been very low exchange rate volatility.
The 1992 U.S.-Egypt Bilateral Investment Treaty provides for free transfer of dividends, royalties, compensation for expropriation, payments arising out of an investment dispute, contract payments, and proceeds from sales.
The Investment Incentives Law stipulates that non-Egyptian employees hired by projects established under the law are entitled to transfer their earnings abroad. Conversion and transfer of royalty payments are permitted when a patent, trademark, or other licensing agreement has been approved under the Investment Incentives Law.
Banking Law 88//2003 regulates the repatriation of profits and capital. The current system for profit repatriation by foreign firms requires sub-custodian banks to open foreign and local currency accounts for foreign investors (global custodians), which are exclusively maintained for stock exchange transactions. The two accounts serve as a channel through which foreign investors process their sales, purchases, dividend collections, and profit repatriation transactions using the bank’s posted daily exchange rates. The system is designed to allow for settlement of transactions in fewer than two days, though in practice some firms have reported short delays in repatriating profits, no longer due to availability but more due to processing steps.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
The Cabinet has approved the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund, which will be charged with investing state funds locally and abroad across asset classes and will be tapped to manage underutilized assets. The framework of the EGP200 billion sovereign wealth fund was issued in March of 2018. The government is collaborating with regional and European institutions to take part in forming the fund’s sector-specific units.