6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
Prior to 2017, the government focused on investors capable of providing technology transfers and employment in local industries and had not prioritized attraction of portfolio investments. In 2017, the GOU announced its plans to improve the capital market and use stock market instruments to meet its economic development goals. The government created a new Agency for the Development of Capital Markets (CMDA) in January 2019 as the institution responsible for development and regulation of the securities market and protection of the rights and legitimate interests of investors in securities market. CMDA is currently implementing a capital markets development strategy for 2020-2025. According to CMDA officials, the goal of the strategy is to make the national capital market big enough to attract not only institutional investors, but to become a key driver of domestic wealth creation. The U.S. Government is supporting this strategy through a technical assistance program led by the Department of the Treasury.
Uzbekistan has its own stock market, which supports trades through the Republican Stock Exchange “Tashkent,” Uzbekistan’s main securities trading platform and only corporate securities exchange ( https://www.uzse.uz ). The stock exchange mainly hosts equity and secondary market transactions with shares of state-owned enterprises. In most cases, government agencies determine who can buy and sell shares and at what prices, and it is often impossible to locate accurate financial reports for traded companies.
Uzbekistan formally accepted IMF Article VIII in October 2003, but due to excessive protectionist measures of the government, businesses had limited access to foreign currency, which stimulated the grey economy and the creation of multiple exchange rate systems. Effective September 5, 2017, the GOU eliminated the difference between the artificially low official rate and the black-market exchange rate and allowed unlimited non-cash foreign exchange transactions for businesses. The Law on Currency Regulation (ZRU-573 of October 22, 2019) fully liberalized currency operations, current cross-border and capital movement transactions.
In 2019, the GOU considerably simplified repatriation of capital invested in Uzbekistan’s industrial assets, securities, and stock market profits. According to the law (ZRU-531), foreign investors that have resident entities in Uzbekistan can convert their dividends and other incomes to foreign currencies and transfer them to their accounts in foreign banks. Non-resident entities that buy and sell shares of local companies can open bank accounts in Uzbekistan to accumulate their revenues.
Under the law, foreign investors and private sector businesses can have access to various credit instruments on the local market, but the still-overregulated financial system yields unreliable credit terms. Access to foreign banks is limited and is usually only granted through their joint ventures with local banks. Commercial banks, to a limited degree, can use credit lines from international financial institutions to finance small and medium sized businesses.
Money and Banking System
As of January 2021, 32 commercial banks operate in Uzbekistan. Five commercial banks are state-owned, 13 banks are registered as joint-stock financial organizations (eight of which are partly state-owned), seven banks have foreign capital, and seven banks are private. Commercial banks have 884 branches and a network of exchange offices and ATMs throughout the country. State-owned banks hold 84% of banking sector capital and 85% of banking sector assets, leaving privately owned banks as relatively small niche players. The nonbanking sector is represented by 63 microcredit organizations and 64 pawn shops.
In May 2020, President Mirziyoyev approved a five-year strategy for reformation of the banking sector to address existing weaknesses of the banking sector, such as excessive share of state assets, insufficient competition, poor quality of corporate governance and banking services in comparison with best international standards, as well as a relatively low penetration of modern global technologies. The goal of the strategy is to reduce the state share in the sector from the current 84% to 60% and to increase the market share of the non-banking sector from current 0.35% to 4%. The government will privatize its shares in six banks and facilitate modernization of banking services in remaining state-owned banks.
According to assessments of international rating agencies, including Fitch and Moody’s, the banking sector of Uzbekistan is stable and poses limited near-term risks, primarily due to high concentration and domination of the public sector, which controls over 80% of assets in the banking system. Moody’s notes high resilience of the country’s banking system to the impact of the COVID pandemic in comparison with other CIS countries. The average rate of capital adequacy within the system is 18.4%, and the current liquidity rate is 67.4%. The growing volume of state-led investments in the economy supports the stability of larger commercial banks, which often operate as agents of the government in implementing its development strategy. Privately owned commercial banks are relatively small niche players. The government and the Central Bank of Uzbekistan (CBU) still closely monitor commercial banks.
According to the Central Bank of Uzbekistan, the share of nonperforming loans out of total gross loans is 2.1% (as of January 1, 2021). The average share of nonperforming loans in state-owned banks is about 2.1% and 1.9% in private banks. A majority of Uzbekistan’s commercial banks have earned “stable” ratings from international rating agencies.
As of January 1, 2021, the banking sector’s capitalization was about $5.8 billion, and the value of total bank assets in the whole country was equivalent to about $37 billion. The three largest state-owned banks – the National Bank of Uzbekistan, Asaka Bank, and Uzpromstroybank – hold 46% of the banking sector’s capital ($2.7 billion) and 47.7% of the assets ($17.5 billion).
Uzbekistan maintains a central bank system. The Central Bank of Uzbekistan (CBU) is the state issuing and reserve bank and central monetary authority. The bank is accountable to the Supreme Council of Uzbekistan and is independent of the executive bodies (the bank’s organization chart is available here: http://www.cbu.uz/en/).
In general, any banking activity in Uzbekistan is subject to licensing and regulation by the Central Bank of Uzbekistan. Foreign banks often feel pressured to establish joint ventures with local financial institutions. Currently there are seven banks with foreign capital operating in the market, and five foreign banks have accredited representative offices in Uzbekistan, but do not provide direct services to local businesses and individuals. Information about the status of Uzbekistan’s correspondent banking relationships is not publicly available.
Foreigners and foreign investors can establish bank accounts in local banks without restrictions. They also have access to local credit, although the terms and interest rates do not represent a competitive or realistic source of financing.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
Uzbekistan adopted Article VIII of the IMF’s Articles of Agreement in October 2003, but full implementation of its obligations under this article began only in September 2017. In accordance with new legislation (ZRU 531 of March 2019 and ZRU-573 of October 2019), all businesses, including foreign investors, are guaranteed the ability to convert their dividends and other incomes in local currencies to foreign currencies and transfer to foreign bank accounts for current cross-border, dividend payments, or capital repatriation transactions without limitations, provided they have paid all taxes and other financial obligations in compliance with local legislation. Uzbekistan authorities may stop the repatriation of a foreign investor’s funds in cases of insolvency and bankruptcy, criminal acts by the foreign investor, or when so directed by arbitration or a court decision.
The exchange rate is determined by the CBU, which insists that it is based on free market forces (10,600 s’om per one U.S dollar as of March 2021). On February 15, 2015, trade sessions at the local FX Exchange transferred from the previous “fixing” methods to the combination of “call auction” and bilateral continuous auctions (“matching”). The CBU publishes the official exchange rate of foreign currencies at 1600 every business day for accounting, statistical and other reporting purposes, as well as for the calculation of customs and other mandatory payments in the territory of Uzbekistan.
After the almost 50% devaluation of the national currency in September 2017, the exchange rate had been relatively stable in 2018 with an average of 2.4% annual devaluation. In 2019, the devaluation of s’om accelerated to 14%, although the CBU reported it had made $3.6 billion in interventions in the forex market to support the local currency. In 2020, the annual devaluation was held below 10%. The local currency’s relative stability in 2020 was supported by reduced imports and strong FX reserves ($34.9 billion by January 1, 2021).
President Mirziyoyev launched foreign exchange liberalization reform on September 2017 by issuing a decree “On Priority Measures for Liberalization of Monetary Policy.” The Law on Currency Regulation (ZRU-573), adopted on October 22, 2019, has liberalized currency exchange operations, current cross-border, and capital movement transactions. Business entities can purchase foreign currency in commercial banks without restrictions for current international transactions, including import of goods, works and services, repatriation of profits, repayment of loans, payment of travel expenses and other transfers of a non-trade nature.
Banking regulations mandate that the currency conversion process should take no longer than one week. In 2019 businesses reported that they observed no delays with conversion and remittance of their investment returns, including dividends; return on investment, interest and principal on private foreign debt; lease payments; royalties; and management fees.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
The Fund for Reconstruction and Development of Uzbekistan (UFRD) serves as a sovereign wealth fund. Uzbekistan’s Cabinet of Ministers, Ministry of Finance, and the five largest state-owned banks were instrumental in establishing the UFRD, and all those institutions have membership on its Board of Directors.
The fund does not follow the voluntary code of good practices known as the Santiago Principles, and Uzbekistan does not participate in the IMF-hosted International Working Group on sovereign wealth funds. The GOU established the UFRD in 2006, using it to sterilize and accumulate foreign exchange revenues, but officially the goal of the UFRD is to provide government-guaranteed loans and equity investments to strategic sectors of the domestic economy.
The UFRD does not invest, but instead provides debt financing to SOEs for modernization and technical upgrade projects in sectors that are strategically important for Uzbekistan’s economy. All UFRD loans require government approval.