Armenia

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The banking system in Armenia is sound and well-regulated, but the financial sector is not highly developed, according to investors.  Banking sector assets account for over 80 percent of total financial sector assets. Financial intermediation tends to be poor. Nearly all banks require collateral located in Armenia, and large collateral requirements often prevent potential borrowers from entering the market.  U.S. businesses have noted that this creates a significant barrier for small- and medium-sized enterprises and start-up companies.

The Armenian government welcomes foreign portfolio investment and there is a supporting system and legal framework in place. Armenia’s securities market is not well developed and has only minimal trading activity through the Armenia Securities Exchange, though efforts to grow capital markets are underway. Liquidity sufficient for the entry and exit of sizeable positions is often difficult to achieve due to the small size of the Armenian market. The Armenian government hopes that as a result of pension reforms in 2014, which brought two international asset managers to Armenia, capital markets will play a more prominent role in the country’s financial sector.  Armenia adheres to its IMF Article VIII commitments by refraining from restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions. Credit is allocated on market terms and foreign investors are able to access credit locally.

Money and Banking System

The banking sector is healthy, and indicators of financial soundness, including capital adequacy ratios and non-performing loan rates, have been broadly strong in recent years.  The sector is well capitalized and liquid. Dollarization, historically high for deposits and lending, has been falling in recent years. Non-performing loans have fallen to below 10 percent of total loans.  There are 17 commercial banks in Armenia and 14 universal credit organizations. There are extensive branch networks throughout Armenia. At the end of 2019, the top three Armenian banks by estimated total assets were Ameriabank (968 billion Armenian drams (AMD), or USD 2.01 billion), Armbusinessbank (782.1 billion AMD, or USD 1.63 billion), and Ardshinbank (721.7 billion AMD, or USD 1.5 billion).  The minimum capital requirement for banks is 30 billion AMD (62.5 million USD). There are no restrictions on foreigners to open bank accounts. Residents and foreign nationals can hold foreign currency accounts and import, export, and exchange foreign currency relatively freely in accordance with the Law on Currency Regulation and Currency Control. Foreign banks may establish a subsidiary, branch, or representative office, and subsidiaries of foreign banks are allowed to provide the same types of services as domestically-owned banks.

The Central Bank of Armenia (CBA) is responsible for the regulation and supervision of the financial sector.  The authority and responsibilities of the CBA are established under the Law on Central Bank of Armenia. Numerous other articles of legislation and supporting regulations provide for financial sector oversight and supervision.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

Armenia has no limitations on the conversion and transfer of money or the repatriation of capital and earnings, including branch profits, dividends, interest, royalties, or management or technical service fees.  Most banks can transfer funds internationally within two to four days. Armenia maintains the Armenian dram as a freely convertible currency under a managed float. The AMD/USD exchange rate has proven generally stable in recent years, though it has not been without occasional sharp movements.

According to the Law on Currency Regulation and Currency Control, prices for all goods and services, property, and wages must be set in AMD.  There are exceptions in the law, however, for transactions between resident and non-resident businesses and for certain transactions involving goods traded at world market prices.  The law requires that interest on foreign currency accounts be calculated in that currency, but paid in AMD.

Remittance Policies

Armenia imposes no limitations on the conversion and transfer of money or the repatriation of capital and earnings, including branch profits, dividends, interest, royalties, lease payments, private foreign debt, or management or technical service fees.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Armenia does not have a sovereign wealth fund.

Azerbaijan

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

Access to capital is a critical impediment to business development in Azerbaijan.  An effective regulatory system that encourages and facilitates portfolio investment, foreign or domestic, is not fully in place.  Though the Baku Stock Exchange opened in 2000, there is insufficient liquidity in the market to enter or exit sizeable positions.The Central Bank assumed control over all financial regulation in January 2020, following disbandment of a formerly independent regulator.  Non-bank financial sector staples such as capital markets, insurance, and private equity are in the early stages of development.  The Capital Market Modernization Project is an attempt by the government to build the foundation for a modern financial capital market, including developing market infrastructure and automation systems, and strengthening the legal and market frameworks for capital transactions.  One major hindrance to the stock market’s growth is the difficulty in encouraging established Azerbaijani businesses to adapt to standard investor-friendly disclosure practices, which are generally required for publicly listed companies.

Azerbaijan’s government and Central Bank do not restrict payments and transfers for international transactions.  Foreign investors are permitted to obtain credit on the local market, but smaller companies and firms without an established credit history often struggle to obtain loans on reasonable commercial terms.  Limited access to capital remains a barrier to development, particularly for small and medium enterprises.

Money and Banking System

The country’s financial services sector – of which banking comprises more than 90 percent – is underdeveloped, which constrains economic growth and diversification.  The drop in world oil prices in 2014/2015 and the resulting strain on Azerbaijan’s foreign currency earnings and the state budget exacerbated existing problems in the country’s banking sector and led to rising non-performing loans (NPLs) and high dollarization.  Subsequent reforms have improved overall sector stability.  President Aliyev signed a decree in February 2019 to provide partial relief to retail borrowers on foreign-currency denominated loans that meet certain criteria.

As of April 2020, 30 banks were registered in Azerbaijan, including 14 banks with foreign capital and two state-owned banks.  These banks employ 19,572 people and have a combined 508 branches and 2,659 ATMs nationwide.  Total banking sector assets stood at approximately USD $19.3 billion as of January 2020, with the top five banks holding almost 58 percent of this amount.

The banking sector is still recovering from the drop in world oil prices which began in in 2014/2015 and the resulting devaluations.  The Financial Markets Supervisory Agency closed 10 insolvent banks in 2016.  The government subsequently bailed-out the International Bank of Azerbaijan (IBA) which held approximately 40 percent of the country’s banking assets.  In January 2017, the Finance Ministry increased the government’s stake in the IBA from 54.96 percent to 76.73 percent.  The government undertook a substantial cleanup of IBA assets, transferring IBA’s non-performing assets at book value to AgrarKredit, a government-owned non-financial enterprise funded by the Central Bank.  The amount of transferred assets totaled USD 6 billion in 2015-2016 and a further USD 3 billion was transferred in 2017 (25 percent of 2016 GDP in total).  In May 2017, IBA entered formal restructuring, similar to U.S. Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and completed its restructuring process in September 2017.  IBA is still updating its commercial strategy.

Foreign banks are permitted in Azerbaijan and may take the form of representative offices, branches, joint ventures, and wholly owned subsidiaries.  These banks are subject to the same regulations as domestic banks, with certain additional restrictions.  Foreign individuals and entities are also permitted to open accounts with domestic or foreign banks in Azerbaijan.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

Azerbaijan’s Central Bank officially adopted a floating exchange rate in 2016 but continues to operate under an “interim regime” that effectively pegs the exchange rate at AZN 1.7 per USD.  Azerbaijan’s foreign currency reserves are based on the reserves of the Central Bank, those of the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan (SOFAZ), and the assets of the State Treasury Agency under the Finance Ministry.  Foreign currency reserves of the Central Bank increased by 14 percent during 2019 and totaled $6.4 billion in January 2020.  Between January 2019 and January 2020, SOFAZ assets increased by 12 percent to reach $43.3 billion.

Foreign exchange transactions are governed by the Law on Currency Regulation.  The Central Bank administers the overall enforcement of currency regulation.  Currency conversion is carried out through the Baku Interbank Currency Exchange Market and the Organized Interbank Currency Market.

There are no statutory restrictions on converting or transferring funds associated with an investment into freely usable currency at a legal, market-clearing rate.  The average time for remitting investment returns is two to three business days.  Some requirements on disclosure of the source of currency transfers have been imposed to reduce illicit transactions.

Remittance Policies

Corporate branches of foreign investors are subject to a remittance tax of 10 percent on all profits derived from its business activities in Azerbaijan.  There have not been any recent changes or plans to change investment remittance policies that either tighten or relax access to foreign exchange for investment remittances.  There do not appear to be time limitations on remittances, including dividends, return on investment, interest and principal on private foreign debt, lease payments, royalties, and management fees.  Nor does there appear to be limits on the inflow or outflow of funds for remittances of profits or revenue.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Azerbaijan’s sovereign wealth fund is the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan (SOFAZ).  Its mission is to transform hydrocarbon reserves into financial assets generating perpetual income for current and future generations and to finance strategically important infrastructure and social projects of national scale.  While its main statutory focus is investing in assets outside of the country, since it was established in 1999 SOFAZ has financed several socially-beneficial projects in Azerbaijan related to infrastructure, housing, energy, and education.  The government’s newly adopted fiscal rule places limits on pro-cyclical spending, with the aim of increasing hydrocarbon revenue savings.  SOFAZ publishes an annual report which it submits for independent audit.  The fund’s assets totaled USD $43.3 billion as of January 1, 2020.  More information is available at oilfund.az.

Georgia

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The National Bank of Georgia regulates the securities market. All market participants submit their reports in line with international standards. All listed companies must make public filings, which are then uploaded to the National Bank’s website, allowing investors to evaluate a company’s financial standing. The Georgian securities market includes the following licensed participants: a Stock Exchange, a Central Securities Depository, nine brokerage companies, and six registrars.

The Georgian Stock Exchange (GSE) is the only organized securities market in Georgia. Designed and established with the help of USAID and operating under a legal framework drafted with the assistance of American experts, the GSE complies with global best practices in securities trading and offers an efficient investment facility to both local and foreign investors. The GSE’s automated trading system can accommodate thousands of securities that can be traded by brokers from workstations on the GSE floor or remotely from their offices: https://gse.ge/en/ 

No law or regulation authorizes private firms to adopt articles of incorporation or association that limit or prohibit foreign investment, participation or control. Cross-shareholder or stable-shareholder arrangements are not used by private firms in Georgia. Georgian legislation does not protect private firms from takeovers. There are no regulations authorizing private firms to restrict the investment activity of foreign partners or to limit the ability of foreign partners to gain control over domestic enterprises.

The government and Central Bank (National Bank of Georgia) respect IMF Article VIII and do not impose any restrictions on payments and transfers in current international transactions.

Credit from commercial banks is available to foreign investors as well as domestic clients, although interest rates are high. Banks continue offering business, consumer, and mortgage loans.

The government adopted a new law in 2018 that introduced an accumulative pension scheme, which became effective on January 1, 2019. The pension scheme is mandatory for legally employed people under 40. For the self-employed and those above the age of 40, enrolment in the program is voluntary. The pension savings system applies to Georgian citizens, foreign citizens living in Georgia with permanent residency in the country, and stateless persons who are employed or self-employed and receive an income.

The government expects that that the new system will boost domestic capital market, as the pension funds will be invested within Georgia. The Pension Agency of Georgia made its first large scale investment in March 2020, when it invested 560 million GEL (around USD 200 million) in deposit certificates of high-rated Georgian commercial banks.

Money and Banking System

Banking is one of the fastest growing sectors in the Georgian economy. The banking sector is well-regulated and capitalized despite regional and global challenges faced in many neighboring countries. As of March 1, 2020, Georgia’s banking sector consists of 15 commercial banks, including 14 foreign-controlled banks, with 154 commercial bank branches and 830 service centers throughout the country. In January 2019, Georgian commercial banks held GEL 46.2 billion (around USD 15.5 billion) in total assets. As of early 2020, there were 17 insurance companies and 45 microfinance (MFI) organizations operating in Georgia. MFIs held GEL 500 million (USD155.5 million) in total assets as of January 1, 2020. Two Georgian banks are listed on the London Stock Exchange: TBC Bank (listed in 2014) and the Bank of Georgia (2006).

The National Bank of Georgia (NBG) is Georgia’s central bank, as defined by the Constitution. The rights and obligations of the NBG as the central bank, the principles of its activity, and the guarantee of its independence are defined in the Organic Law of Georgia on the National Bank of Georgia. The National Bank supervises the financial sector to facilitate the financial stability and transparency of the financial system, as well as to protect the rights of the sector’s consumers and investors. Through the Financial Monitoring Service of Georgia, a separate legal entity, the NBG undertakes measures against illicit income legalization and terrorism financing. In addition, the NBG is the government’s banker and fiscal agent. (www.nbg.gov.ge ).

The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), the Asian Development Bank (ABD), and other international development agencies have a variety of lending programs making credit available to large and small businesses in Georgia. Georgia’s two largest banks – TBC and Bank of Georgia – have correspondent banking relationships with the United States through Citibank, N.A.

Georgia does not restrict foreigners from establishing a bank account in Georgia.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

Georgian law guarantees the right of an investor to convert and repatriate income after payment of all required taxes. The investor is also entitled to convert and repatriate any compensation received for expropriated property. Georgia has accepted the obligations of Article VIII, Sections 2, 3, and 4 of the IMF Articles of Agreement, effective as of December 20, 1996, to refrain from imposing restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions and from engaging in discriminatory currency arrangements or multiple currency practices without IMF approval. Parliament’s 2011 adoption of the Act of Economic Freedom further reinforced this provision.

Under the U.S.-Georgia BIT, the Georgian government guarantees that all money transfers relating to a covered investment by a U.S. investor can be made freely and without delay into and out of Georgia.

Foreign investors have the right to hold foreign currency accounts with authorized local banks. The sole legal tender in Georgia is the lari (GEL), which is traded on the Tbilisi Interbank Currency Exchange and in the foreign exchange bureau market.

The GEL’s official exchange rate is calculated based on transactions secured on the Interbank Foreign Exchange Market. Interbank trading with foreign currencies is organized via an international trading system (Bloomberg). Taking into consideration secured transactions, the weighted average exchange rate of the GEL against the USD is calculated and announced as the official exchange rate for the following day. The official exchange rate of the GEL against other foreign currencies is determined according to the rate on international markets or the issuer country’s domestic interbank currency market on the basis of cross-currency exchange rates. The cross-currency rates are acquired from the Reuters and Bloomberg information systems, and the corresponding webpages of central banks. The information is automatically received, calculated, and disseminated from these systems.

Georgia has a floating exchange rate. The National Bank of Georgia does not intend to peg the exchange rate and does not generally intervene in the foreign exchange market, except under certain circumstances when the GEL’s fluctuation has a high magnitude, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Remittance Policies

There are no restrictions, limitations, or delays involved remittances from overseas. Several Georgian banks participate in the SWIFT and Western Union interbank communication networks. Businesses report that it takes a maximum of three days for money transferred abroad from Georgia to reach a beneficiary’s account, unless otherwise provided by a customer’s order. There is no indication that remittance policies will be altered in the future. Travelers must declare at the border currency and securities in their possession valued at more than GEL 30,000 (around USD10,000).

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Georgia does not have a Sovereign Wealth Fund.

Investment Climate Statements
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