Adeduntan: Banks, Customers Must Approach 2023 With Partnership Mindset

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The Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of First Bank Nigeria Limited, Dr Adesola Adeduntan, in this interview with THISDAY reviewed the performance of the global economy in 2022 and advised businesses and their bankers to approach 2023 with a partnership mindset to ensure that a win-win outcome is achieved despite the anticipated macroeconomic challenges. Excerpts:

What are your forecasts and anticipations for the global economy in 2023?

I would like to start by noting that 2022 was indeed a turbulent year for the global economy. In 2022, the global economy witnessed record-high inflation rates with the attendant high cost of living across several economies. The elevated inflationary rates were attributed to the aftereffects of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the Russian-Ukraine crisis. In its last World Economic Outlook report, the IMF projected a 2.7 per cent global growth rate in 2023, lower than the 3.2 per cent in 2022. The 2023 projection will be the weakest global growth profile since 2001 except for the global financial crisis year and the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. In my view, in 2023, we will likely witness slower growth across several global economies due to lingering trade tensions as the impact of the Russia-Ukraine crisis will still weigh heavily on global trade flows. However, we may witness a decline in commodity prices as more import-dependent countries explore alternative sourcing options for these commodities. Inflationary pressures will however reduce as the impact of rising monetary policy rates continues to yield expected outcomes. The removal of COVID-19 restrictions in China should lead to a boost in global economic output. Oil prices are expected to remain largely elevated as tensions between Russia and Ukraine linger, so energy prices will remain high. The transition to other sustainable forms of energy may also be accelerated by the prolonged crisis.

Given the tepid growth associated with the global economy in 2022, developing countries have been having difficulties in refinancing their foreign debt, do you see a gloomy impact on the economies of the developing countries in 2023 as a result?

With slowing growth and elevated inflation rates, the sustainability of foreign debts, especially for developing nations, is likely to call for a re-evaluation by lenders given the increased likelihood of default. When this is juxtaposed with the higher interest rate environment at which these debts are likely to be refinanced, you will observe a scenario where further strain is exerted on the debt repayment capacity of these economies. However, this situation does not necessarily translate to automatic economic doom for developing nations. The actual impact on each developing economy will depend on the economy’s level of fiscal discipline and revenue-generating capacity. Developing nations who are able, in the short term, to increase revenues either from taxes or the sale/refinancing of idle/sub-optimal assets will be able to negotiate reasonable refinancing terms from lenders and prevent further economic turmoil. Nonetheless, all concerned nations need to take the issue of debt sustainability more seriously by limiting fiscal wastages, reducing inefficiencies, growing revenues, and aggressively working down unsustainable debt-to-GDP levels that may worsen the impacts of external shocks.

Do you think that the corporate default and NPL would increase in 2023 due to the current economic headwinds?

Expectedly, the rising cost of debt and contracting demand will exacerbate the challenges that businesses will face in 2023, particularly for players operating in small-margin sectors of the economy. Locally, the surging inflation rate is sure to reduce the disposable income of most consumers and demand for non-essential goods and services may dip. To prevent rising non-performing loans (NPLs), businesses and their bankers will have to collaborate more and ensure the timely flow of information to prevent surprises. Banks on their part will have to improve monitoring of their loan portfolio to quickly identify early warning signals for attention before a full-scale loan deterioration. Overall, businesses and their bankers must approach 2023 with a partnership mindset to ensure that a win-win outcome is achieved despite the anticipated macroeconomic challenges.

With the tightening financial conditions which have partly led to slow global economic growth, what opportunities do you think exist in 2023 for players in the financial services industry?

Despite the expected macroeconomic challenges in 2023, there are also emerging business and revenue opportunities that can be exploited by discerning players in the financial services industry.  Specifically, the following areas will provide a significant opportunities to players in the financial services industry:

Payments: The Central Bank of Nigeria’s renewed drive for a cashless policy has provided an opportunity for players in the financial services industry to enhance existing digital product offerings and create more attractive product offerings that will further reduce friction in the payment process. This will help to reduce the financial exclusion gap, increase fees and commission revenues, and improve the overall viability and stability of the financial system.

Digital Security: Increasing adoption of digital payment platforms will necessitate increased requirements for the security of payment channels. Thus, opportunities exist for players in the financial services industry to leverage robotics and artificial intelligence to improve security protocols on digital payment channels.

M & A Opportunities: with the anticipated pressures on earnings, opportunities exist for big and liquid players to gain additional scale and market share through the outright acquisition of fringe players with the right strategic fit. There is also an opportunity for two or more small and/or medium size players to merge their operations/businesses to obtain scale advantage.

Partnerships across Segments: The growing number of Fintechs and licensed Payment Service Banks also presents an opportunity for improved partnerships across various categories of players in the financial services industry for both mutual and industry-wide benefits.

Consumer Lending: Tightening the financial conditions of the average household will create opportunities for consumer loans in several variants such as buy-now-pay-later (BNPL), salary advance, consumer asset finance, etc. The industry is already witnessing a rising trend in the creation of digital consumer loan product offerings. This is likely to intensify in 2023.

What are the key events that will shape the 2023 domestic economic outlook and how strategically positioned is FirstBank to manage the challenges and opportunities?

Three key events will shape the 2023 macroeconomic outlook of Nigeria: The outcome of the 2023 general elections and peaceful political power transition; the government’s ability to curb crude oil theft and increase production to meet OPEC quota; and the successful removal of petrol subsidy. For us at FirstBank, we are strategically positioned to take advantage of and harness the opportunities that the three key events will bring as well as successfully ride the waves of any challenges that may arise. For over 128 years, FirstBank has built the capabilities and competencies required to succeed and thrive in any macroeconomic situation. As a Bank, our belief and commitment to the domestic economy is unwavering – FirstBank is truly woven into the fabric of society.

How will you define the trends we saw in the banking sector landscape in 2022?

2022 was quite an eventful year and some visible trends emerged. I would like to classify the trends as follows:

Financial System Trends: The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) raised the monetary policy rate and the cash reserve ratio, cumulatively, by 500 basis points to 16.5 per cent and 32.5 per cent, respectively as a way of enforcing liquidity tightening measures to curb rising inflation. In the same vein, the interest rate on savings accounts was restored to the pre-pandemic levels of 30% of MPR within the year thereby increasing the interest expense profile of banks. In addition, the paucity of foreign exchange exerted considerable pressure on banks’ foreign currency (FCY) trade lines in the course of the year, forcing banks to explore alternative ways to meet customers’ foreign currency needs, including a deliberate focus on supporting and promoting non-oil export businesses and transactions.

Technological Trends: The banking sector witnessed an increase in technological innovations, as the industry strived to meet the ever-evolving customer needs. In Nigeria, FirstBank was at the forefront of the technological trend, as we successfully launched a Digital Experience Center, a fully automated branch to meet our customer needs, while providing a unique and wholesome experience. FirstBank also launched a robotics process automation initiative, FirstRobotics, that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to handle high-volume transactions The industry also witnessed increasing collaboration of banks and fintech in 2022; enhanced digital product offerings, especially the rise in digital loans and advances; and an overall increase in acceptance of digital product offerings by banks and other financial services players.

Customer Trends: In 2022, we witnessed an increasing shift in emphasis from consumer banking to lifestyle banking in a bid to capture more of the customer’s journey. This shift has been hugely supported by technology as customer trends can now be easily identified, and new product offerings developed to meet customer needs. The emigration trend witnessed in the past year also led to a boost in the industry’s diaspora customer base, leading to an increased focus on meeting the needs of this peculiar customer segment.

Employee Trends: The banking industry, probably like any other industry in Nigeria, has seen significant attrition in the number of employees due to increased relocation to other countries (popularly known as Japa) in 2022. This has impacted the industry’s skill base and execution capabilities, especially in critical areas of the industry. While this may be a national challenge, more creative ways must be explored to retain scarce talents for national development.

The Central Bank of Nigeria and the Federal Government have set a target of 95 per cent financial inclusion by 2024, how realistic is this target and what role will First Bank be playing to support the government achieve this target?

Financial inclusion is usually seen as the gateway to economic prosperity as it signals the first step in the journey to financial freedom. In 2012, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) had unveiled its National Financial Inclusion Strategy with the principal goal of reducing the nation’s financial exclusion rate to 20 per cent of the adult population by 2020. Although this goal was not achieved (as financial exclusion rate stood at 35.9 per cent at the end of that period), the nation had nonetheless made giant strides in raising financial inclusion levels from that take-off point. As such, while the CBN’s revised target of 95 per cent financial inclusion rate by 2024 may be audacious, it is achievable given the level of financial awareness that has already been created in previous years which has raised financial literacy among the average citizenry. In addition, in view of the additional investments and infrastructural base that is available in the country, more mileage can be made now than ever before. It should also be noted that the Central Bank of Nigeria has been deliberate in pursuing its financial inclusion agenda through the licensing of several players/operators in the financial services industry, including fintechs, mobile money operators, Payment Service Banks (PSBs), Microfinance Banks/institutions, new deposit money banks (DMBs), etc. As such, several players are making various attempts at solving the same problem which will significantly increase the likelihood of success. As the foremost financial institution in Nigeria, FirstBank has always collaborated with the Central Bank and the Nigerian government to push several national initiatives, particularly as it relates to the financial services industry. Specifically, FirstBank’s Firstmonie Agent Network is fully aligned with improving financial inclusion in Nigeria. With over 196,000 agents spread across 772 Local Government Areas (LGAs) in Nigeria and many of the agents operating from 512 LGAs without a FirstBank branch, the Bank has been a clear partner to the Central Bank of Nigeria in improving financial inclusion in the country. FirstBank’s USSD (*894#) product, which is demographically positioned for the unbanked, has over 14 million users with more than 261 million unique transactions, worth over NGN1.1 trillion processed on the platform. FirstBank has been at the forefront of increasing financial inclusion in Nigeria and will continue to play its part until every adult in Nigeria is adequately banked.

What is your take on two recent policies of the CBN – the naira redesign and the cash withdrawal limits?

The CBN as the apex regulator of the financial services industry has overall responsibility to ensure the soundness of the nation’s financial systems. In discharging this responsibility, it develops policies that are meant to strengthen the monetary environment and stimulate further economic development of the country – the recent naira redesign and cash withdrawal limits policies are part of its core mandate. As noted by the CBN, the naira redesign will improve both the integrity of the local legal tender and the efficiency of its supply, thus addressing a situation where 80 per cent of the currency in circulation is outside the banking system. To aid its implementation, the CBN has also suspended charges on cash deposits to encourage everyone to deposit old naira notes in the Banks. The new N200, N500 & N1000 notes which came into circulation on 15th December 2022 will co-exist with the old notes until 31st January 2023 when the old notes will cease to be legal tender in Nigeria.

Similarly, the cash withdrawal policy which will limit weekly cash withdrawals by individuals and companies to N500,000.00 and N5,000,000.00 respectively is expected to accelerate Nigeria’s transition to a digital economy. The policy which comes into effect from January 9, 2023, will present the added advantage of bringing more people into the banking system thus improving financial inclusion. At FirstBank, we view both policies as business enablers with bright prospects and we are poised to take maximum advantage of the opportunities they bring to improve our service offerings and the overall experience of our customers.

FirstBank has a lot of Firstmonie agents scattered around the country, how will the cash withdrawal limit affect their operations?

As of November 2022, FirstBank has over 196,000 Firstmonie agents spread across 772 Local Government Areas (LGAs) in Nigeria. These agents have also processed over 1.16 billion transactions valued at N26.52 trillion. About 45 per cent of our Firstmonie Agent network is in rural areas, 18 per cent is located in semi-urban areas and only 37 per cent is in urban areas. Beyond Cash-in-Cash-Out (CICO) transactions, these agents also render other services such as account opening, airtime purchase, bill payment, government-revenue collection, transfer and disbursement, mobile money (wallet creations, deposits, withdrawals), bank verification number (BVN) enrollment and other non-bank ecosystem value-added support services, in line with CBN’s guideline for Mobile Money and Agent Banking businesses. These services have helped to bring banking services closer to local communities thereby empowering them and facilitating their economic development. Through Firstmonie, FirstBank provides convenient low-cost financial access for millions of Nigerians in rural areas. Therefore, given the spread of our agent banking network and the scope of services they offer, the cash withdrawal limit is not likely to have an adverse effect on their operations.  In reality, we see it as an enabler that will bring more people into the banking system. The new cash withdrawal limit will help to drive the penetration and uptake of digital/mobile wallet offerings in the industry.

FBN Holdings doubled its Q3 2022 profit to N105 billion and the performance by the bank was the major contributor, can you take us through the drivers of the impressive Q3 result?

FirstBank’s Q3 2022 results reflect the robustness of our business model and go-to-market approach even in a challenging business and operating environment. The impressive profitability performance was driven by the resilient execution of our strategy and transformation program. Specifically, FirstBank delivered a 42.4 per cent year-on-year (YoY) increase in interest income on the back of yield optimisation on existing assets and the addition of about N700 billion to the risk asset portfolio. Also, the bank recorded a decent 6.8 per cent growth in fees and commissions within the period driven by significant improvements in LC commissions, account maintenance charges etc. The bank also recorded over 47 per cent y-o-y increase in other operating income within the same period. Overall, I would say that the results are a clear outcome of the collective efforts and resilience of the entire staff and the Board of Directors of the FirstBank Group in deliberately executing our transformation agenda.  We remain confident that our growth trajectory is sustainable, and we are focused on delivering on our 2020 – 2024 strategic ambition of accelerated growth in profitability through customer-led innovation and disciplined execution.

What is the level of non-performing loans and what has the bank been doing to reduce it?

FirstBank Group has achieved great strides in reducing its NPL from double-digit in 2016 to below the regulatory benchmark of five per cent in Q3 2022, which attests to the fact that the bank is strong and resilient.  FirstBank has, in recent years, built an enduring risk culture and governance systems, as well as strengthened its risk management infrastructure through technology, process automation and specialised training.

A few years ago, FirstBank embarked on a business expansion drive within the continent, can you take us through the performance of your subsidiaries in the continent?

FirstBank embarked on its African expansion in 2011. Today, the Bank is present in six other African markets namely: Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Guinea. As part of the 2020 – 2024 strategic plan, FirstBank refreshed its vision to be “Africa’s Bank of First Choice” to serve as an anchor for its renewed African expansion drive. As such, the Bank is exploring entry into additional high-impact African markets. While the growth journey of each African subsidiary is different, we are extremely proud of the investments that we have made in these markets and the positive contributions we are beginning to see from each subsidiary. Overall, I would like to note that all our African subsidiaries are making positive contributions to the Group in terms of profitability.

How is the bank positioning to take advantage of the AfCFTA?

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement has created the largest free trade area in the world (measured by the number of participating countries) as it involves most of the 55 member countries of the African Union with a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $3.4 trillion and connects 1.3 billion people across the continent.  According to the World Bank, the AfCFTA has the potential to lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty and raise the incomes of 68 million others who live on less than $5.50 per day. It also has the potential to drive $292 billion in income gains for participating members. FirstBank is already actively playing in seven African countries with plans to enter additional high-impact African markets in the short to medium term. The bank has also institutionalised a collaboration framework across all operating jurisdictions to ensure clients operating in multiple African jurisdictions can be effectively served across the network. The bank has developed special products (known as First Global Transfer) to facilitate regional payments for our pan-African clients in addition to our online and digital platforms. On the part of the customers, FirstBank has conducted several non-oil export seminars to raise awareness levels on the opportunities presented by AfCFTA and equip our clients with the right knowledge to exploit these opportunities. As a bank, we view AfCFTA as an enabler of our corporate vision and we will continue to ensure the right investments are made to capture the opportunities it presents.

 


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