Monday, August 01, 2011

The peninsula of protectionism

GCC and international firms face challenges investing in Qatar
By Paul Cochrane in Doha for Executive magazine on July 20, 2011

For international firms, reaching the gleaming towers of Doha is a trial  beset with regulatory hurdles

Qatar’s “open market” is “committed to free trade” and “warmly welcomes foreign investors” to help diversify the economy, according to the Ministry of Business and Trade’s Investment Promotion Department’s latest report, “Rise With Qatar”. In other words, very much standard fare for investment promotion boards around the world.

Despite the rhetoric, while Qatar’s major spending spree on infrastructure and hydrocarbon projects are certainly generating much interest and opportunities, away from such sectors the options for private investors are rather restricted.

“Opportunities are limited to high level projects like roads and railways, and while local players can’t do it all there is a need to create space for private companies to develop,” said Narayanan Ramachandran, head of advisory for Bahrain and Qatar at consultancy firm KPMG. “The challenge is that the percentage of private activity needs to increase. Government and quasi-government sectors dominate so the private sector needs to grow.”

The Qatar Exchange (QE) is still off-limits to foreigners — Gulf Cooperation Council citizens are entitled to 25 percent of shares in a firm — while setting up a business has a $55,000 [AED 202,015] price tag, 100 percent foreign ownership is restricted to specific sectors, other ventures require 51 percent ownership by a Qatari national, and bankruptcy laws are vague. Even purchasing property, confined to 18 areas for foreigners, does not grant much security, with only a few ownership deeds having been issued and the residency permit that comes with a property “just an open-ended tourist visa,” as one analyst put it.

“Qatar seems first world but in reality [it is] not that open. From the outside, Qatar looks like a good and free market, but to buy anything you have to go to this or that guy with the experience and the connections. There are many monopolies to contend with,” added the analyst.

Hopes that foreign investors would have greater access to the market were dashed in early May when the Advisory Council opposed a government proposal to allow non-Qataris to invest in exclusive dealerships selling foreign goods and services. “Any move to permit non-Qatari capital in exclusive dealerships would gravely endanger Qatari businessmen,” the Advisory Council said in Qatari daily The Peninsula.

Like its financial  regulation, Qatar’s capital is still a work  in progress

The move was criticized anonymously in the press as ensuring the existence of monopolies and curtailing competition, with the ruling pushed forward by several prominent local businessmen that are members of the council.

Sectors where foreign investors can have 100 percent ownership are restricted to “priority sectors,” namely business consulting technical services; IT; cultural, sports and leisure services; distribution services; agriculture; manufacturing; health; tourism; development; exploitation of natural resources; energy and mining.

“The government increased this year the number of sectors that can be invested in — over 49 percent — for foreigners. The authorities know the restrictions are not helpful for encouraging investment, but they need to bring the local constituency along with them over time,” said Andrew Wingfield, a partner at international law firm Simmons and Simmons in Doha.

Despite the seemingly broad swathe of investment opportunities now on offer in Qatar, barriers to new foreign businesses are still considerable.

Limited liability companies (LLCs) that want to set up in the country are required to have a paid-up capital of QR200,000 [$54,913 or AED201,695].

“That is expensive, even before you open the business’s door, but the rationale is that it stops the fly-by-nights and [ensures] the businesses that come here will be serious,” said Wingfield. “But for LLCs to borrow from local banks, the Qatar Central Bank (QCB) will not allow lending unless shareholders give a guarantee. Such a requirement is not mandatory in many other jurisdictions but it is in Qatar. It could be said to be a very prudent move to protect the banks, but it is another hurdle to investment.”

The message being put out is that companies have to be willing to pay to get in on the action. While this flies in the face of the country’s propounded open market, it reflects a protectionist approach, which is not necessarily a bad thing if well regulated and transparent. Indeed, it is a policy widely used by developing countries to build up their economies, as South Korea has done and is still doing, albeit primarily to protect the industrial and manufacturing sectors.

“There is a degree of protectionism on one side, but there is the intent by the government to open up sectors to be competitive that were not,” said Anil Khurana, director of Operational Strategy and Private Equity at management consultants PRTM. “For instance, on the automotive side, the prime minister said in the future there will be no exclusive dealerships and there will be competition.”

Yet while the economy is set to open up more, currently GCC companies are not being given preferential treatment, despite the supposed tenets of the Gulf common market that allow for the free movement of GCC companies and citizens. “There is a new law to allow GCC companies to set up branches in Qatar, but we’ve not seen the law yet. That should help business as at the moment they need a subsidiary,” said Wingfield.

That said, there are some 289 Saudi Arabian companies in Qatar and later this year a trade delegation comprising more than 100 businessmen from the kingdom is slated to visit Doha to scope out the possibilities of joint ventures, bag infrastructure contracts related to the World Cup and discuss the establishment of a joint Saudi-Qatari bank. Given Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s recent political rapprochement, this could signal preferential tenders to Saudi companies, said an investment analyst off-the-record.

Regulatory constraints

On top of the high entry requirements for businesses, the QCB in April implemented stricter regulations on Qatari banks’ retail lending to help reduce leverage in the retail segment. Personal loans were capped at QR2 million [$549,000 or AED2 million] for Qataris and QR400,000 [$109,000 or AED 400,357] for expatriates, limited to 72 months and 48 months respectively, and equated monthly installments are not to exceed 75 percent of a Qatari’s monthly income or 50 percent of an expatriate. In the short-term such a move will restrict retail lending and impact on banks margins, but in the long-run it is expected to improve asset quality and prevent the level of defaults that abounded in the wake of the financial crisis.

“The limit on lending to individual customers and the capping of interest rates will clearly have an impact on the banks. These are going to impact the volume of growth the banks can procure, and obviously impact our rate of profitability,” said Commercial Bank Chief Executive Officer Andy Stevens to the Gulf Times following the QCB’s decision.

QCB’s orders came just months after a harder impact on the Qatari banks, when in February the central bank ordered 16 commercial banks to wind down their Islamic banking units by the end of the year. QCB justified the move by citing the difficulty to regulate the two financial sectors, with the conventional banks having to abide by Basel requirements while the Islamic banks are following guidelines issued by the Malaysia-based Islamic Financial Services Board.

While the move will benefit the country’s three dedicated Islamic banks, it is being viewed in a negative light by international lenders in the advent that other regional central banks follow suit. It has also sent mixed signals to the banking sector while raising concerns over QCB’s regulatory abilities as it stated it got “mixed up” in monitoring both banking sectors.

And while the ruling was to be expected, it was done overnight without consulting the banks. “It had been discussed by [QCB] for the past three years, but the timing and speed with which it happened was not expected by the banks,” said Ramachandran. “Whether the directive will be achieved by the end of 2011 is still too early to tell.”

The directive had particular sting for HSBC’s Islamic banking unit, Amanah, which was set up just seven months prior to the announcement and prompted the global bank to seek a “workable solution” with QCB.

A further issue in the financial market is that the central bank has not created a single integrated regulatory body to oversee all banking and financial services in the country, which was intended to bring in the Qatar Financial Center (QFC) under the same regulator as QCB.

QFC was established in 2005 to attract international financial institutions to Doha that were to operate separately from local banks and be independently regulated by the QFC Authority (QFCA), which is based on best practices in international financial centers such as London and New York. The intention to unify the framework was announced in July 2007, but four years on it has yet to be implemented.

“One challenge in the market is the integration of the regulatory framework of the QCB with the QFC, but we are not aware of the time-line,” said Ramachandran. “And while the QFC has certainly attracted service providers, the question now is the strategic thinking of overall regulations and the differences between the local players regulated by the QCB and the banks by QFC.

“I also think the QFC has to do wider business than just Qatar (if it wants to be a regional financial hub), as it is looking first at the local market. Qatar has to consider how to get that regulatory framework right and attract more regional players. So far, QFC’s framework is to bring in established players with a certain pedigree and not for new financial institutions.”

The financial viability of the QFCA has also been questioned, with the body not including their balance sheet in the 2010 review following reports that the QFC relied on state funding and was not breaking even.

With Qatar dragging its feet on the unified regulatory authority, some consider that Doha has missed the boat in terms of attracting more financial service providers, particularly over the past few months when Doha had the chance to poach players away from the established financial center of Manama amid the political unrest in Bahrain, and before that from Dubai in the wake of its debt crisis. As law firm Clyde and Co. noted about the benefits of the establishment of a unified regulator: “Such a move is likely to benefit international financial institutions in doing business within the region. It is also likely to give Qatari institutions a competitive advantage in the medium term as those businesses adapt to a more competitive international regulatory environment.”

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