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ADEDUNTAN: FIRSTBANK IS RESILIENT, STABLE AND BUILT FOR THE LONG HAUL

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The Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of First Bank Nigeria Limited, Dr. Adesola Adeduntan, last year saw his tenure extended as part of efforts to ensure the stability of the financial institution. In this interview with THISDAY, he speaks about the intervention of the Central Bank of Nigeria, the future of the bank, trends that shaped the economy in 2021, his expectations for 2022 and other pertinent banking sector issues. Excerpts…

What is the level of the Central Bank of Nigeria’s involvement in First Bank?
The central bank’s involvement in FirstBank is essentially about playing the role of the regulator. CBN’s intervention has been in the best interest of the bank’s stakeholders and its performance; aimed at restoring confidence in the bank as well as to reassure the depositors, creditors and other stakeholders of the bank of its commitment to ensuring the stability of the financial system.

Your third quarter results saw a decline in some of the key indicators such as gross earnings, profit before tax and profit after tax, what was responsible for this?

The Commercial Banking reported a resilient performance resulting in a Profit before Tax of N44.3billion for the nine months period ended September 30, 2021. This result was delivered in a sustained low yield environment, which continues to compress margins as the macro-economic environment remained challenging amidst the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

FirstBank’s focus on putting the customers first continues to be a driving force as we keep supporting our customers in meeting their business needs. The evidence of this support is reflected in the 24.1% y-t-d growth in the loan book, underpinned by solid risk management practices and from which sustainable good quality earnings are being delivered as asset quality remains firmly under control. Furthermore, in our concerted efforts at sustaining our dominance in financial inclusion and digital banking, we continue to record growths in our agent banking business, supporting the 17.5 per cent growth in non-interest income.

We remain determined to continue strengthening our capabilities across our footprints, as we are confident that our investment in technology and the strong balance sheet, which the Group has built over the last six years, will provide the solid platform for more impressive results into the future.

The CBN recently introduced the eNaira, what has been the acceptance rate by FirstBank’s customers, and do you think this will positively impact your bank?

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) as the regulator of the banking industry continues to lead and drive development in the industry. In the banking industry, digital currency is the future and the CBN is staying ahead of the curve in Africa with the introduction of the eNaira given the several benefits associated with the digital currency, such as safety, speed, and convenience. A review of the events over the course of the past few years has shown that digitalisation in its different forms has been net positive for the financial services industry.

The eNaira is no different; the digitalisation of the naira expands upon Nigeria’s already advanced payment ecosystem; the roadmap for the eNaira over the next couple of months will reveal some exciting use cases that will further grow the ecosystem and encourage even more interaction with this new form of currency. Currently we have a whole segment of digitally curious customers who have started interacting with the eNaira, and as the eNaira ecosystem grows and acceptance increases as a store and exchange of value, so will those numbers.

FirstBank’s channels currently account for about 17 per cent of the total reported eNaira transaction volume. The bank is dependably dynamic and continues to be at the vanguard of innovation in the banking industry. Overall, I am confident that the eNaira will positively impact the bank as our customers continue to transact through the bank’s channels, supporting the digital economy drive. The number of customers will increase as the eNaira will enable the sign-on of excluded people in the financial system, thereby supporting the financial inclusion drive of the CBN. The eNaira will reduce the cost of processing cash for the bank, thereby making it a cheaper, reliable and faster way of exchange and the bank will have access to customers across the continents, simplifying and facilitating cross border payments and trade.

What’s opinion about the CBN’s FX and what long-term impacts will it have on the exchange rate and has your bank been able to meet the demands of customer?

The main objectives of exchange rate policy in Nigeria are to preserve the value of the domestic currency, maintain a favorable external reserves position and ensure external balance without compromising the need for internal balance and the overall goal of macroeconomic stability. The new CBN’s foreign exchange (FX) policy is geared towards harmonising the FX rates across the various markets and increasing the availability of FX to those who genuinely need it and not for those who are speculators or those who deliberately try to distort the market. The current FX policy of the CBN has recorded some successes in improving the availability of FX for transactions and curbing the incessant decline of the naira exchange rate in the parallel markets.

The current policy is expected to strengthen the naira exchange rate, however, there are several other factors that are critical to the movement of the exchange rate, predominantly oil prices and capital inflows. If these factors continue to trend positively, then we can expect a relative stability of naira relative to other international currencies. I believe the long-term impact will be the relative stability of the naira, as the CBN continues to meet all legitimate needs, increasing the confidence of the people and sending the right signaling effect to foreign investors. Typically, FirstBank engages the regulators, providing all the necessary foreign exchange bid documentations and following defined processes to ensure that our customers’ bids are successful, and we get as much allocation as possible for all our needy customers.

How prepared do you think banks are for Basel III?

The Basel III accord was developed by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) and is built upon the frameworks of the existing Basel II accord, with the aim of strengthening regulation, supervision, and risk management within the banking industry, globally. Due to the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis on banks, it became imperative for the current frameworks under Basel II to be revised to improve the ability of banks to handle shocks from financial stress and to strengthen their transparency and disclosure. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) on September 2, 2021, issued a circular to all banks in Nigeria titled Basel III Implementation by all Deposit Money Banks. The circular aims to inform all banks of the issuance of guidelines for the implementation of the Basel III standard which is a voluntary global regulatory framework that addresses banks’ capital adequacy, stress testing, and market liquidity risk.

Basel III standard will prevent banks from taking excessive risks that can negatively impact the players and the economy. Implementation of Basel III will have significant implications for capital requirement – there will be a higher minimum CAR requirement for players in the industry. However, the apex bank has engaged and defined a road map to ensure that operators in the banking industry meet and surpass the higher capital requirements. The Basel III will be implemented in phases and banks have developed their capital plan to ensure they meet and surpass the higher capital and liquidity requirements for the Basel III implementation. Many banks have revamped their operational and credit risk infrastructure to mitigate operational and credit risk losses. The effect is already being seen in the general decline in the industry’s non-performing loan portfolio. The successful implementation of the Basel III frameworks would be beneficial to the banking industry and the economy at large.

Do you think it would spur more mergers and acquisitions in year 2022?

The Basel III standard implementation by the Central Bank of Nigeria is aimed at decreasing the risk of the financial services sector. The main aim of Basel III is to improve financial stability – the standard is set to increase the soundness of Nigeria’s financial services sector and the confidence of the people in the financial system. The implementation is expected to impact banks’ capital adequacy by raising liquidity and lowering bank leverage. Analysts believe that the implementation of Basel III would increase the capital requirement of Systemic Important Banks (SIB) in Nigeria to 17 per cent from 15 per cent but, most banks in Nigeria are well-capitalised and are expected to increase capital buffer that can be drawn upon in periods of stress. However, despite being well-capitalised, the implementation of Basel III would reduce the capital headroom of operators and banks would have to resort to various strategies to strengthen their capital positions to drive credit and business growth. These strategies may include mergers and acquisitions (M&A) as Basel III policy implementation takes effect to strengthen their capital positions as the policy requires higher capital requirements/enhanced capital cushions. Nonetheless, I believe Nigerian banks are well-positioned to withstand regulatory headwinds whilst driving growth.

How would you assess your bank’s performance through the pandemic?

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted several sectors of the economy, the banking industry was one of the most impacted given the critical role that banks play in the economy and across all sectors. However, FirstBank navigated the pandemic crisis successfully and recorded the best financial performance since 2015 in the 2020 financial year. FirstBank delivered a strong performance both on the financial and non-financial front underpinned by resiliency, digital innovation and customer centricity. On financial performance, despite the pandemic, the bank recorded significant growth in its revenue base, profitability and asset. Revenue and Profitability Performance: In the context of the pandemic, FirstBank Group delivered strong financial results, generating gross revenue of N539 billion for the year ended 31 December 2020. The Group’s non-interest income grew impressively by 24 per cent between 2019 and 2020, closing at N154.5 billion for the year ending 31 December 2020.

The non-interest income growth was propelled by transactional and eBusiness income and credit related fees. In 2020, FirstBank Group delivered its most profitable year since 2015. The Group’s profit before tax increased from N70.8 billion for the year ended 31 December 2019 to N73.6 billion for the year ended 31 December 2020, resulting in a year-on-year profitability growth of 4 percent between 2019 and 2020. Strong Asset Growth and Stable Funding Base: FirstBank Group experienced solid total asset growth of 25.5 per cent to N7.4 trillion as at December 31st, 2020 (2019: N5.9 trillion). The Group continues to maintain a strong liquidity and capital position driven by its high volume of customer deposits held in low-cost current and savings accounts, which amounted to over 75 percent of the Bank’s customer deposit base as at 31 December 2020.

Renewed emphasis by the Group in improving the service performance level in the retail segment, expanding digital touchpoints and repurposing of its branch network have resulted in 20.5 per cent increase in deposits to N4.7 trillion as at December 31st, 2020 (2019: N3.9 trillion); a reflection of our strong franchise value which has come to be associated with safety, stability and innovation. Through the bank’s extensive physical footprint and expanding agent banking network and digital banking capabilities, the Group continues to reach an increasing number of customers, which drives customer deposits in low-cost current and savings accounts that serve as an important funding base. On non-financial performance, the bank’s non-financial performance across disruptive innovation and customer focus lens has been impressive. Some of the milestones achieved during the pandemic was us launching the pioneer FastTrack ATM in Africa offering customers a touchless solution for ATM transactions and enabling customers to pre-order cash on ATMs via the bank’s USSD or mobile banking platforms.

We unveiled FirstBank’s Virtual Payment Card, a digital representation of the naira-denominated plastic debit card, launched the Firstmonie Agent Credit, a digital lending solution designed to provide bridge finance to help our Agents solve liquidity challenges, leveraged technology to promote digital account opening process through the Digital Sales Executive App, ATMs, Firstmonie Agents, *894# USSD banking, FirstMobile and Company website. Also, we upgraded the Bank’s mobile banking application, FirstMobile, with new and improved features to promote a convenient and secured mobile banking experience for customers, rolled out FirstBank Digital Innovation Lab’s proprietary developed Mobile Banking App for our wholly owned subsidiary FBNBank Senegal, Increased customer account base (including wallets) to over 30 million.

Maintained the dominant digital bank rating in Nigeria with over 20 per cent market share of electronic banking transaction volumes, about 16 million users on our digital banking platforms (USSD *894#, FirstMobile and FirstOnline) and over 11 million card users. Expanded the Agent Banking network to over 86,500[1] agents across 772 out of 774 local governments in Nigeria and paid out over N18 billion as commissions to Firstmonie Agents.Reinforced the Bank’s financial inclusion drive with the disbursement of over N22 billion and N35 billion in loans through FirstAdvance and Agent Credit digital platforms, respectively. Provided free e-learning solutions in partnership with Roducate, IBM and the Lagos State Government, thereby helping to reduce the negative impact of school closure following the COVID-19 pandemic on students in Lagos State. Additionally, the bank, in partnership with Junior Achievement, positively impacted over one million students through its financial literacy, entrepreneurship and career counselling programs and Improved customer ranking in the Wholesale Banking segment by four places in 2020.

What are your expectations and forecast for the economy in 2022?

Globally and in Nigeria, economic recovery was strong in 2021 following improved vaccination exercise, and support from monetary and fiscal authorities for demand. However, I believe 2022 will witness slower pace in economic growth over lingering health crisis (the fourth wave of the covid-19 pandemic with the omicron variant) and rising price levels globally. Also, the boost from base effects and reopening of the economy will decline in 2022. Locally I expect economic growth to improve slightly; however, the following trends are expected in 2022 are disinflationary trend to continue in 2022 but inflation would still bite harder although potential PMS subsidy removal is the most consequential known factor that could push inflation to its worst-case estimates in 2022. Higher taxes may take the center stage as the federal government explores all options to cover for burgeoning budget deficit. Potential improvement in fiscal metrics given the bullish sentiment in the international oil market and savings potential from the PMS subsidy removal.

Capital importation may improve as foreign portfolio investments, diaspora remittances and other sources of inflow witness gradual growth following global economic recovery and increased employment for Nigerians in diaspora. Monetary policy measures may normalise in 2022 with the Central Bank of Nigeria maintaining an accommodative stand. Economic growth in 2022 is projected to be with the range of 2.7 per cent and three per cent. However, the key activities to look out for in 2022 include electioneering, the penultimate year before the next general elections, increase in taxes, buoyant oil market, PMS subsidy removal, and exchange rate policy of the CBN.

With the recent push to increase lending by CBN, don’t you think this would impact or drive up your bank’s NPLs?

The Central Bank of Nigeria had in recent times taken some tough decisions to address the challenges affecting the growth of the real sector and the Nigerian economy. This includes ensuring that banks comply with the minimum 65 per cent loan to deposit ratio (LDR). This increased lending by CBN has proved potent in filling the financing gap as credit to private sector has indeed risen to an appreciable level. Although there is a concern that this push to increase lending by CBN would drive up bank’s non-performing loans (NPLs), a report by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) noted that despite the increase in LDR there is an inverse proportionate reduction in non-performing loans. FirstBank has achieved great strides in reducing its NPL from double-digit in 2016 to single digit in 2021 which attest to the fact that the bank is strong and resilient.

I am happy to note that the recent drive to increase lending will not affect the bank’s NPLs negatively as the bank has instituted a robust and automated operational and credit risk management processes and infrastructure. FirstBank has in the recent years built an enduring risk culture and governance system, strengthened the risk infrastructure through specialised training, digitalisation credit processes and imbibe disciplined and active portfolio management approach thereby ensuring strict regulatory compliance. FirstBank will continue to support CBN’s lending initiative to achieving strong economic growth and diversification as the bank is well positioned to maintain good asset quality and profitable credit portfolio.

With the emergence of PSBs and telcos granted licences, how much would that deepen financial inclusion and do you see this competing with banks’ agency banking?

The introduction of Payment Service Banks (PSBs) is another step taken by the CBN in line with its goal of promoting financial inclusion and enhancing access to financial services for the unbanked, underbanked, and underserved segments of the population across all parts of the country. The entrance of the PSBs will certainly deepen financial inclusion. It will impact the financial services landscape to the extent that the Telcos will be able to leverage their extensive infrastructure to offer last mile delivery of financial solutions to those currently unbanked. Today, we have 70 million Nigerians that have been issued the National Identity Number.

About 20 per cent of this number are currently unbanked, and they can more easily be reached. The expected impact will ride on the back of synergy and collaborations across the industry. And this is what we are already seeing. For us at FirstBank, the development is not a threat, we see it more as an opportunity. You will agree that for an institution like ours that has been around and flourishing for over 127 years, our ability to read and effectively respond to market trends has been well proven. What we have done with our agent banking is to build a platform that could be leveraged to enrich customer offerings in diverse ways. We do not just possess spread, we possess depth. So, leveraging technology and open API, we are poised to work with the PSBs to deliver value to the banking public and citizenry.

Still on agency banking, can you give us an update on the expansion of your bank’s agency banking and the impact it had especially during the lockdown?

FirstBank’s agent banking, Firstmonie, has witnessed continuous growth since its launch. The Firstmonie agent network operates in 772 of the 774 local government areas in Nigeria and is the largest bank-led network in Nigeria, and indeed Sub-Saharan Africa, with over 150,000 agents including over 22,000 women agents, enabling the Bank to drive gender inclusive growth within rural communities. The Firstmonie network has processed over N17 trillion ($39.3 billion) in over 817 million transactions between 2018 and December 2021. The Firstmonie initiative has been a very formidable vehicle for job creation and economic development in several communities across the country, as over 150,000 direct jobs and 450,000 indirect jobs have been created, with an agent earning an average monthly commission/income of N85,000. Over 1.5 million individuals have been economically impacted through the jobs created via the FirstBank’s Firstmonie agent banking proposition. Significant percentage of Firstmonie’s agents are in the rural areas, contributing significantly to the development of the rural economy in Nigeria.

Overall, FirstBank is supporting the social-economic development of Nigeria in a profitable way. During the peak of the lockdown, the Firstmonie network provided an alternative channel for the Bank’s customers to conduct transactions and meet their basic financial service needs, serving as quasi-physical touchpoint for the bank’s customers. This resulted in the Firstmonie network processing over N6.6 trillion worth of transactions during the period We are not resting on our oars and the growth in 2021 is equally impressive; as at Q3 2021, we had processed more value of transactions than we did in the whole of 2020. The outlook for 2022 and beyond is also quite exciting. We will continue to focus on impacting the lives of the communities we serve and deepening the services we offer through collaborations with partners, the regulatory authorities, other industry players, and our customers.

Your tenure as CEO was last year renewed, can you speak on your achievements and milestones thus far?

I was appointed Chief Executive Officer/Managing Director of this iconic institution – FirstBank of Nigeria Limited in January 2016. The board and management team embarked on a transformation journey with deliberate and focused extraordinary actions to rescue and gradually rebuild the bank. Fast forward, the rebuild effort of the last five-plus years has translated to significant outcomes across key indicators of business momentum and growth. Some of the achievements and milestones include: Grew the bank’s average assets to N8.2 trillion as at Q3, 2021 from N3.9 trillion as at December 2015, increased Group deposits base to N5.1 trillion in Q3, 2021 from N2.9 trillion as at December 2015.

FirstBank grew the Bank’s profit before tax to N52.7 billion in Q3, 2021 from N10.2 billion as at December 2015, reduced the Bank’s NPL ratio from double-digit in 2016 to single digit in 2021 (vintage NPL is <1%). Reduced cost of risk to <2% as at Q3 2021 from double digit in 2016, transformed and repositioned international subsidiaries businesses for improved performance – all are returning positive profitability, upgraded the core banking platform (Finacle Future Ready – FFR) with improved processing capacity and availability + better integration agility. Built an industry leading digital banking (electronic banking) business. Made significant progress in transaction banking – controlling 26 per cent of industry corporate e-bills payment market share. Also, during my tenure, the FastTrack ATM was Launched in Africa offering customers a touchless solution for ATM transactions and enabling customers to pre-order cash on ATMs via the Bank’s USSD or mobile banking platforms.Unveiled the FirstBank Virtual Payment Card, a digital representation of the naira-denominated plastic debit card. Launched the Firstmonie Agent Credit, a digital lending solution designed to provide bridge finance to help our Agents solve liquidity challenges.

Leveraged technology to promote digital account opening process through the ATMs, Firstmonie Agents, *894# USSD banking, FirstMobile and Company website. Upgraded the Bank’s mobile banking application, FirstMobile, with new and improved features to promote a convenient and secured mobile banking experience for customers. Rolled out FirstBank Digital Innovation Lab’s proprietary developed Mobile Banking App LitApp. Others are increased customer account base (including wallets) to over 34 million. Maintained the dominant digital bank rating in Nigeria with over 20% market share of electronic banking transaction volumes, about 16 million users on our digital banking platforms (USSD *894#, FirstMobile and FirstOnline) and over 11 million card users.

Build a ubiquitous and robust Agent Banking network across 772 out of 774 local governments in Nigeria with over 150,000 agents. During my tenure, the Bank’s outstanding services have attracted numerous recognitions and awards. In 2021, FirstBank was named “Best Private Bank in Nigeria” and “Best Consumer Digital Bank in Nigeria” by Global Finance; “Most Innovative Banking Application – Nigeria, 2021” and “Best CSR Bank – Nigeria, 2021” by Global Banking and Finance Awards; “Most Innovative Banking Product 2021” by International Finance Awards; as well as “Treasury and Global Markets Brand of the Year 2021” and “Alternative Delivery Channel of the Year” by BusinessDay Banks and Other Financial Institutions (BAFI) Awards 2021.

For six consecutive years, FirstBank was named, “Most Valuable Bank Brand in Nigeria,” by the globally renowned The Banker Magazine of the Financial Times Group and “Best Retail Bank in Nigeria” eight times in a row by The Asian Banker Awards. We are grateful for accolades and achievements which attest to our exceptional commitment to promoting national, regional and global economic growth and development through constructive engagements with the public and private sectors of various economies, and our host communities across the globe.

What should your customers and shareholders expect from your bank in the near future?

The industry has changed and will continue to evolve at a faster pace with new innovative technologies, and the customers will continue to gravitate towards institutions that provide the best digital payments services that address their changing needs for convenience, speed and security.

FirstBank will remain at the cutting edge of innovation and technology in the industry. FirstBank has the right capabilities and competencies to lead and take advantage of the new developments in the digital payment space, and indeed, the banking industry. At FirstBank, we will continue focus on customer-led innovation as we put our customers first in everything we do.

We understand that although the needs of customers may remain the same, the channel of delivery remains dynamic, and we must stay ahead of the curve; Our stakeholders should expect to see a bank that is future-proof and ready to provide best-in-class products and services that will meet and surpass their needs.

FirstBank remains dependably dynamic and will ensure that the needs of all stakeholders are met to the customers, we will provide the best products and deliver exceptional customer experience, to the shareholders, capital appreciation and good dividend payout,to employees, competitive emolument and good career path, to regulators, voluntary compliance to all rules and regulations and to communities, we will be good corporate citizens and give back to the society where we operate.

Tell us about some of the impact of FirstBank on the communities where it operates?

At FirstBank, we are committed to nation-building and have been driving sustainable social, economic and environmental growth for over 127 years of our existence. Our community development initiatives are anchored on our strategic Education, Health and Welfare pillars. Our engagement in sustainable business practices is based on our promise of enhancing economic development and ensuring economic stability for the present and future generation. Our key programmes include Infrastructure Development programme; Endowment programme; Future First (Financial Literacy, Entrepreneurship and Career Counseling); E-Learning Initiative; SPARK (Start Performing Acts of Random Kindness) and CRS Week. I will highlight achievements for a few. First Bank Infrastructural Development programme is aimed at promoting infrastructure development under its identified areas of support.

This includes providing infrastructure facilities in schools, hospitals and environmental infrastructure projects. This is in recognition of the importance of these facilities in improving the quality of life. We have built over 16 infrastructure projects which include universities and secondary and primary schools and recently commissioned a Primary Health Centre in Ijedodo Community in partnership with Lagos State Government. The FutureFirst programme in partnership with Junior Achievement Nigeria has impacted Over 1,000,000 people across the regions of the country including Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja with knowledge of financial literacy and entrepreneurship.

Over 170,000 students have benefitted from the E-learning initiative thus far. This include 20,000 indigent students that have received free low-end devices preloaded with accredited content.
The Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability Week (CR&S) Week which started in 2017 is a dedicated week designed to offer opportunities for employees to give their time and resources to defined causes in line with the Bank’s CR&S strategic approach. The Week’s activities are an aspect of the Bank’s Employee Giving & Volunteering Programme, which was instituted with the aim of encouraging employees to give back to the community as well as inculcate in them the integral corporate culture of giving. The main initiative implemented during this week is SPARK.

SPARK is a values-based initiative designed to raise consciousness that we can choose to be kind. SPARK which was introduced in the maiden edition of the Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability (CR&S) week in 2017 espouses reigniting our values which appear to be eroding fast. The initiative focuses on creating and reinforcing an attitude of going beyond just meeting the material needs of people who are unable to help themselves to showing compassion, empathy, affection.

In 2021, the lives impacted include 60 Beneficiary schools; over 18,000 secondary students’ participants in SPARK launch; 20,000 underprivileged including widows lives touched in 8 countries including United Kingdom, Ghana, DRC, Guinea, Sierra Lone, Senegal & Nigeria. We had partnerships with over 100 Charities / NGOs including LEAP Africa; International Women Society; UNGC; UN Women; Junior Achievement Nigeria.

In addition, SPARK Amplification has expanded and deepened staff involvement within our various host communities by integrating and institutionalizing acts of random kindness, which has seen 7 Directorates & Departments in the Bank implement various initiatives including empowering small businesses; infrastructure and books for schools, and providing household items for orphanages. In 2021, staff contributions spent to implement SPARK amplification stands at N13,570,743.10 and a total of 9,706.5 volunteering hours.

When will the Elephant (FirstBank) stand ‘Gidigba’ again?

As I said earlier, the bank is consistently delivering a resilient performance within a challenging macro-economic environment amidst the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. I highlighted some key points as evidence in our commitment to and journey towards reclaiming our top position in the industry. These include firstly, our determined efforts at sustaining our dominance in financial inclusion and digital banking, reflecting growth in our agent banking business, supporting the 17.5 per cent growth in non-interest income. The second thing is our deliberate, planned and consistent efforts in putting the customer first as shown in the 24.1% y-t-d growth in the loan book, fortified by solid risk management practices and from which sustainable good quality earnings are being delivered as asset quality remains firmly under control.

And the confidence that our stakeholders including our customers repose in us is reflective in 10.3% y-t-d growth customers’ deposits. This is in addition to our constant investment in technology. We have always maintained that FirstBank is built to be resilient, stable and for the long-haul. And we remain committed to reinforcing our performance by the continued implementation of the Bank’s strategy, which is designed to deliver accelerated growth in profitability and overcome the possible challenges of the environment.

Adedutan

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Pension Funds Investment in Real Estate, Infrastructure Will Grow Assets – Ojumu

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Sponsored by: H&H

The Head of Equities and Fixed Income sales, Absa Nigeria, Simi Ojumu, speaks on the operations of Absa in Nigeria, how to diversify pension portfolio and how Pension Funds Administrators can meet their recapitalisation targets

Question: We noticed a stronger presence of Absa in Nigeria. Tell us about your operations in Nigeria.
Answer: Absa is a leading Pan-African Bank with a strong footprint and proven on the ground capabilities across the African continent. In 2010, Absa established a corporate and investment banking representative office comprising 3 bankers. The team has since expanded.

We now have two licensed subsidiaries namely Absa Capital Markets Nigeria Limited and Absa Securities Nigeria Limited; both firms are fully owned subsidiaries of Absa Group Limited. We are licensed by the Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) to provide financial advisory, capital raising services and Stockbroking services in the Nigerian capital market.

Absa Capital Markets Nigeria Limited and Absa Securities Nigeria Limited were established in 2017 to further expand Absa’s product and service offerings in Nigeria.

Question: As the custodian of Absa’s pension portfolio in Nigeria, what is your opinion on the pension industry in Nigeria, how has the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) fared?
Answer:The Nigeria pension industry has really evolved and in the right direction too. This significant growth we have seen is incident on the enactment of the Pension Reform Act (PRA) of 2004. While that Act has been replaced with the PRA 2014, the growth trajectory we have witnessed in the pension industry is hinged on the PRA of 2004.
Prior to the PRA of 2004, the industry was near stagnant catering to only a few of the Nigerian workforce. With the PRA, it became mandatory for every employer with more than 5 staff strength to enroll its staff in the scheme and contribute. Today, the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) has enabled millions of Nigerians to have inputs on who manages their pension funds. A savings culture is being imbibed, as both employee and employer must contribute towards the employee’s retirement. The CPS, through the multiple operators and agencies- the Pension Fund Administrators (PFAs), Pension Fund Custodians (PFCs), Closed Pension Fund Administrators (CPFAs) and the regulator National Pension Commission (PenCom) has created an ecosystem of career path, employment, business and investment opportunities for several Nigerians.
In less than two decades, Nigeria’s Net Assets Value of Pension Assets has grown fromFederal government budgetary pension deficit estimated at N2 trillion as at June 2004 to N13.6 trillion as at January 2022. Its contribution to GDP has grown from 0.9% in 2004 to 9% in January 2022. Of the N13.6 trillion Net Assets Value, over 60% of the funds are invested in FGN Securities, while the rest are spread across local money market securities, states governments securities, real estate, mutual fund, corporate debt securities, infrastructure funds, private equity, cash and other assets.
Indeed, the CPS has fared well, but there is room for growth.

Question: With a labour force of over 80 million Nigerians, only 9.5 million have Retirement Savings Accounts (RSAs). What would you say is responsible for this? And how can it be improved?
Answer: Despite the considerable success of the PRA 2014, the CPS has faced and continues to face some challenges. Low coverage, lack of political will on the part of state governments (only 24 states in the country have adopted the law), inadequate awareness on the scheme’s benefits and the inability to ensure strict compliance by the parties, especially the Federal Government who is the largest employer of labour. Several bills, requesting exemption of different groups of Federal government employees continue to be put forward, even with the knowledge that this will cause a disruption to the flow of the CPS as we know it.
Concerted efforts should be made to ensure the complete success of the CPS. More public and private sector organizations should participate in the scheme. The Federal government should adequately fund its employees’ accrued benefits. Compliance should be ensured, and massive awareness should be carried out by all the parties involved.

Question: How have the pension assets fared, in terms of contribution to GDP?
Answer: The bulk (61%) of the pension assets, as of the end of January 2022, was invested in Federal Government securities, providing the Federal Government with low-cost long-term funds to implement its capital budget. PFAs also invested in companies listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, with 7% of funds invested at the end of January 2022. In addition to providing stable ownership in key firms, PFAs also improve corporate governance in listed firms they invest in, this is due to their collective investing power, which they can use to enforce best practice in corporate governance. Furthermore, PFAs invested 7% of pension funds, in the same period, in private sector corporate bonds, providing the firms with long-term cheap funding to finance growth.
The Net Assets Value of Pension Assets under the Contributory Pension Scheme, N13.6 trillion represents 9% of nominal GDP

Question: Should a part of pension assets generated in Nigeria be invested in global markets?
Answer: This is already being done, as the pension assets are invested in a much-diversified portfolio, including a mixture of global and local equities, which is strictly regulated by the PenCom. PFAs willing to invest in global markets will seek PenCom’s approval.
Currently,majority of the pension funds are invested in government securities (federal and state governments bonds), there are other investments in the stock exchange, corporate bonds, real estate, private equity, infrastructure funds and there is the need for diversification to foreign markets for higher returns and hedge against inflation, currency fluctuation and market volatility.
Other diversification considerations should include alternative and non-traditional investments as consistent with global trends. However, the PenCom restrictions on the percentage of funds that can be invested in various sectors, markets and financial institutions, should be further reviewed. The current percentage of funds allowed to be invested in real estate, private equity and infrastructure funds are grossly inadequate if we want to grow the Nigerian pension assets to GDP to the 100% mark as obtained in other markets.
Beyond investment in global markets, the investment portfolio for the PFAs should be critically reviewed in terms of performance. It is important to ensure that inflation does not erode the value of these assets and investments over time.

Question: What can the National Pension Commission (PenCom) do to increase participation in the CPS and compliance from existing employers?
Answer:There is a need for massive awareness on the implications of partial and non-compliance with the PRA 2014 by private employers, state governments and the federal government as well.It is uncharitable for any state government or any employer of labour, be it in the public or private sector, to delay enrolling their workers in the new pension scheme. There is also the need for stricter enforcement to ensure that state governments and private employers remit pension deductions to workers’ PFAs. There is the need for PenCom to engage the critical stakeholders here; State houses of Assembly, National Assembly, the Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria (FRCN) to drive compliance in enrollment and remittances.

Question: The Pension Reform Act 2014 amendment is in its final legislative stages. With the amendment seeking to exempt the Nigerian Police Force (NPF) from the PRA 2014, what will be the immediate effect on the economy in view of the current budget deficit of N6.2 trillion?
Answer: Exemption of the personnel of the NPF would imply additional financial burden on the Federal Government by way of unsustainable pension obligations.
As of September 2021, there were 304,963 police personnel based on IPPIS data, and actuarial valuation revealed that the retirement benefits (pension and gratuity) liability of this personnel under the defunct Defined Benefits Scheme would amount to about N1.84 trillion.
The liability under the CPS for the same NPF personnel is made up of N213.4 billion with accrued pension rights and monthly employer pension contributions of about N2.2 billion.
In the light of this and the current budget deficit, all parties involved need to seek other solutions, as withdrawing the NPF from the scheme could destabilize the entire model and will impact heavily on an over-burdened budget.

Question: How will the amendment impact on the savings culture of Nigerians?
Answer: It may set an unhealthy precedence of various groups wanting to pull out of the CPS, which will in turn, negatively impact on the savings culture hitherto imbibed. The mandatory nature of the contributions has helped employers and their employees to be directly involved in saving for their pensions and ensure accountability in the process. Compared to what was in existence during the era of Defined Benefits where there were no funds and people waited forever to receive their retirement benefits.
Again, it brings us to the need for increased awareness for the benefits of the CPS, its contribution to economic growth and the security it portends against defined benefits.

Question: The deadline for recapitalisation of Pension Fund Administrators is upon us and we have seen the initiation of some mergers and acquisitions in the pension industry. Increasing the shareholders’ funds from N1 billion to 5 billion per PFA, how do you see this affecting the pensions industry?
Answer: This is the second recapitalization the pension industry has seen since the inception of the Contributory Pension Scheme, and it is a sign of growth in the industry. As the assets under management and the PFA portfolios grow, the recapitalization becomes necessary.
The PFAs will need to retain their skilled workers and attract top-tier talent. There is need for digitalization, post Covid-19.
For those who have been unable to meet the capital base on their own, they have gone the route of Mergers and acquisitions, to make them bigger players in the pension industry.

Question: How will the M&As affect the contributors’ assets and will there be any downsides?
Answer:PenCom announced the approval of three Mergers and Acquisitions on March 2, 2022, these mergers and acquisitions enable the entities to pull their resources together and become a larger force. The new PFAs will have the combined Assets Under Management (AUM) of the previously separate PFAs under one umbrella, which gives them more resources at their disposal.With smooth transitions, there should be no negative effects to the contributors’ assets.
However, smooth transitions are also largely dependent on the Investment bank that facilitates the reorganization and, in this case, the mergers and acquisition. This is one of the core services of Absa Group in Nigeria. At Absa Nigeria, we have proven expertise to manage mergers and acquisitions to ensure smooth transition of the new company.

Question:How can the Pension Fund Custodians (PFCs) take a more active role in the CPS?
Answer: Pension Fund Custodians (PFCs) are responsible for keeping safe custody of pension assets on trust on behalf of contributors. The main functions of PFCs are to receive pension contributions on behalf of PFAs; settle transactions and undertake activities relating to the administration of pension fund investments on behalf of PFAs and to notify the PFA within 24 hours of the receipt of pension contributions from employers.
The role they play in ensuring the safety of the contributor’s assets cannot be over emphasized.

Question: With Absa being experts in the Fixed Income and Equities trading space, how would you advise policy makers to go about improving the business of pensions?
Answer: The most important thing would be to ensure the sustainability of the contributory pension scheme. Ensuring participant compliance by the Federal, State governments and the private sector, creating awareness of the benefits, creating an investor-friendly environment, are some of the ways that policy makers can ensure that the pension sector continues to thrive and improve its contributions to the country’s GDP.

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We Will Act Base on UN Resolution, Nigeria Foreign Minister, Onyeama

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The attention of the Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs Geoffrey Onyeama has been drawn to an online publication where he was reported to have said in an interview that Nigeria was ready to impose  sanctions on Russia for Invading Ukraine.

The Minister clearly said, We would act in the framework of the UN, and if there was a UN Resolution, we would be obliged, but there would not be because Russia has a veto power.


Que:  “Several countries have imposed sanctions on Russia is Nigeria making any practical move in that direction?


Ans:  This is going to be a collective action. The UN has to act, and we are going to act and engage within the framework of the United Nations. So if UN, for instance, adopts and imposes sanctions on Russia, we will comply with UN resolutions on any matter.


Que: How detrimental would that be to our investments concerned with Russia?

Ans: Certainly, it will have an impact, I’m not sure that we have huge investments in Russia. It’s not a country in which we have huge investments. We have good relations with Russia, but as I said, Russians vetoed the Security Council. They are chairing the Security Council. So it’s gone to the General Assembly.


Que: Can we bear the anger of Moscow based on our relationship, Nigeria we go the way UN goes?

Ans: You won’t have sanctions because Russia has the veto power in the Security Council, so you will not have a situation when the Security Council is going to accept to impose sanctions on Russia, because Russia has the veto power and is chairing the Security Council

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Developing Economies Need a Fair Energy Transition Strategy – Chairman, Stanbic IBTC

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Exclusive Interview with Stanbic IBTC Chairman, Mr. Basil Omiyi where he gave Justice to many Questions and sundry   

 

1.  What is your view of the financial industry since 2021 begun?

The financial industry has played a vital role in the global economic recovery since the novel COVID-19 adverse impact in 2020. The Nigerian financial sector, particularly the banking industry, has been exceptionally responsive to the challenges in the domestic environment. The resilience of the Nigerian financial sector is undoubtedly reassuring, and the Central Bank of Nigeria has been supportive in various aspects. However, due to the fragile economy, high inflation rate, Naira devaluation, and an intensely competitive business environment, the financial sector grapples with harsh macroeconomic conditions.

2.      Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) have become of increasing interest among companies in the last couple of years. How is Stanbic IBTC promoting and adopting this concept?

At Stanbic IBTC, we are well onboard the ESG paradigm. We recognise that our core business activities must support and contribute to inclusive and sustainable economic growth. We have thus adopted SEE (Social, Environmental and Economic) Impacts as one of our strategic value drivers. The SEE value driver requires us to think differently about the broader ESG impacts of our business activities, both direct and indirect impacts.  

In operationalising the SEE value driver, we seek to identify and explore opportunities to provide financial solutions, products, and services that help address social, economic, and environmental challenges. This also requires that we work with our clients, service providers, and other stakeholders to promote positive SEE outcomes while minimising negative SEE impacts.   

3.      There have been various calls for the adoption of green energy, especially among corporate organisations. Recently, Stanbic IBTC held its Sustainability Week, where the need for zero-emission was discussed. How important is green energy to sustainability development in Nigeria, and what can other corporates, for example, major financial institutions do to drive this principle? 

For development in Nigeria to be sustainable, there must be an appropriate balance to ensure the environment and society are not negatively affected by economic activities, both today and in the future. We acknowledge that the economy and society are wholly owned subsidiaries of the environment; hence we must strive to ensure that the environment remains stable to support economic and social activities.  

Green energy (Solar, Wind, Hydro etc.) thus presents an opportunity to pursue economic development while ensuring minimal adverse impacts on the environment. Green energy is devoid of carbon emissions (unlike fossil fuel energy sources) which harms the environment and is one of the major contributors to climate change. Corporates, including financial institutions, can gradually shift to cleaner energy sources for their operations. Also, financial institutions can help advance this shift by facilitating funding (in line with their risk appetites), which will be necessary to achieve growth in the green energy space. 

However, the journey to a green energy world has only just begun. As you saw at COP26 (Conference of Parties 26), the world is attempting to obtain the commitment of Nation States to the Net-zero emission world. Progress is being made, but it is slow, and there are contentious positions. At this stage, most developing economies do not have the technology for green energy. Neither can they afford the cost of green energy if they are to continue providing for their people and societies and improving their standard of living. The developed world, which is disproportionally responsible, on both gross and per capita basis, for the bulk of carbon emission into the atmosphere, is unwilling to drastically cut their energy consumption, as they wish to maintain the standard of living of their people. Therefore, there is a need for a just energy transition strategy that is fair to all and affordable to all.

4.      How has your organisation been able to reduce its carbon footprint, especially in the banking halls and areas where staff members interface with customers?

Building Environmental Resilience is one of our four Sustainability pillars in Stanbic IBTC. This pillar demonstrates our focus on environmental footprint management. In line with this, we have implemented and continued to expand on programs to reduce our carbon footprints. The key areas include:  

– Reduction of energy consumption in our office locations using energy-efficient fittings; retrofitting our office locations to maximise cooling and reduce energy wastage; the Switch-off and Unplug (SOUP) initiative after working hours. 

– Adoption of cleaner energy sources across our office locations. We installed solar energy solutions across over one-fourth of our branch locations. In addition, we have adopted the use of natural gas (which is cleaner than diesel and petrol) for our energy consumption at our Idejo and Walter Carrington Crescent head office campuses.  

– We also have the Go-Green program across some branch locations to reduce energy and paper consumption and improve water efficiency.  

Besides reducing our carbon generation, we have recently also adopted Tree Planting programs to help us with carbon sequestration. So far, we have facilitated the planting of over 300 trees, and this number will grow significantly in the coming years.   

5.      What measures has Stanbic IBTC as a group taken to combat climate change? 

We acknowledge the need for urgency in halting climate change, and Stanbic IBTC is contributing its quota to addressing this issue. In addition to the programs discussed earlier (aimed at reducing carbon footprints from our operations), we are also working with vendors and customers to provide solutions that can help address climate change issues. This is reflected in one of our seven focus SEE Impact Areas – Climate Change and Sustainable Finance – where the Group seeks to provide financial solutions to support climate change mitigation and adaptation measures.  

We also continue to advance awareness around climate change amongst the general public; leveraging our social media platforms and webinars, for instance, the recently concluded Net Zero Webinar. Similarly, our parent company, the Standard Bank Group hosted a Climate Summit in partnership with University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. We continue to take awareness communication initiatives by sharing practical tips that people can adopt to help address climate change.  

6.      We know that marketing and advertising is very necessary to any business – yours inclusive. What plans are in place to adopt sustainable advertising models which help the environment and move away from traditional advertising?

As an organisation, we have begun practicing sustainability marketing. One of the ways we have done this is drastically reducing our investment in traditional print media advertising and up-weighting investment in digital advertising. We have also instituted Sustainability Saturdays, where we educate the general populace across digital platforms on all issues about sustainability, highlighting what we, as a company, have invested in socially and our environmental impacts in the areas we operate. These are embedded in our marketing strategy. Another way we practice sustainable advertising is by ensuring that our marketing is consumer-oriented. Our engagements with our customers are innovatively value-adding to the customers. Lastly, our solutions, products, and services are useful to all strata of society. 

7.      How well will you say Nigerian businesses and corporate organisations are doing in terms of protecting the environment?

I would say there is growing awareness amongst Nigerian businesses on the need to protect the environment. Some organisations are genuinely adopting measures to manage their environmental footprints in line with their commitments and or regulatory requirements. 

However, we are barely scratching the surface as a lot of work still needs to be done to develop appropriate regulations and enforce existing regulations to ensure compliance with environmental best practices and standards. Also, a lot still needs to be done in collaboration amongst stakeholders (regulators, NGOs, corporates, communities) to advance environmental protection in Nigeria.  

8.      In your opinion, how has the pandemic affected the adoption of sustainable environmental practices? 

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a potent reminder of the need for businesses to adopt sustainable practices that can help minimise disruptions to business arising from such black-swan events. It was interesting to note how organisations quickly adopted sustainable environmental practices such as using digital conferencing systems and reducing business travel, which is a key contributor to global emissions.  Therefore, in my opinion, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of sustainable environmental practices. 

9.      As a company that is big on CSI projects, how do you contribute in ensuring your host communities benefit from sustainable environmental practices?

As a socially responsible organisation, we develop initiatives to impact the communities in which we operate. Over the years, we have donated several water borehole projects to our host communities as part of our role in improving the standard of living of these communities. Access to clean water is part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and we deliberately chose solar energy to power these water sources. Being an SDG-oriented organisation, another reason we have opted for the high quality solar powered borehole machines is to reduce the impact of fossil fuels on the environment.

We also have embarked on tree planting activities as part of our CSI initiatives; which we have been able to sustain due to our partnership with the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF). As part of our 30th anniversary activities in 2019, we planted 30 trees at Lekki Conservation Centre (LCC), an urban jungle in the heart of Lagos. We further planted 30 trees in each of the six geopolitical zones of the country.  We have also encouraged staff to participate in tree planting activities through their departmental CSI initiatives. This is one of the practical methods we have taken towards reducing carbon footprints and achieving net zero emissions.

10. What can be done differently in the financial sector in Nigeria to ensure more people begin to pay attention to issues that affect the planet? 

I believe that the societal influence of the financial sector in driving positive changes has not been fully harnessed. On one hand, the public perception of the financial sector needs to be improved such that it claims its rightful place in society and get the public assured that it functions for the greater benefit of the society. The industry is expected to lead by example by continuously improving sustainability drives in their business operations, for instance, Stanbic IBTC Group has committed to and is working towards achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

On the other hand, the financial sector is responsible for adopting measures that will influence its various stakeholders such as providing them with sustainable investing opportunities and prioritising compliant stakeholders.

There is a need for collaboration amongst stakeholders (government agencies, regulators, environmental experts, financial institutions, NGOs, Communities) towards developing an ecosystem for environmental financing. This will encourage and facilitate increased adoption of environmentally beneficial practices, solutions, or programs.

11.  What is your expectation for the industry as a whole in the near future? 

Without mincing words, ‘innovation-driven change’. Technology is rapidly advancing, competition is getting stiffer, and the regulatory environment is changing. The industry is generally looking out for improved ways to grow scale and remain relevant in society. The potentials for innovations to transform the financial ecosystem are almost limitless, and these courses are still being charted.

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