Deadline day for lending rules

New Central Bank rules capping banks exposure to the public sector have proven controversial ever since they were first announced.

Emirates NBD, the UAE's largest bank by assets, is highlighted as the most affected by the new Central Bank restrictions. Randi Sokoloff / The National
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New Central Bank rules capping the exposure of banks to the public sector have proven controversial since they were announced.

Reining in the ability of lenders to offer loans to what has been one of their main revenue sources in recent years was always going to be met with a strong reaction.

Giving banks less than six months to comply with the regulations caused similar consternation.

But as deadline day arrives for the new rules, many industry observers are still dissecting what they will mean for banks and the wider economy.

Announced in April and coming into effect today, the rules set a limit of 100 per cent of banks' capital for lending to the Government and government-linked companies. Lending to individual public sector borrowers will be capped at 25 per cent of banks' capital.

On the surface, the measures appear a prudent way of trying to cut the chances of the debt restructuring sagas that followed Dubai World's request in 2009 to delay payments on US$24.9 billion (Dh91.43) in loans.

Such a seismic adjustment in lending rules is not without complications, however. One such complexity is how closely entwined some banks' balance sheets are with government business. Lending to the Government amounts to about 40 per cent of assets of some of the larger banks, estimate analysts at Capital Economics.

Emirates NBD, the UAE's largest bank by assets, is highlighted as the most affected by the new limits by analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

"Emirates NBD's loans to the Dubai Government are 18 to 20 per cent of GDP, given that it has been a source of finance to fiscal deficit and extra cash funnelled further down the Dubai Inc structure," Jean-Michel Saliba, an eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa economist at Bank of America, wrote in an emailed response to questions.

To give banks further time to prepare for the rules, Mr Saliba said he expected their implementation to be pushed back by another six months to the end of next year's first quarter.

He also expects "regulatory forbearance" to allow the lending cap to not derail refinancing by Dubai government-related firms. Dubai's government and state-linked firms are estimated to have about $15bn in debt maturing this year, according to the IMF.

Whether or not the rules are delayed, most economists believe they will be a positive for the economy in the long run.

Restricting how much banks can lend to the public sector cuts the risk of a repeat of the credit bubbles that formed before the 2009 global financial crisis.

"Assuming a lot of the government bank debt is taken on by foreign banks, then there will be more funds for SMEs [small and medium enterprises]," said Said Hirsh, a Middle East economist at Capital Economics. "If the regulations simply result in government loans being exchanged domestically, the impact on overall credit growth is likely to be limited."

Many SMEs have had a tough time securing credit since the crisis as many banks prefer to lend to the Government. Since 2009, the ratio of lending to the public sector out of total banking credit has risen by some 8 percentage points to about 21 per cent, according to Capital Economics. In contrast, the proportion of private sector credit has dropped by seven percentage points.

Overall, credit growth rose 2.6 per cent in April from the same month a year earlier compared with an average of 10 to 15 per cent this year in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where expansion in lending has remained above 30 per cent since February.

If the new rules can improve credit conditions, while stabilising banks' balance sheets, the controversy over their introduction may soon be forgotten.