I am once again in New York. The energy of this city is phenomenal. No show, no PR, just execution. One interesting experience is the discussion that people are having with me regarding Nike’s What will they say about you? campaign, which shows a video montage of Muslim women in hijab playing sport. The effect on Americans that I have met with is clear: Nike, a global American merchandising group, has unequivocally stated that wearing a hijab is neither a bad thing nor does it imply that women are inferior. Talk about corporate social responsibility (CSR)!
The genius of Nike is that their CSR is not limited to charitable work, important as such contributions are. Nike used their global brand to reverse an unfortunate wave of prejudice. While mayors in France are banning the hijab, Nike is celebrating the hijab in the most powerful way possible. Nike’s genius is thinking out of the box and blending CSR with commercial acumen that led to the announcement of a Nike hijab. You don’t have to be a brand expert to understand the power of a Muslim hijab emblazoned with one of the most powerful western commercial symbols on earth, a symbol not of consumption and excess but one of strength and power. There are, as usual, people offended on all sides. But that doesn’t change the effect, it just proves Nike’s strength of character in doing the right thing.
Nike shows us why it is a true global brand, and why it deserves to be so. It is launching a commercial product that will make it money, but will also change the world. Nike spoke on behalf of 600 million Muslim women in a voice that has, and will continue to, reverberate around the world. Nike did this by the simple application of its logo to a hijab, and I have no doubt it will be a world class-designed hijab.
On the home front two groups with strong exposure to the financial services sector announced opposing strategies. Saudi-based Olayan Financing Company (OFC), part of the global Olayan conglomerate, announced that it was diversifying its holdings by selling down part of its financial services shareholding, presumably to invest into other companies and sectors.
On the other hand Abu Dhabi Financial Group (ADFG), which recently bought 48 per cent of Shuaa Capital, has announced that it is merging its other financial services companies, Integrated Capital and Integrated Securities, with Shuaa. The strategic thinking behind this was that these companies would benefit from synergies. As an aside, an anaemic amount of information was provided by Shuaa, a listed and regulated company, especially in light of the fact that the chief executive of ADFG, the seller, is also the chairman of Shuaa, the buyer. The corporate governance around the transparency regarding the decision making might need to be reviewed.
Back to strategy. What does it mean when we talk about synergies? Normally, this would mean taking two companies that have different businesses and finding ways to make them complement each other. A well-known example is that a car rental company might buy a company that sells second-hand cars. Why? Because car rental companies are the largest single producers of second-hand cars, so buying a company that can dispose of your assets when you are done with them is synergistic. However, when you merge two firms that overlap in a major way, that is not synergy, it is consolidation or scaling – in other words, you build something bigger to get more business.
Subsequent to the above announcement, Shuaa confirmed that it was in merger talks with Bahrain's GFH, an Islamic investment banking group. Quite a lot of merging. Hopefully there will be some profit making.
So who has the more realistic strategy, OFC or ADFG? In the current economic contraction and with the recent news that oil prices are unlikely to increase and could very well decrease, ask yourself what makes sense: reducing the number of companies that you are invested in by diversifying or creating a smaller, more concentrated exposure of ever larger companies?
I would like to disclose that OFC was my partner in a PE investment deal I led and I was formerly the chief investment at Shuaa Capital.
Abu Dhabi Global Market is building momentum as a true commercial financial centre using fintech as a central pillar.
Its first step, in 2016, was to to set up a regulatory sandbox that allowed young companies to benefit from the world-class regulatory environment of ADGM but are given flexibility until they reach maturity. This was followed up last week with a link-up to Singapore on fintech, which in time could allow ADGM fintech companies access not only to Singapore but the markets that Singapore has access to. These are true economic value-added steps that increase the commercial attractiveness of ADGM and the strength of the UAE's economy.
I would also like to applaud the ADGM on its professional approach to communication in balancing announcements about the future with announcements on actual actions taken and projects completed.
The US Federal Reserve announced that it was raising interest rates by 25 basis points, which translates to a relatively large increase given current rates. Given that the UAE dirham is pegged to the dollar this translates to an equivalent interest rate hike in the UAE. This is contractionary for our economy and will further depress markets as it becomes more expensive to borrow.
The problem with having monetary policy outside our control is that we are also missing important fiscal policy tools such as income taxes at the corporate and individual levels. If America cuts taxes as Donald Trump, the US president, has promised, then its economy will get a fiscal monetary boost, which will lead to an offsetting monetary policy contraction via further interest rate hikes. These interest rate hikes will get transmitted to us but we will not be able to offset them as we have no real taxes to cut and since oil prices dropped in mid 2014 we see further budgetary tightening. This is going to be a major challenge.
To understand the seriousness of this challenge one only has to look at the UAE central bank statistics for 2016 (subject to revision for December). Resident corporates and individuals increased deposits by about Dh28 billion each for a total of Dh56.8bn. On the other hand, although the government increased deposits over the same period by Dh29bn, government-related entities withdrew Dh22.5bn during the same period for a total contribution by the government of Dh6bn. Is this bad? Depends on how much everybody borrowed.
The government and public sector borrowed Dh21.6bn versus the private sector borrowing of Dh50.7bn. So the private sector added a net Dh6bn to the banking system while the government withdrew a net Dh14.8bn from the bank system. Not only is the private sector funding the government and GREs via the banking system but since the government and GREs are borrowing more than double what the private sector added, at least for 2016, this implies that the current scenario is not sustainable.
The real issue, from the central bank’s numbers, are the GREs. They need to stop straining the banking system for cash. May I suggest that they consider making a profit instead?
Sabah Al Binali is an active investor and entrepreneurial leader with a track record of growing companies in the Mena region. You can read more of his thoughts at al-binali.com.
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