Saudi Arabia is proactively fighting the spread of COVID-19 and its authorities are implementing both monetary as well as fiscal policy responses. SAMA, through the banks, is aiming to assist small and medium-size enterprises.
In parallel the government, mainly through the Ministry of Finance, has unveiled stimulus packages to support companies that were affected by the pandemic such as covering 60 percent of private sector wage costs for a period of three months.
Given that the pandemic is still unfolding with many uncertainties around its duration and intensity, the economic consequences of the containment measures, and the alleviating effects of the stimulus packages, any exact economic forecast at this stage is most likely to miss. Broadly speaking headline GDP will turn negative, however domestic demand which is a better indicator will see a sharp contraction, with both consumption and investment expected to decline.
The economic impact of this perfect storm would outlast the outbreak itself, affecting government spending, its structural reform program (the Vision 2030 program would most like be recalibrated), and the long-awaited recovery of the private sector will reverse into contraction.
In light of this gloomy economic backdrop, banks’ profitability will come under pressure. Cost of risk will increase with larger-than-expected deterioration in loan losses, net interest income will contract following the SAMA’s interest rate cuts mirroring those of the United States Federal Reserve, and none interest income would come under pressure as loan growth slowdown (in addition to the regulator’s effort to reduce fees on impacted banks’ clientele).
The above-mentioned headwinds should in theory support consolidation. However, consolidation has taken place in some cases (Saudi British Bank and Saudi Hollandi Bank) and in others, discussions didn’t materialize (Riyad Bank and NCB). However, some major hurdles exist for any further consolidation such as the lack of significant common shareholding structure within the banks. As for regional banks with growth aspirations in the Saudi market, it remains uncertain whether they would be able to acquire majority stakes in existing Saudi banks given the ownership rules in the kingdom.
Therefore, despite such deteriorating operating environment, I don’t believe there is much room for further banks consolidation in the kingdom given the current landscape
However, within financial services, I believe the insurance sector is ripe for some major consolidation accelerated by the current economic downturn. Despite some minor profits in the very short-term from lower expected claims in health but mainly auto due to the lockdown, the sector is expected to face some major headwinds that would add to its existing structural challenges.
The anticipated economic contraction and later on the slow recovery would generally result in lower insurance spending. The expat exodus which was slowing down in last 12 months might reaccelerate. The private sector anticipated rebound would reverse with closures and severe losses anticipated in small and medium size enterprises, despite the government stimulus plans. All of these would result in lower mandatory insurance policies.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 outbreak has dealt a heavy blow to both general tourism and religious tourism to the Kingdom, reducing drastically the anticipated premiums from the mandatory health insurance the regulator was imposing for tourists as well as the pilgrims visiting the country.
In addition to a drop in premiums, most insurance companies would suffer losses incurred on their investment portfolios as both regional as well as global markets meltdown. This negative outlook would surely push for further consolidation the insurance sector, a sector that was already ripe for such consolidation pre-COVID-19 pandemic. The Kingdom has 33 insurance companies, most of these firms are small, undercapitalized and barely profitable (10 were loss making last year). The sector’s bulk of profits is being earned by two companies and the top five players command around two-third of the premiums with the largest two player gaining further market share.
* Any opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own
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© Opinion 2020