Wind of change blows world markets, African stock exchanges unruffled

I have the honour to be published on the opinions section of the Royal African Society website and the article can be seen along with their excellent blogs here. I also reprint the article, which is meant to spark debate, and I welcome your comments – is it time for change and what is the way forward?

“The wind of change” was Harold Macmillan’s famous 1960 phrase about Africans moving to political self-determination. Half a century later the world’s biggest securities exchanges are worrying who will survive a hurricane of globalization, technology and competition, but some of Africa’s capital markets still seem sheltered from the economic winds of change.
The giants of securities trading are slugging it out in a wave of mergers and acquisitions and London Stock Exchange (LSE) chief executive Xavier Rolet said: “In five years there will be three, four international exchange groups with global distribution capabilities”.
In the world of mega-bourses the LSE launched a £4.3 billion merger with Canada’s TMX Group of exchanges but a “Maple consortium” of Canadian financial institutions has launched a hostile bid, seeking to block the marriage. New York’s NYSE Euronext and Germany’s Deutsche Börse want a $9.5 bn union, but US stock exchange NASDAQ and its partner IntercontinentalExchange are offering $11.3 bn to snatch the New York bride. NASDAQ is reportedly worth $5.7 bn and worried it may become a takeover target if it stays single. Many other leading exchanges are busy with strategic transactions.
Africa however has not seen much change at least in the last decade. Some of Africa’s stock exchanges are making a few operational changes, but structural transformation is not on the agenda. The continent has a couple of world-class stock exchanges – in 2010 South Africa was rated the world’s best-regulated capital market – and three or four better exchanges with enough liquidity for international and big local institutional investors. The rest of the continent features a small regional exchange and more than 15 national stock exchanges where activity could drop to a few deals a day and liquidity is too small for the market to work efficiently or provide scope for minimum transactions for international investors. Some don’t even open their doors every working day.
Stock exchanges and securities markets evolved worldwide as the most efficient way to channel capital from savers to entrepreneurs, governments and others who can use it most productively, i.e. profitably. Savers with capital are more than eager to invest billions of dollars into Africa, dubbed the “final growth frontier” for its vast opportunities and favourable pricing. Meanwhile in Africa, entrepreneurs and governments are calling for billions in capital to build roads, rail, power, water and telecommunications/IT infrastructure up and down the continent and to transform farmlands, build industries and hopefully improve livelihoods sustainably through business.
Nationalist politics and comfort zones are among the factors holding back African securities exchanges, which have traditionally been seen as national institutions. Sovereignty has been more highly prized than liquidity and efficiency. In 2009 South Africa’s JSE Ltd sought to acquire a stake in the Stock Exchange of Mauritius (SEM) after two years of talks, but regulators blocked it. Nationalism about stock exchanges is not just an African concern, it is currently in the news in Canada and Australia.However, now technology is available to transform exchanges without losing national regulation or denting pride.
Some African exchanges are improving their own operations fast. The two NSEs – the Nigerian and Nairobi stock exchanges – have taken stern measures to improve governance, regulation and transparency. In Nigeria this included a morning in August 2010 with armed police on the Lagos trading floor after regulators fired the Director-General. Other exchanges such as Mauritius Stock Exchange (SEM) are noted for continuous improvements and innovation. However, only the Egyptian Exchange, the JSE (Johannesburg Stock Exchange) and SEM have attained the exalted membership of the World Federation of Exchanges.
In some countries trading in debt is improving faster than equity markets. Kenya’s NSE launched effective automated bond trading, backed by much improved settlement, and trading volumes and liquidity are soaring. The Government is responding with a deft series of issues that balance the domestic market and stretch it with long-dated 25- and 30-year bonds. Better maturity in the national fixed-income market enables lenders to offer locals long-term housing and other finance with paybacks over decades rather than a few years. Electricity company Kengen, telecoms operator Safaricom and others have raised hundreds of millions of dollars through bond issues, many aimed only at local savers. The overall effect on the economy is likely to be huge.
But change is coming slow to some African exchanges where liquidity is too small and action too slow. International investors complain that many don’t have enough trading to accommodate the minimum buy or sell amounts required and they lament the quality of market and business information and transparency. Coupled with the operational problems and uncertainties that dog local and international businessmen in many African countries, some are still “off the map” for investment.
London, New York and other international stock exchanges benefit if companies and bond issuers seek listings and cross-listings internationally in order to get closer to investors and sources of capital and because efficient marketplaces make their capital raisings more attractive to investors. London has a tradition as the world’s capital marketplace and the LSE’s Main Market lists 18 equities for trading that focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. In 1995 the exchange created the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) as an international marketplace for smaller, growing companies seeking growth capital, including early-stage and venture-capital, as well as more established companies. Sub-Saharan Africa scores 55 out of 3,000 listings, mostly mining firms, but also farming, finance and machinery.
NYSE Euronext Inc says trading in 16 African equities listed on its New York and European stock exchanges has boomed. Stefan Jekel, managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, says main activity stems from South Africa but interest in Africa is growing: “The volume (number of shares) traded has increased by factor of 12 over the last ten years to 7.9m shares, and the value is up by a factor of 21 times to $204m per day”.
London is to the fore when it comes to international Eurobond issues as African countries rush to issue sovereign debt and benefit while world interest rates are rock-bottom. Interest is also growing in African derivatives such as Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) available on London, New York and other international markets and one or two African markets. NYSE says the number doubled in 2009 to ten ETFs, six in Europe and four in New York, and they have over $1bn in assets.
It is an historic opportunity for Africa’s capital market structures. However much national exchanges improve, they need radical restructuring to create liquid and more efficient markets or they will be blown off the map by the winds of change.
Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972) and many others transformed the continent driven by their vision of a mighty Africa that grew strong by unshackling the borders that colonial powers had drawn on maps. The African Union is founded to achieve regional and economic integration for Africa to take its rightful place in the world. Capital markets have an opportunity in that technology and proven models exist for African stock exchanges to pool trading while still maintaining national exchanges and regulation and being adaptable to meet local requirements.
Sunil Benimadhu, President of the African Securities Exchanges Association and CEO of SEM said in November 2010 that world investors see the continent as “a very promising investment destination with tremendous present and future growth potential”. African countries have achieved growth rates exceeding 5% in recent years after embracing fundamental structural reform programmes. The growth is set to continue but it must be fuelled with capital, skills and improvements in the investment and business climate.
African capital markets have an opportunity and a challenge.

Tom Minney is a consultant, speaker, financial journalist and editor of the blog


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