United World sits down with Mr. Sirajuddin Aziz, President of Habib Metro Bank, talking about the future of Banking in the country, US deal with Iran’s effects, and much more.
News headlines about Pakistan gloss over the progress this country is making on the security front, the increased political stability, and incremental progress on the economic front. In spite of this progress, two years into PM Nawaz Sharif government and the historic first democratic transition of power, Pakistan continues on a journey of a much overdue transformation. How would you evaluate Pakistan’s growing pains over the last two years? Is Pakistan now in a much better shape than it was in 2013 in your opinion?
Pakistan is favored by a changing global market place with the oil prices dropping, the commodity prices generally being low and Pakistan importing heavily in terms of energy, which has added more stability and balance. If you look at the inflation rate in the economy, it stands at the lowest that it has been in 42 years, which is a testimony to the Government having successfully managed the macro factors of the economy; another proof of this is the contained fiscal budget deficit, which has been brought down from a high of 8.5% to below 5% - so things seem to be improving in tandem. The impact of it to the man on the street is yet not so visible and a better economic understanding is needed for the people to appreciate these improvements.
The resolution by the armed forces of the country to tackle the root of terror, which has plagued Pakistan for almost two decades now, is a very positive step and I think it is having an impact on investor confidence slowly and steadily. Again because of the lack of knowledge of a big part of the demographics of Pakistan, people generally think of Pakistan as a country in turmoil, but the fact is that acts of terror have reduced and crime has declined greatly in metropolitan cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. The actions taken by the law enforcement agencies have proven efficient.
So if I were to encapsulate into one or two sentences, I think we are on the right track and cruising along very well. It is a slow gradual process, that we know, but it shows a very positive future outlook.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has recently praised the improvements made in the Pakistani banking sector, arguing that the sector remains sound, with robust earnings and high solvency ratios. What are the key factors for such results and how can this positive trend be maintained in the long term? What are the main challenges ahead?
The sector is growing with robust yearly increase of 52% in earnings. However, let’s put this in context with some perspective; the banking sector’s role is to act as a financial intermediary to foster development and provide funds to the industries, but if they are collecting deposits and buying government securities, then they are not providing the necessary investment flow.
The sector is growing and needs to keep growing in order to provide financial options to the people and businesses. Pakistan is moving towards an enabling conducive business environment, with steps being taken to resolve issues such as energy shortage and security. As a result of these positive developments, investors will be willing to invest in the country and banks will be more than happy to step in and support their initiatives.
How would you describe Habib Metro Bank´s role to broaden access to financial services to the unbanked marginalized segments of the Pakistani society?
Till 3 years ago, the Bank was largely centered in Karachi - the commercial capital of the Country - and had a sparsely spread branch network in the northern region of Pakistan. In the time since, we have worked on strategic organic growth by enhancing our branch outreach pan Pakistan, with particular focus of reaching out to the customer base in Northern Pakistan.
We aim to contribute towards enhancing the financial access of the Country’s agrarian sector; we are providing resources to many corporate clients from this major sector. While we have not yet taken business on directly from the farmers, we are providing opportunities for the businesses.
Syed Tariq Fatemi, special assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister recently declared: “An end to sanctions will open up new opportunities for Pakistan to enhance its commercial and economic ties with Iran; we have a long border and we could have massive trade”. What new opportunities does the deal open for Pakistan´s banking sector? Is Habib Metro Bank considering to capitalize on these opportunities being trade finance your core strength?
I believe this opportunity is still not knocking on our door, but once the sanctions are removed of course it would open new opportunities for the financial sector. Also the China- Pakistan economic corridor will bring many trade and business opportunities to Pakistan. Pakistan is very ideally located geographically, that’s a great advantage and I’m very hopeful that both, China and Pakistan, will foster and accelerate the completion of all projects under the corridor. I think we have been talking about it since the 90’s, but due to the turmoil in Afghanistan and our northern areas we have not been able to develop our trade routes. This project will result in significant cost reduction for China and the North East Asian states; this direct corridor will allow them to ship goods to Europe straight from Gwadar port. It´s a great opportunity for Pakistan to learn how the economies of North East Asia have progressed and boosted.
Last May Habib Metro received the 'Leading Partner in Pakistan' award by the ADB (Asian Development Bank) at the first annual Trade Finance Program (TFP). Habib Metro Bank was the only Pakistani bank recognized for its role in supporting trade in the region. In your opinion, what is it that makes Habib Metro the partner of choice for trade transactions in the region? What can your corporate clients expect when using your services?
All our trade business partners/clients look at Habib Metropolitan bank to provide quick trade solutions to their problems. We have got exceedingly efficacious trade products, both on the import side of the financing and export side, and we offer these at competitive rates. Margins are leaner these days, so we help our clients to keep costs low. We have thoughtfully engaged ourselves with our international partners. So looking at the trade flows and trade patterns of Pakistan we have been able to create strategic and strong relationships with other financial institutions intermediating international trade, to help our clients do business worldwide.
Habib Bank AG Zurich, Habib Metro Bank’s parent organization, has financial institutions located in 10 countries across 4 continents. Therefore, the international financial network of the Group is another attractive factor for clients as we can offer them the cost efficiencies provided by our internal trade linkages. In many cases, we can offer end to end trade business solutions to the importer and exporter both, and that is always a great selling point for us.
What would you identify as the most attractive sector in Pakistan for US investors?
Since the mid-fifties, the US has been consistently involved in investment within Pakistan and understands Pakistan’s terrain, people, logic and even the political system better than any other trade/business partner. I would say it is much easier for US investors to come in and invest money here. Infrastructure development offers many attractive opportunities; there are many listed companies looking to be linked up to a major American firm. The energy sector,especially oil and gas exploration, also has great business potential here. Pakistan has been blessed with natural resources and American expertise regarding the related industries would be very welcomed.
Since its inception in 2002, Habib Metro Islamic has been a successful Islamic banking model in Pakistan, providing services through 6 dedicated branches and 198 desks. According to Ernst and Young, with a 1.20% global share and a yearly growth of 29% in Islamic finance, Pakistan is top 10 in the world. How important is it for the Bank to increase its market penetration and to what extent would you be able to bring your core strength and expertise to this set of clients?
I believe that not only is the Islamic finance industry a growing one but is also one that has immense potential; in particular Islamic finance trade products have great prospects and are being immensely appreciated by the market.
About 10 to 12% of the banking assets are Islamic financed assets. Our Islamic asset loan book is around Rs. 10 billion. We would like to further strengthen and grow our Islamic arm, and to achieve that we are increasing our branch network that is dedicated to Islamic banking. In addition to our ‘Islamic windows’ available to customers at our entire conventional branch network across Pakistan, we also offer a continuously growing network of dedicated HabibMetro ‘Sirat’ Islamic Banking branches. Islamic Banking, and taking our brand ‘Sirat’ to greater heights may be our business area of focus in the coming years, but that does not mean that we are going to slow down our conventional banking services.
There is great potential in Pakistan for Islamic banking, there is no doubt about it, but a lot has yet to be yet in terms of understanding the Shariah principles and creating awareness in the market place and amidst potential customers. The State bank of Pakistan has played a very pivotal role initiating a collective effort on the part of banks to collaboratively promote the sector while improving their understanding of Islamic banking principles.
We would like to know what brought you to this particular bank and how do you evaluate your journey here and within the banking sector.
I have been in the local market for about 18-19 years, prior to which I was working internationally. I have spent almost 10 years of my life in Hong-Kong, one and a half years in China, about 2 years in the UK, 2 years in the UAE and 2 adventurous years of my career in Lagos Nigeria.
Before moving to Habib Metro Bank, I spent 7 years as CEO of a foreign owned, locally registered financial institution. When I left the institution, it was the 6th largest bank of the country with nearly 400 branches and a deposit size of approximately Rs. 400 billion.
I have been with Habib Metro Bank for a little over 3 and half years now. I’m still trying to capitalize on what we have here and what we are good at. I believe in first fortifying current strengths and optimizing on them before exploring new avenues.
Our customers not only place their assets and savings with us, they place in us trust to safeguard what is theirs. Hence, responsibility always prevails supreme in my mind whenever I’m taking any decision.
The Habibs have been in the mercantile and finance industry for over a century. The Group’s first international office was established in Genoa and Vienna in 1912. Mr. Mohamed Ali Habib established Habib Bank in 1941 in Mumbai. At the time of Independence, and upon the request of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, Mr. Habib relocated Habib Bank’s head office to Karachi and placed the Bank’s resources at the disposal of the newly formed Government of Pakistan. The institution was later nationalized. The Group established Habib Bank AG Zurich in Switzerland in 1967 and formed Habib Metropolitan Bank in Pakistan in 2006.
The group that I work with here is an excellent one. I feel that education is a lifetime process and therefore I get to learn every day, that´s what I love.