Financial Sector Overview
Gabon is an upper-middle-income country and the fifth largest oil producer in Africa. The country has experienced strong economic growth over the past decade, mainly driven by mining and oil. The oil sector is the main destination of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in the country and has accounted for 80% of exports, 45% of GDP, and 60% of fiscal revenue on average between 2014 and 2018. In recent years and due to the decline in oil reserves, the government introduced reforms to diversify Gabon’s economy away from oil and traditional investment partners (mainly France), through the Emerging Gabon Strategic Plan (EGSP). The country intends to achieve sustainable development by 2025 by creating domestic industrial capacity to process primary goods and becoming a regional leader in service industries including financial services, ICT, education, and healthcare. Developing the agriculture sector is a key part of the EGSP as well. Gabon is gradually recovering from an unfavorable economic climate created by lower energy prices. Poor business climate is a major barrier to the diversification strategy. Gabon ranked 169 out of 190 countries in the 2018 Doing Business report, down from 167 in 2017. Registering property and enforcing contracts are particularly burdensome. Recent measures to improve the business climate include a one-stop shop for investors; a public-private partnership (PPP) framework; a domestic arbitration court; and codes for hydrocarbons and mining.
Financial Sector Overview
Gabon forms part of a monetary union, the Central Africa Economic and Monetary Union (CEMAC), and shares a common currency with other member states including Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo (Republic of) and Equatorial Guinea. The Bank of Central African States (BEAC), based in Cameroon, is the CEMAC central bank and the COBAC – Commission Bancaire d’Afrique Centrale, in French – is the regional banking commission. Financial sector stability in Gabon is largely determined by the banking sector, which is highly concentrated and dominated by a local private bank (BGFI Bank); even if subsidiaries of African banking groups sharply increased their market share during the last decade. As of 31 December 2017, the domestic financial sector consists of 8 commercial banks, a regional stock exchange (BVMAC), 2 pension funds (CNSS and CPPF), 9 insurance companies, 16 licensed microfinance institutions (MFIs) and 3 mobile money operators.
Gabon is competing with Cameroon for the status of regional financial centre within the CEMAC. The regional stock exchange (Bourse des Valeurs Mobilières de l’Afrique Centrale, in French - BVMAC) is located in Gabon while Cameroon is the only country in the CEMAC region with its own stock market (Douala Stock Exchange - DSX). BVMAC is beginning to see an uptick in activity and insurance penetration is consistently higher than elsewhere in the Central Africa region. However, under the leadership of the region’s heads of State and BEAC, a merger project is being implemented in order to set a single stock exchange in Doula (Cameroon) and a unique financial markets regulator located in Libreville (Gabon). Non-banking financial services - such as leasing and consumer finance services - suffered from poor economic conditions due to falling oil prices and uncertainties arising from the 2016 presidential election. This sectoral niche, dominated by 3 firms, has recorded a significant drop in activity. The segment also remains under pressure as a result of a government decision in mid-2014 to suspend a scheme under which authorities effectively guaranteed consumer and personal loans and repaid lenders by taking instalments directly from civil servants’ salaries, citing concerns about rising levels of indebtedness among public sector workers. Gabon’s national pension system based on a pay-as-you-go system is under budgetary pressure. Two pension funds are dedicated to public sector workers (Caisse des Pensions et Prestations Familiales des agents de l’Etat, in French - CPPF), and the private sector workers (the CNSS (Caisse Nationale de Sécurité Sociale, in French).
In June 2018, Moody's Investors Service downgraded the Government of Gabon's senior unsecured debt ratings to Caa1 from B3 and changed the outlook to stable from negative. The rating downgrade is underpinned by continuing government arrears to creditors and suppliers which point to heightened government liquidity pressures and indicate institutional weaknesses. Debt is projected to remain steady and sustainable in 2018 (59.1 % of GDP excluding payment arrears) before declining in 2019. Concurrently, Moody's has lowered Gabon's local currency and foreign currency long-term bond and deposit ceilings to B1 from Ba3.
As of 31 December 2017, the Gabonese banking sector numbered 8 commercial banks whose outstanding loans to the private and public sectors amounted to more than 1712.9 billion F CFA (USD 3.14 billion), or 20.6 % of the GDP of the same year. In 2015, this ratio was equivalent to 15.6%. It thus appears that despite the sharp drop in GDP after 2014, the banking sector continued to support the economy in terms of access to credit. Bank credit to the private sector as a share of GDP increased from 10.33% in 2014 to 13.5% in 2017. In nominal terms, bank lending to the domestic private sector in 2017 represented 65.4 % of the total volume, while net banking claims on the government were increased tenfold between 2015 and 2017; showing a significant increase of bank assets dedicated to public spending during this period. These net banking claims on the government increased from 55.7 CFA Francs billion (92.2 USD million) to 592.3 CFA Francs billion (1.08 USD billion). After Equatorial Guinea, Gabon is the CEMAC second country where bank claims on public sector increased the most during this period. This was essentially due to the heavy public reliance on oil incomes which significantly decreased in this decade. However, the Gabonese banking sector was able to control the level of non-performing loans (NPLs) despite an increase of 5.3% to 9.1% between 2015 and 2017. Banking provisions to NPLs were at a quite satisfactory level in 2017 (81.7 %). Regarding the term structure of credit, short-term loans dominate the banks' credit portfolio, accounting for 56.9% of the total volume in 2017, while medium and long-term credits respectively correspond to 40.8% and 2.3% of total lending to the economy (BEAC Annual Report, 2017).
In line with the aggressive expansion of African lenders in recent years, 3 Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) banking groups have entered the Gabonese market and have been rapidly growing, with their combined market shares rising to about 20% in 2018. In its December 2018 review of Gabon’s extended arrangement, the IMF called for the government to accelerate the liquidation of the three distressed public banks and expeditiously tackle the nonperforming loans (NPL) overhang to support financial stability, promote credit to the private sector, and growth. In the short term, the success of the banking sector will remain dependent on the international price of oil. However, government reform efforts at public banks should help put the industry on a more stable long-term footing, and plans for a new payment incidents registry and credit bureau should also boost the sophistication of payment methods and credit provision in coming years. The IMF has been pushing for the establishment of a credit registry for several years. The registry will consist of two elements; a central database called CIP Collect, which will host information on payment incidents broken down by country, and a system known as Allo-Incidents, which will distribute this information to banks and other lenders, as well as to merchants and other recipients of payments.
Gabon has achieved major progress in raising financial inclusion levels. According to the World Bank, 58.6% of adults held a bank account in 2017, compared to 33 % in 2014. The rate of financial inclusion in Gabon is higher than the average for sub-Saharan Africa (42.6%), but lower than that of upper middle-income countries. The improvement is in large part a result of government efforts to push citizens to open bank accounts, including a requirement introduced in 2014 that civil servants receive their salaries (and pensions in the case of retirees) via bank transfer and a similar move in 2015 in relation to student grants. The microfinance sector is only just starting to emerge in the country with few regulated microfinance institutions (MFIs) registered, covering only a limited segment of the population. However, a substantial number of informal, unregulated MFIs are believed to operate in the country. In efforts to increase access to finance, Gabon has recently supported the establishment of a development and growth fund to support small and medium enterprises: the FODEX (Fonds de Développement et d’Expansion des PME-PMI, in French), as well as the creation of a specialized agency to promote private investment: the APIP (Agence de Promotion des Investissements Privés, in French). With a rate of mobile cellular subscriptions reaching 131.5% in 2017, Gabon has also seen the rapid development of mobile banking and payment systems.
As of 30 June 2017, there were 16 licensed microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Gabon. The country is the third market of microfinance in the CEMAC zone with total assets of 42.7CFA francs billion (78.2 USD million): 5% of the regional total assets after Cameroon (53%) and Congo (39%). At the same period, the MFIs deposits in Gabon amounted to 33.6 CFA francs billion (61.6 USD million) – 5% of the regional volume – and the outstanding level of credits represented 7% of the regional total: 28 CFA francs billion (51.3 USD million). The number of MFI clients also increased by 10.5 % between 2016 and 2017, from 121 448 to 134 273; while the number of MFI agencies significantly declined from 48 to 28 (- 41.7 %). With respect to the financing costs in the Gabonese microfinance sector, deposit and lending interest rates were respectively on average at 3.4% and 15.4% in 2017, while the regional average deposit and lending rates stood respectively at 1.9% and 10.7%. According to the regional banking commission COBAC, Gabon is the CEMAC country where deposits are better remunerated but the worst in terms of microcredit interest rates.
It is worth noting that there is a larger number of MFIs in Gabon, however the Ministry of Economy is fighting against these unregulated MFIs. In 2016, there were more than 231 MFIs with only 19 licensed MFIs. The same year, the Ministry of Economy of Gabon froze the activities of 50 MFIs that lacked approval to offer microfinance services. MFIs have been governed by a regional regulation since 2002. The law applies to all MFIs, regardless of institutional type, and specifies fairly comprehensive prudential ratios and reporting standards. According to the COBAC, the prudential situation of the microfinance entities is fragile. Their situation is characterized by the lack of compliance to various norms and several MFIs show a net negative or insufficient equity position. In addition, several MFIs have a situation of lack of liquidity that is worrying.
43.6 % of Gabonese adults had a mobile money account in 2017, compared to 6.6 % in 2014. With a volume of transactions representing 23.1% of the regional market, Gabon is the second mobile money market in the CEMAC zone after Cameroon (72.6%). Mobile money transactions rose rapidly between 2015 and 2017, from 232.1 CFA francs billion (384.2 USD million) to 1 086.5 CFA francs billion (1.99 USD billion). As of 31 December 2017, outstanding volume of mobile money accounts in Gabon reached 19.2 CFA francs billion (35.2 USD million), or 21.6% of the regional volume. In 2017, there were over 1,264,485 mobile money accounts, of which more than 50.6% were active, the highest ratio in the CEMAC. Given these aforementioned data and depending on the population size, Gabon can be considered as the regional leader in terms of mobile money services. Three of the four mobile money platforms in the country were developed by mobile operators in partnerships with local banks, while a bank subsidiary - BICIG - has developed a mobile banking platform of its own. The segment continues to develop, with telecoms operator Airtel having launched a near-field, communication-based contactless payment system in June 2016.
Gabon is a member state of the CIMA – Conférence Interafricaine des Marchés d’Assurance, in French – since inception. CIMA is an insurance market of 15 African countries, including 160 million people to insure, 190 insurance companies, with a level of gross premium written estimated in 2018 to 1.8 billion USD. Despite its small population, Gabon has a relatively large insurance market, owing in part to its high per capita income. The industry contracted in 2018 on the back of the decline in oil prices, but the prospects for the sector’s long-term development, particularly the life and micro segments, are strong. Gabon is the fourth-largest market in the CIMA zone, behind Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Senegal, with total premiums of around 119 CFA francs billion (197 USD million) in 2015 (CIMA, 2018). The country experienced a downward trend in the level of premiums collected between 2014 and 2018, due to poor macroeconomic conditions. “The sector reported a turnover of 94.145 billion FCFA (164.161 USD million) for the year 2018 against 93.38 billion FCFA (170.524 USD million) a year earlier. Both life and non life insurance were declining. In 2018, the life insurance companies represented 21.5% of the sector’s turnover, while non-life companies accounted for the largest share of the market with 78.5% of total assets.
The country also has a reinsurer, Société Commerciale Gabonaise de Reassurance (SCG-Re), in which the Gabonese authorities have a share of 69 % via two state-owned entities; domestic insurance firms hold the remaining 31 %. SCG-Re was created in 2012 as part of a government drive to boost insurance retention. Gabonese firms are obliged to cede at least 10 % and 15 % of life and non-life premiums, respectively, to SCG Re. In April 2016, the Conference Inter-Africaine des Marchés d’Assurance (CIMA) Council of Insurance Ministers decided that the minimum capital requirement for all insurance firms operating in the zone would be raised from 1 CFA francs billion (1.8 USD million) to 5 CFA francs billion (9.2 USD million). The requirement became effective immediately for new firms, while existing companies are obliged to raise their capital to 3 CFA francs billion (5.5 USD million) by 2019 and to the full amount by 2021. Mobile phones are also emerging as a distribution channel for insurance services; in August 2015, Axa and Gabonese mobile operator Airtel finalized an agreement allowing for Axa clients to pay their insurance premiums and receive indemnifications via Airtel’s mobile money platform.
Since 2008, Gabon is home to the regional stock market of CEMAC, the Central African Stock Exchange (Bourse des Valeurs Mobilières d’Afrique Centrale, BVMAC). BVMAC will be merged with the Douala Stock Exchange (DSX) to create one common stock exchange to be based in Douala when it becomes operational by June 2019. The regional stock exchange is supervised by the COSUMAF (Commission de Surveillance du Marché Financier de l’Afrique Centrale), which is expected to be the future and sole regulator of the CEMAC financial market after BVMAC and DSX have merged. Since its inception, 11 bond issues have been listed on the exchange, with a combined value of 439.6 CFA Francs billion (703 USD million). The issuers include the governments of Gabon and Chad, regional and international donors, development banks and a handful by private firms.
There appears to have been only one equity listing, SIAT Gabon, a subsidiary of Belgian agri-business firm SIAT, which conducted an initial public offering in 2013. During the 2008-2017 period, and based on COSUMAF data, the BVMAC raised more than 800 CFA francs billion (1.5 USD billion) on the CEMAC market. Furthermore, the authorities have bold plans for the BVMAC, aiming to raise regional stock market capitalization to 20% of CEMAC GDP, from the current 0.4 %, and achieve a total of at least 20 listed firms within 5 years. Challenges identified in achieving this goal include the existence of two rival stock exchanges in the CEMAC region, lengthy listing procedures, a lack of training among market actors, high tariffs, the absence of a harmonized tax framework, and a lack of knowledge of fiscal incentives among potential issuers.
Gabon is a member state of the CIPRES (Conférence Interafricaine de Prévoyance Sociale, in French), a regional organization comprising 16 countries. The domestic pension system is managed by 2 institutions. The Caisse des Pensions et des Prestations Familiales des Agents de l’Etat (CPPF) is the pension fund for civil servants, and the Caisse Nationale de Sécurité Sociale (CNSS) is a private institution in charge of 4 branches of social security, including a pension scheme for private sector workers. The statutory retirement age in Gabon is 60, although there are special arrangements for some workers including agricultural and construction technicians (55) and university professors (65).
The CPPF is carrying reforms including: the revaluation of the retirement benefits in the state pension scheme; the reduction of pension processing times; and the extension of social security coverage for state employees (supplementary pension scheme, occupational hazards). In April 2018, the Minister of State in charge of Budget and Public Accounts submitted to Parliament a draft law to amend the state pension system. The cumulative contribution rate is 7.5% in the CNSS pension scheme, with 2.5% for the employees and 5% for the employer. The CNSS pension system allows workers with at least 20 years of contributions, and 120 months of coverage in the 20 years before retirement. As the cost of providing pensions and disability support is rising, the Gabonese government is encouraging the large proportion of Gabonese workers and employers in the informal economy to contribute (reported to be 50 % of the official economy). Following negotiations between the government and local labour organizations, the retirement age is expected to be increased to 63 in order to strengthen the medium and long-term sustainability of the national pension system.