First Bank Given Go-ahead to Restructure

Nigeria’s First Bank said on Thursday it had won regulatory approval to transfer its subsidiaries into a newly-formed holding company, in line with regulatory requirements to separate core lending from other businesses.

The central bank two years ago scrapped the universal banking model and directed lenders in Africa’s second-biggest economy to sell their stakes in non-banking subsidiaries or adopt a holding company structure.

Onche Ugbabe, chief strategy officer, said the lender had received a nod from the Securities and Exchange Commission to proceed with the new structure and was waiting for approval from the central bank and shareholders.

“We expect to conclude the implementation by the third quarter,” Ugbabe told a conference call with analysts.

Rivals UBA and Stanbic IBTC Bank, the local unit of South Africa’s Standard Bank, said recently they would form holding companies to retain their subsidiaries, including asset management operations.

First Bank, one of Nigeria’s top tier lenders, said it had no need to boost the capital bases of its offshore units, following new rules from the central bank on how lenders use local funds abroad and as other African countries tighten requirements for foreign lenders.

The lender said its offshore units in the United Kingdom and Democratic Republic of Congo were adequately capitalized and that it had no concerns about the new central bank rule.

The central bank has issued a directive to lenders restricting them from recapitalizing offshore units from funds sourced at home, in order to avoid capital flight and save a weak naira which has lost 3 percent since April.

In the unlikely event that we need to raise capital for subsidiaries there are many options we can explore … we can also reduce dividend payments, Chief Executive Bisi Onasanya said, also on the conference call.

Asked on the call how the central bank’s directive would affect First Bank’s expansion, Onasanya said the bank was not bullish on an African expansion strategy because it still wanted to strengthen its position at home.

Analysts say the new capital rules may hinder Nigerian banks’ expansion plans across the continent.

Nigeria’s central bank has said it wants to enforce better supervision of banks and their subsidiaries in order to avoid a repeat of the events that led to a $4 billion bailout of nine undercapitalised lenders in 2009.

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