Changes Are Making Ukrainian Banking More Aligned with International Standards

In January 2014, €1 cost about 11 Hryvnias (UAH) and $1, almost eight. At the end of December 2016, these foreign currencies were bought at close to 28 and 27 Hryvnias, respectively. However, depreciation is not the only challenge the National Bank of Ukraine has had to face.

Dmytro Sologub, Deputy Governor of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU), spoke to Andrew Wrobel about the recent nationalisation of PrivatBank, the country’s largest bank, about the reforms of the banking system and development prospects for the financial sector, as well as the future of FDI in Ukraine.

Dmytro Sologub (credit:Julia Berezovska, courtesy of the National Bank of Ukraine)

In the second half of December, the National Bank of Ukraine declared PrivatBank insolvent and the government subsequently backed the nationalisation. The reason was to “preserve financial stability in the country.” How exactly?

Well, PrivatBank posed risks to the domestic financial system. Over two years ago, the NBU launched diagnostic studies that comprised an asset quality review and stress tests, to assess the capital needs faced by banks. These tests revealed that as of 1 April 2016, PrivatBank had capital shortages amounting to UAH 113 billion, which, apart from crisis-related factors, were caused by imprudent lending policies pursued by the bank. As of 1 November 2015, related-party loans accounted for 97 per cent of the bank’s loan portfolio, totalling UAH 150 billion.

PrivatBank, as well as other financial institutions in which capital shortages were revealed based on the results of stress tests, was required to address these capital shortages, as the rules are the same for all financial institutions. The bank’s management team designed a recapitalisation programme and another programme to unwind related-party lending. The bank’s shareholders also provided guarantees as proof of their commitment to implement the recapitalisation programme agreed to with the NBU. However, neither the bank nor its shareholders implemented it.

Over the past year, the NBU held over 30 meetings with the shareholders and managers of this financial institution. Given that PrivatBank is a systemically important financial institution, the NBU took a more flexible approach, extending deadlines for fulfilling the recapitalisation programme on many occasions.

As a result, as of 1 December 2016, the capital shortages faced by PrivatBank increased to UAH 148 billion and its liquidity deteriorated significantly. The bank had not complied with reserve requirements for a year. The past-due debt owed to the NBU for stabilisation loans amounts to UAH 14 billion out of a total outstanding debt of UAH 19 billion. So, we had to act eventually.

Does the Bank consider the process a success?

We could call it successful as the nationalisation was carried within couple of days, which is a quite rare happening, worldwide. We also managed to organise the process so that it almost didn’t disrupt the routine functioning of the bank, at all. As a result, we managed to avoid panic and deposit runs in the banking sector.

The NBU is said to be a standout success story in reforming the country’s financial sector — what are the bank’s biggest successes?

Well, we have had quite a few challenges here and not everything has been addressed but when we look at Ukraine in 2014-2015, what the country experienced was a perfect storm. It was a combination of pure macroeconomic crisis, a huge political crisis and finally, a military crisis. 

Before that time, the Ukrainian economy was very much dominated by exports of low-value commodities such as grain and steel. What happened then, is that a lot of production facilities were wiped out at one time. For instance, in 2013 Donbas accounted for 25 per cent of exports of goods, 24 per cent of industrial production and 15 per cent of the country’s GDP and suddenly everything just disappeared at once. The war resulted in the forceful reorientation of foreign trade. Ukraine’s trade with Russia and the CIS equalled 37 per cent in 2012 in exports and now Russia is below 10 per cent of exports and the CIS countries account for about 18 per cent.

Dmytro Sologub (credit:Julia Berezovska, courtesy of the National Bank of Ukraine)

This is the economic background. Coming back to your questions now,  I would say that the general perception of the National Bank is that it might be the best public institution in Ukraine, but by international standards, it is definitely far from the best central banks in the world. We used to have 12,000 people working here, which meant big problems in the decision making process. It was a big monster and I think that it resembled Ukraine, to some extent, so we had to solve the problem immediately — an ailing economy, an ailing banking system, a non-transparent and non-efficient central bank. In early 2015, the national bank had $5 billion of reserves which only covered one and a half months of imports. There was no IMF programme. There were all kind of political battles and so on. 

So was one of the steps taken to close up several banks?

Well, most of the banks which we wiped out from the market were already “dead”, by 2008. Some of them had been haunted by imprudent practices for 20 years, and their supervision had been pretty negligible. So, there was simply no other choice because the longer you wait, the larger the problem you face. 

Coming to the reason’s for the bank’s success: I would say they were political, as we were one of the key organisations in the country. For example, we now have around 5,300 people — less than half of the number we used to have — and out of these 5,300 people only about 550 are new employees. This proves that it was the people who have been working in the organisation for a long time who contributed greatly to the success. 

So if you look at what’s ahead of the bank right now, what are the challenges that you are facing and that you have to address?

Well, I would say the challenges are both external and internal. In terms of external challenges, the worst seems to be behind us already, in terms of macroeconomic performance. In 2016, the economy returned  to growth. In 2017, we expect even higher growth. Additionally, inflation has declined from 43.3 per cent to 12.4 per cent which is close to the central meaning of our inflation target for 2016.

Dmytro Sologub (credit:Julia Berezovska, courtesy of the National Bank of Ukraine)

You recently said that in 2017 it would go down to a one-digit figure, right?

Yes, eight per cent. Our situation has basically been stabilised but the challenges for the economy still remain enormous. We have had some respite from our external dependence, but our debt to the GDP is still quite high and there will be payments coming up, starting from 2019. The economy should prepare for that, by building up international reserves, for example. 

Today reserves are around $15.5 billion. But so far, the most of the increases in our reserve are because of external official borrowings. We are buying currency in the market as well. We bought $1.6 billion in 2016, but most of the money comes from the IMF and other donors. What we need to do is to generate a substantial and strong inflow of foreign direct investment and portfolio investment, to the country, in order to make the economy more sustainable. 

Let’s briefly circle back to the GDP growth.

In 2016, Ukraine had GDP growth of one per cent. In 2017, we expect it to be 2.5 per cent. Some investors keep asking us why we are not growing more quickly. My answer is that the structural rebalancing of the economy is going pretty slowly. 

For example, as far as the reorientation of foreign trade is concerned, we are seeing some successes for Ukrainian companies who are trying to get into the new markets, especially the EU, under the the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreement. However, it’s not easy as a lot has to change: reforms, standards, even the mentality of the people. We do hope that the reforms will go quickly and will generate more perception and feeling from investors as the climate improves. That could generate still higher growth. 

I would still like to come back to inflation. One of the bank’s newest responsibilities is to target inflation. What Ukraine has actually never had is long periods of low inflation. That’s what we would like to deliver. This is a challenge from a macroeconomic point of view, and also from an internal point of view. We do see that we are better than we were before.

You mentioned the FDI coming to the country. What do you think are the biggest challenges for foreign investors in Ukraine right now?

Well, the world is pretty competitive nowadays. We have possible investors sitting, in the UK, the US or Canada. They don’t have any personal kind of affiliation, they just work with the country where they see their business will do better. Here, Ukraine is competing with more than 100 other countries. 

What should be done now? Well, I think capital control and macroeconomic stability are primary concerns for an investor. That boils down to the business environment, the judiciary system, the tax system, customs and so on. I talk to a lot of the companies working in Ukraine, especially those who have been here for a long time, and who have had their highs and lows in Ukraine. They are pretty optimistic now, certainly more than they were before. The problem is that in order to generate sustainable growth, Ukraine needs greenfield investment.

Dmytro Sologub (credit:Julia Berezovska, courtesy of the National Bank of Ukraine)

I believe that the country has a lot of advantages, doesn’t it?

It does. The Ukrainian labour force is relatively well-educated and if we compare Ukraine and Eastern Europe with other parts of the world, the quality of the workforce is much better here. This region is considered to be a highly educated area, compared to the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Of course, we are seeing a lot of migration, now, to Poland and other countries, but potentially, the labour force is in place. 

Ukraine also has a very good geographic location and it sits next to a big market. If it is compared to its neighbours, it could very likely repeat the development of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary in the 1990s, and Romania in the 2000s. 

Finally, there’s a lot of potential in Ukraine. That’s in terms of quite sophisticated production, machine building and other things. Ukraine has a vast domestic market; it’s a country of 45 million people. Now a lot of basic products are imported from neighbouring Poland, for example.

I believe people see an enormous potential in Ukraine, but still, investors are not coming. So what’s the problem?

I think it is changing slowly and foreign investors are starting to invest. Not only foreign investors, actually, but also domestic ones. They are becoming more optimistic. They have also started to increase wages for their employees.

On the authorities’ side, I think the fight against corruption is important, as is the continuation of the IMF’s programme. I also used to believe that the authorities should do more to lure big investors, to potentially work with them. However, in order to do that, we need to be sure that our general environment is changing. I mean if you go — let’s say, to Siemens — and promise them something, then if Siemens comes and then it blows up, you’re finished for ten years because of your reputation. 

Or perhaps even longer.

Yes, this is a risky game. On another note, what might actually work as a trigger are successful privatisation deals. Of course, during crises you cannot raise a lot of money from privatisation, but getting a new and efficient owner can help, so if in the first round we have a big — let’s say American company coming — then investors in London, Frankfurt and other cities will start to ask themselves, “if they went to Ukraine, why can’t we? Let’s go.”

So you think improving the business climate, luring potential investors, and privatisation could be triggers that increase interest among foreign investors?

There’s probably no single trigger but its a set of actions: a continued fight against corruption, continued work with the IMF, improvement in the judiciary system, etc. New foreign investors don’t appear out of the blue.

Earlier, we briefly mentioned the devaluation of the Hryvnia. Has that improved at all? How are you fighting devaluation and also increasing internal demand?

It’s clear that people have been suffering a lot for the last few years: falling living standards, higher gas prices, exchange rate depreciation, inflation, etc. However, going forward, a long-term period of low growth could also be quite detrimental to social stability in the country. As a bank, we are in charge of prices and financial stability. But once again, we can’t assure these long running prices or financial stability, if other things are not improving.

In terms of monetary policy, Ukraine has been quite open and has always accumulated external imbalances because of a fixed exchange rate. Previous managements have been quite reluctant to change that. We took advantage of the crisis and switched to a flexible exchange rate, but it was pretty clear that under the perfect storm, that I described earlier, the currency adjusted quite substantially, basically losing around 60 per cent of its value. We are now continuing to look at the exchange rate, in order to ensure that it aligns with the fundamentals and that we are rebuilding our reserves.

For the past 18 months, we have been dealing with it, again, in a quite hostile environment, because we saw a substantial decline in global commodity prices in 2015 and early 2016. Russia introduced further restrictions on imports, but also on transit to other countries. 

We saw encouraging signs coming from domestic demand as well, in the second and third quarter of 2016. We have seen actually that consumption and investment contribution to GDP have turned to be more positive.  

If we look at the disposable income of the average Ukrainian, how have you seen that change in the last couple of years and what are your forecasts?

Well, there has been quite a lot of suffering because of increase in prices and tariffs, and also because of the general decline in the economy. Actually, in 2016, we saw quite strong growth in wages, while incomes  are actually lagging behind. Why? Because physical economy is quite tight and it needs to be. Therefore, this means that all social payments — such as subsidies — have not been growing as strongly as the wages in the private sector. 

In terms of incomes in general, there’s no free money. If the economy is not growing, incomes cannot be increased on a sustainable basis. The decision by the government, to double the minimum wage, has been pretty brave although so far it has had pretty limited consequences.

So, looking forward in terms of incomes, I expect fiscal policies to still be pretty tight. In 2017, a further relaxation of policy is actually conditional on general improvement in the economy.

We have talked about the anti-corruption programme and the reforms that have been started. How do you think that will improve the image of the country in the eyes of foreign investors?

To a large extent it is about perception. If we ask small and medium enterprises about corruption, the general answer is negative, but when we start asking about details, for example, about fire inspection, or veterinary matters, you will hear that they have improved.

However, it’s also a real issue and everybody knows where are the bottlenecks are: state-owned enterprises, the court system, the tax system and customs.

We started the interview with a question about PrivatBank. I would like to ask you about the banking sector again. How do you see the banking sector right now?

Well, I think we made great progress there. We are still not at the end of the road, but compared to where we were a few years ago, when we had about 200 banks, the situation is much better. Even before the crisis, it was not clear how much capital they had, who their owners were, how many loans they gave, etc. Then the crisis came, and again, we didn’t have any other choices so we started looking at that mess and we identified three pillars for the reform.

As I mentioned at the beginning, we performed two series of diagnostics: an asset quality review and a stress test. The first was performed by external auditors and the other one was done in-house together with the IMF and the World Bank. They showed what skeletons we had in the closet. The situation with PrivatBank I’ve described is the most vivid example. Most of the banks had negative capital but we told them all — ‘you have three years to bring your capital to the level of ten per cent of risk-weighted assets.’

So that was the first pillar of our banking system reform. So far, the NBU has stress-tested the top 60 banks. Some of them failed and have been removed from the market. Most of the 20 largest banks have already replenished their capital and are going along with these rules now. We currently have 95 banks in the system.

The second pillar was the identification of bank owners. Previously we didn’t really know who the end owner was because they were all hidden behind nominal directors and so on. There was a regulation saying that if a stakeholder has a stake higher than ten per cent, then you should disclose where their wealth comes from, how much money they have, etc. In response to that banks created 11 nominal owners, each one with a stake of 9.1 per cent. We have now cut down this threshold to almost zero per cent and we have been actually removing banks from the market for failing to identify the real owners of the bank.

And the third pillar?

We examined whether banks maintain adequate provisioning levels for credit exposures and if they verify the valuation accuracy of the banks’ books. We are still in the middle of this and banks are continuing to work on their balance sheets.

So, I would say the picture that is emerging is much clearer at the moment and now we would like to ensure that the banks which are on the market are transparent. Of course, no one can say there will not be any bankruptcies because it depends on the economic cycle, and the owners of the bank, as well as a number of other factors.

Dmytro Sologub (credit:Julia Berezovska, courtesy of the National Bank of Ukraine)

What about the insurance market? How do you see that developing?

Well, our system is pretty bank-centred. We don’t have a lot non-bank financial companies. We are currently in the middle of a big process, which will bring the supervision of insurance companies under the supervision of the central bank.

Do you think that there’s room for foreign investors in the financial sector?

There is room for sure. But it also depends… it’s not only a kind of a pulling process, it’s also a pushing process. The rules in the global banking system have changed and there isn’t much active expansion of banks. However, when we look at Ukraine, I would say the market is pretty attractive.

Which areas in particular? Where is saturation relatively low?

Well, I believe if we look at our region, Ukraine could copy some of its successful neighbours, which in 1990s and 2000s managed to attract foreign investment in the manufacturing sector. 

Given its highly educated workforce, low labour costs, favourable geographic location coupled with preferential trade regime (i.e. DCFTA with the EU), Ukraine is perfectly positioned to attract foreign investors in such industries as machine building, food processing, wood production, light industry etc. But, of course, the homework (i.e. fighting corruption, improving business climate, ensuring macroeconomic and financial stability) also needs be done.