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Why Barclays Leaving Africa Says More About the Bank Than the Continent’s Economy

The UK bank has confirmed that it plans to pull its business out of Africa, leaving many to wonder about the future of economic investment on the continent.
Photo by Noor Khamis/Reuters

Barclays will end its 90-year-long presence in Africa as soon as the UK investment bank can sell off the majority stake it owns in a regional subsidiary, fully exiting the continent where it employs 45,000 people and holds $70 billion in assets.

A formal announcement on Tuesday from the bank confirmed months of speculation about the rumored exit. Barclays Chief Executive Jes Staley, who ascended to the top role in October, said in the next three years the company will dump the 62.3 percent of the shares it controls in Barclays Africa Group.


"[Barclays Africa Group] is a well-diversified business and a high quality franchise," the company said in its results announcement. "However, the stake in [Barclays Africa Group] presents specific challenges to Barclays as owners."

Staley said the move was meant to achieve increased returns for shareholders, while streamlining operations. Meanwhile, the corporation plans to shift its focus to transatlantic operations centered in the UK and US.

Speculations swirled over whether the moves are a signal that business in Africa has become too challenging. Maria Ramos, the African subsidiary's chief executive, said the decision had nothing to do with the region's economic situation.

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The move comes not long after the bank said it would also be winding down its presence in Asia. Despite earlier rumors of the change in Africa, the operational transition away from emerging markets to transatlantic business still caught some off guard who have come to think of Barclays as a pioneer in these markets.

"The fact that Barclays is leaving Africa and Asia to concentrate on the UK and of course the US," said Dr. A. Seddik Meziani, a finance professor at Montclair State University. "It's really against [the] philosophy that I thought was deeply anchored in the business model of Barclays."

"If someone told me Barclays is going to increase its share in the African unit, I would say, 'You know what, that's Barclays, that's what we know about Barclays, that's what Barclays got us used to," he continued. "But selling it entirely, I'm surprised."


The decision comes in the face of falling currencies and rising commodity prices across the continent, along with less optimistic short term growth expectations. Some experts have pointed to this uncertainty when speculating about why the company is making its continental exit. At the same time, however, the African division saw earnings grow nearly twice as many percentage points as the bank overall, jumping 11.7 percent year over year in 2015 compared to Barclays 6 percent overall.

'It is not an Africa problem; rather it's a Barclays problem.'

"Barclays Africa outperformed the investment bank arm of Barclays," said Ayso Van Eysinga, Eurasia Group's Africa researcher. "[It] highlights that it is not an Africa problem; rather it's a Barclays problem."

While there is likely some validity in pinning the recent shift to economic challenges on the continent, Meziani said other problems within Barclays may have caused the move, which he said was based in short-term perspective.

In 2015, the bank saw its statutory pre-tax profits drop 8 percent to $2.9 billion, CNBC reported. The company has also experienced lowered trading values in the stock market, while implementing job cuts. Severing ties in Africa will free up 14 percent of Barclays business, according to Bloomberg. Meziani also speculated about the number of legal issues the financial services provider is facing, like the Libor scandal, questioning whether the possibility of future legal payouts may have weighed in on the decision.


"Africa is not causing problems for Barclays, it's Barclays that caused problems for itself and they are looking for ways to pay for it," he said, explaining that the company could be selling its emerging market units in order to be able to build its resources to handle future problems and payouts.

"It's a short term type of decision. They are not looking at the long run [opportunities]," Meziani added.

Regardless, Barclays abandoning its Africa business seems to be more of a one-off development as opposed to the start of a trend or a sign of what's to come.

"The move by Barclays won't have a ripple effect," van Eysinga said. "Sophisticated, long-term investors understand the region and what is going on — and the diversity of markets across the region."

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As he explained, there are certain markets, including Nigeria and Angola, where banking sectors are overexposed to oil and other commodity prices. These sectors were previously more reliable for loans, but they have now become difficult to service. Compounded with a weakening exchange rates, banks in these countries have been weakened.

However, countries like Kenya or Ivory Coast, he explained, have been more successful at diversifying and insulating themselves from the recent trends. Governments across the continent have had much better responses to the commodity shock than during a similar period in the 1990s that led to a decade of negative growth.

While right now might not be the best time for Barclays to find a buyer willing to pay what Barclays Africa Group is worth, Meziani said commodity prices and plummeting currencies in the short term make it a good time to enter the African market in general — as long as the investor has the stomach to stick it out in the long term.

"Personally if I wasn't an academic, lets say I have a lot of money in my pockets," he said. "The stake that Barclays is selling, I'd be very much interested in it with my own money."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB