Don't Stand So Close

Nedbank bets coronavirus can accelerate shift to digital banking

By David Whitehouse

Posted on March 17, 2020 08:01

 © O. R. Tambo International Airport in Kempton Park, South Africa March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
O. R. Tambo International Airport in Kempton Park, South Africa March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Nedbank believes that coronavirus will speed the shift from branches to digital channels.

The bank’s timetable to complete the standardization of its digital platforms, originally scheduled for 2021-22, has been accelerated to the end of this year, Sibiya said.

  • The move will help to get people out of branches and contribute to greater “social distancing” across all Nedbank’s African markets, Sibiya said.
  • The bank’s long-term target is for 75% of sales to be through digital channels, and for 70% of all its clients to be digitally active.

South Africa’s economy, having already entered a technical recession in the fourth quarter, will now suffer a “severe economic impact” as a result of coronavirus, including on employment, he said. Private-sector fixed investment activity has already stalled, and Sibiya sees no prospect of South Africa emerging from recession for at least 18 to 24 months.

  • A rise in non-performing loans is likely, he said.
  • Nedbank’s headline earnings for 2019 fell 7%, driven by losses in Zimbabwe resulting from hyperinflation.

Sibiya is confident that South Africa’s banks are strong enough to withstand the pandemic. “We might see a shock in terms of levels of activity” but the sector in South Africa is “well capitalised and agile,” he said. The banking system is “systematically very stable and functional.”

Nedbank in South Africa continues to be hampered with unreliable electricity supply. The “short answer” as to whether supply from Eskom has improved, he says, “is no”.

  • Yet there are signs that the state is trying to get to the bottom of the debt burden and operations at Eskom, and there is increased visibility on when outages are going to occur, he said.
  • “The state is moving to address it more convincingly.”

Expansion Plans

South Africa, Sibiya said, remains the “anchor” for Nedbank, which operates in Namibia, Swaziland, Mozambique, Lesotho and Zimbabwe. It also has a 14% stake in Ghana’s largest bank Ecobank. That investment, Sibiya said, is being held for the long term.

The bank’s exit from Malawi, he said, is scheduled to be completed at the end of March.

  • The market is costly but too small for Nedbank to achieve the required scale, he said.
  • The bank has no plans to exit Zimbabwe despite its losses there.
  • It hopes to be able to “reconfigure the business and the balance sheet”, Sibiya said. “It’s still possible that Zimbabwe can be turned around.”
  • The bank hopes that continuing expansion into the rest of Africa will reduce its dependence on South Africa. “We are keen to expand, especially in south-east Africa,” Sibiya said.
  • Nedbank is seeking to raise its stake in Mozambique’s Banco Unico from 50% to 87.5%, subject to regulatory approval.

The bank is also willing to consider opportunities in east African countries such as Kenya, where it has a representative office. “If the price is right, we’ll definitely have a look.”

The Bottom Line

Branch-based banking may never fully recover from coronavirus: the banks with the strongest digital strategies are likely to be the long-term winners.

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