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Casablanca: A focus on financiers

By Jon Marks in Casablanca
Posted on Thursday, 2 August 2018 13:28

Some 150 firms – around 30 of them Moroccan – have already signed up to enjoy the expected benefits of Casablanca Finance City (CFC), the offshore financial zone whose towers are going up around a 27-floor edifice in the Anfa neighbourhood. CFC’s boosters see it as the future capital of African finance – reflecting the measure of Morocco’s wider continental ambitions. In roadshows around the financial world, CFC Authority managing director Saïd Ibrahimi and a highly articulate team have excited interest in the zone’s potential, while a global line-up of benchmarkers and award-givers have placed the nascent CFC alongside Dubai and Johannesburg as a regional finance hub, despite its relative lack of substance.

CFC is the product of some deep, well-informed thinking. Ibrahimi says: “We’ve opted for a model not unlike that of Singapore, in which an ecosystem is created that brings together finance companies, the core of any financial centre, with professional services and the regional headquarters of multinationals and holding companies.”

Pivot to Africa

Critics say the international plaudits do not yet match the CFC’s performance. The sage of Moroccan finance, Bank Al-Maghrib governor Abdellatif Jouahri, wrote in his 2017 annual report that ‘to make [CFC] an efficient instrument [of Morocco’s ambitions], a vast amount of strategic work has been launched for the period to 2025, whose implementation requires a juridical status which is appropriate to the human and financial resources required’. Central bank governor Jouahri did not mince his words: CFC’s ‘achievements have remained well below its ambitions and largely insufficient when compared to the precious opportunities offered by our country’s stability and in particular its opening up to the African continent.’ Details of reforms to the CFC and the wider financial system that the central bank and the palace see as necessary to implement a successful ‘pivot to Africa’ are still awaited, but all sources agree they are in the works.

The Bourse de Casablanca is working closely with the London Stock Exchange (LSE) to create a more dynamic market. LSE chief executive Nikhil Rathi says “the LSE now has no relationship closer than with Casablanca”.

A senior banker tells The Africa Report: “Casablanca could be the place where African companies come to raise funds, rather than London or Johannesburg.” The stock market is being refashioned to encourage bigger local and regional listings in order to attract international equity, which has been put off by the bourse’s decade-plus in the doldrums. New products are expected to include Islamic bonds and project bonds – the latter offering buy-in to projects as ambitious as the kingdom’s plan to build a gas pipeline from Nigeria across nine West African countries and link it to Europe.

Casablanca is positioning itself to be a major player at a time when other bourses are looking to scale up to create pan-African markets. The Abidjan-based Bourse Régionale des Valeurs Mobilières (BRVM) is working on integration with the Ghanaian and Nigerian stock exchanges. BRVM chief executive Edoh Kossi Amenounve mirrors Moroccan ambitions when he says the BRVM “could become the second-largest bourse in Africa after Johannesburg, early in the 2020s”.

One of the BRVM’s biggest listings, after Ecobank, is six separate national branches of veteran Moroccan financier Othman Benjelloun’s Bank of Africa (BOA). BOA chief executive Amine Bouabid admits that with six BOA companies listed on the BRVM “it makes sense to consolidate, especially as their performance is weak […] and there are problems of listing in a very small market that doesn’t attract investors.” Bouabid told an investor round table that for regional equities markets to boom, “[we need] to build some African champions to list with big market capitalisations to attract investors”. This is the BRVM’s ambition, but it could also be a manifesto for the CFC.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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