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April 6, 2017updated 05 Jun 2017 10:03am

Private Banking in Africa: Wealth taxes and amnesties

The boom-years seemed unstoppable. Africa was once the new China. Private wealth was surging and a new entrepreneurial class of African HNWI were ready to be private banked. But that boom did stop. Now, with economic paralysis on the one side and aggressive governmental policies on the other, African HNWIs are stuck between a rock and a hard place, writes WealthInsight's head and founding member, Oliver Williams

By Oliver Williams

In hindsight, the boom-years were too good to be true. Africa was once the new China. Private wealth was surging in the usual spots of South Africa and Nigeria and prospering in hitherto overlooked places such as Ethiopia and Ghana. Self-made billionaires like Nigeria’s Aliko Dangote became the face of a new entrepreneurial class of African high net worth individual (HNWI), who was smart, philanthropic, business-like and ready to be private banked.

The ensuring gold rush sent European banks south while South African banks went north and Emirati banks headed west to the new sub-Saharan frontier of private wealth (South Africa by then was already a mature market). UBS and Standard Chartered led the charge from Europe, FirstRand and Ned Bank from South Africa and Emirates NBD from Dubai.

The first dent in this newfound optimism was the sudden collapse of the oil price in 2014. Oil rich states like Nigeria and Angola saw their economies nose-dive and personal wealth with them. In 2013, 3,500 HNWIs in Nigeria made their wealth from the oil and gas sector. By 2016 there were 2,910 and the total HNWI population had fallen by 6.3 percent largely due to the knock-on effect of the oil price. Other commodities and countries followed: Zambia’s HNWI population has fallen 4 percent since 2013 following the collapse in the price of copper – its main export. The drop in the price of gold since 2013 has affected economies and HNWIs in Ghana and Tanzania. And a slowing Chinese economy has seen African exports to China fall by almost 40 percent.

Unorthodox central banking policies further exacerbated this strain on wealthy and poor populations alike. Nigeria and Egypt both attempted to keep their currencies artificially high; the latter until an IMF bailout late in 2016. The plunging exchange rate of these and other African currencies has meant thousands of former HNWIs are now un-bankable in the eyes of Western private banks, most of whom require a minimum net worth of US$1m. Africa’s total HNWI population was 164,000 in 2013. Today it is less by about 100; hardly the double digit rise private banks were forecasting when they expanded into sub-Saharan markets in 2013. Forbes has seen its African billionaire count go from 28 in 2014 to 21 in 2017. Unsurprisingly, there have been few recent announcements of big private banks setting up in Africa.

With plunging economies and credit ratings, many African governments have taken to billionaire bashing. Taking a hard line on excessive private wealth shows a government is taking inequality and corruption seriously. The Nigerian government has banned private jets alongside other imports (such as toothpicks) in its attempt to shore-up the Nira, its currency.

More recently its finance minister, Kemi Adeosun, floated the idea of a wealth tax after criticising the country’s wealthy community. “It is a pity that Nigeria has one of the lowest tax regime ratio globally at 6 percent…We have so many wealthy entrepreneurs, who have managed to develop habit of not paying tax, we need to correct that”, she said at an event in March marking Lagos Senator, Bola Tinubu’s 65th birthday, before remarking, “I take this opportunity to reach out to the millionaires, billionaires and trillionaires that you will hear from me soon”.

South Africa’s ruling ANC party has long toyed with a wealth tax, an idea which may see the light of day under the “radical economic transformation” announced by its new finance minister, Malusi Gigaba. Though details are currently unclear, investment banker Peter Attard-Montalto told CNBC that the new policies might include land redistribution, forced share ownership changes and wealth taxes. The sudden sacking of former finance minister Pravin Gordhan has sent its currency, the rand, spiralling, while its credit rating could yet be reduced to junk.

Tanzania’s president, John “Bulldozer” Magufuli, has also made a scene of shunning wealth by selling off government luxury cars, banning ministers from flying first class and travelling overseas and collecting unpaid taxes from foreign firms. The latter tactic has met a cold reception amongst most multinationals. Acacia Mining has been forced to pay due taxes while waiting for $98m in government VAT rebates according to The Economist.

That’s on top of the $1m a day its losing on Magufuli’s recently imposed ban on unprocessed mineral exports. These unfriendly policies have seen foreign investors stay away from the country: Tanzania receives 6 percent of all private equity flowing into East Africa, according to the African Private Equity and Venture Capital Association.

With economic paralysis on the one side, and aggressive governmental policies on the other, African HNWIs are stuck between a rock and a hard place. But this is forcing many to review their businesses and portfolios, for the good of both their wealth and compatriots.

With devalued local currencies, many HNWIs are investing their portfolios at home rather than search for more costly returns overseas. This is not only keeping wealth where it is most needed – at home – but it is also giving rise to a local private banking economy. Banks like CfC Stanbic in Kenya and FirstBank in Nigeria have built up their private banking departments on the back of local demand.

Heralding the words of former South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha “adapt or die”, many HNWIs, particularly oil entrepreneurs, are diversifying their business interests into areas crying out for investment like infrastructure and agriculture. Governments are also recognising the need to bring money onshore and are offering tax amnesties. Last month Nigeria announced a Voluntary Asset and Income Declaration Scheme (VAIDS). The scheme, similar to Italy’s voluntary disclosure program, provides HNWIs a tax amnesty to disclose previously hidden assets and income.

Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS), Babatunde Fowler said, “Under payment of tax via the use of tax havens and other evasion strategies has not been helpful to Nigeria. This practice has been principally perpetrated by multinational companies and high net worth individuals”.

These are formative years not only for Africa’s high net worth communities, but also for national economies which depend on local investors as much as foreign ones. Light touch regulation will encourage African HNWIs to invest at home, reinforcing that image of a smart, philanthropic, business-like figurehead. Heavy handed taxation, however, will only force more Africa wealth overseas, straight into the open arms of European and Emirati private banks.

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