‘Something’s Not Adding Up’ In Talk Of A Potential Barclays-Absa Sale

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Written by Dana Sanchez

On Wednesday, London’s FinancialTimes reported that the new CEO of U.K.-based Barclays Bank was rethinking it almost-100-year business in Africa but hadn’t made a decision yet.

Barclays has operated in parts of Africa for almost a century but the the devaluation of the South African rand against the British pound hit the group’s profits. The African unit’s return on equity was 9.3 percent in 2014 — below the bank’s target of 11 percent, FinancialTimes reported.

Barclays didn’t want to talk about it, at least not to the FinancialTimes, which is “one of the most influential business newspapers/websites on earth,” according to a BizNews column by Alec Hogg. “When the FT publishes something, you can be assured the information is accurate,” Hogg said.

New Barclays CEO Jes Staley is unlikely to pull out of the continent, but Barclays could sell its retail banking operations in parts of Africa including South Africa, Kenya, Mauritius, Botswana and Zambia, while keeping some investment banking activities there, FinancialTimes reported.

“There’s just no way to put any possible positive spin on Barclays wanting to dump Absa,” read the BizNews headline.

Barclays bought a majority stake in Absa in 2005. Until a year ago Absa was regarded as a priceless jewel in the Barclays crown, BizNews reported.

So who or what exactly is Absa? It gets confusing. Absa Bank is a subsidiary of the Barclays Africa Group operating mostly in South Africa and Namibia. The U.K. bank owns 62 percent of Barclays Africa Group.

Barclays could sell its stake in Absa to a local rival such as Standard Bank, Nedbank or FirstRand, FinancialTimes reported. Or it could give shares in Barclays Africa Group to existing Barclays shareholders.

Atlas Mara could potentially be interested — that’s the firm set up by former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond to buy African lenders — but Atlas probably can’t afford Absa.

Absa spokesman Byron Kennedy told Fin24 that the Financial Times was speculating and that “we do not comment on market speculation.”

It’s a bad time for South African banks with the country battling drought, low commodity prices, credit rating downgrades and market uncertainty, Economist Mike Schussler told Fin24.

“Zuma’s apologists will claim the Barclays restructuring was happening anyway,” Hogg said in BizNews.

Something doesn’t quite add up, MoneyWeb reported.

Yes, the rand’s dramatic devaluation has diluted earnings (and return on equity) in sterling. But, even in sterling, the Africa operations generate about as much profit as the entire investment bank. And Barclays Africa Group (chiefly Absa) remains a valuable source of dividend flow for its parent (despite the official line that the dividend is “never discussed”). In fact, the dividends from Absa helped Barclays tremendously in weathering the storm during the global financial crisis.