Decoding DORA: Navigating the digital regulatory landscape

In the ever-shifting landscape of financial regulations, the European Union has introduced the Digital Operational Resilience Act (DORA) – a comprehensive framework addressing the digital risks faced by the European Financial Services Sector. Its aim is to ensure the integrity and availability of the financial sector. Let’s delve into the key components of DORA, focusing on its four pillars: ICT risk management, incident management, third-party risk management, TLPT testing.

ICT risk management: Strengthening the digital ramparts
DORA’s first pillar, ICT risk management, outlines the need for financial institutions to fortify their digital defences. It emphasises not just the standard cybersecurity measures but also robust administrative procedures, internal controls, and risk assessments. In simpler terms, it’s about ensuring the digital infrastructure is solid, secure, and resilient against potential threats.

In an interconnected financial world, where borders are porous, DORA sets a precedent for cybersecurity practices

The objective of this pillar is to create a level playing field with minimum level of ICT risk management, and consistency across all in scope entities. The impact on FS entities will be felt hardest by those firms that manage ICT risk inconsistently today for example have grown by acquisition or are domiciled in different European member states with inconsistent treatment across the group or third party providers that were not previously subject to robust risk management rules.

The management of cyber risk overlap with activities within cyber defence, in a number of organisations (and ‘best practice’), is for cyber risk to inform the investment within cyber defence. Assessing cyber risk following the new rules has led to the need to rapidly mature the capabilities in cyber defence.

Incident management: Navigating digital turbulence
Incident management, the second pillar, mandates a swift and organised response to any digital incidents. Financial entities are required to report incidents consistently and aligned with the seven classifications detailed in the legislation, proposed in the draft RTS (technical standard) and promptly, fostering a culture of transparency and learning from each disruption. It’s not just about addressing the immediate challenges but also about building resilience through experience.

Firms will need to update their SOPs and the systems for detection, management and resolution of incidents include operational reviews, system evaluations, training, frequent audits, and regular repetitional risk assessment due to the additional disclosures – this may also require regular updates of competitive positioning. Additional resources will be required for development, implementation, and regular auditing. It should not be forgotten that these procedures and their oversight need integration with other managerial tasks, which will add to operational complexity.

Third-party risk management: Safeguarding digital collaborations
The third pillar focuses on third-party risk management, acknowledging the interconnected nature of the financial ecosystem. It designates competent authorities as overseers, ensuring that external service providers don’t become weak links in the digital chain. This pillar aims to prevent unforeseen risks stemming from dependencies on external entities and is enlarging the scope of previous regulation on outsourcing. The expectation is the FS entity becomes responsible for the management of ICT by their digital supply chain; ‘back-to-backing’ their obligations in contracts with third party suppliers.

Not only does this require changes within procurement, but breaches of sub-contracted legal obligations become the responsibility of the FS entity (as they are still accountable, you cannot contract away a compliance obligation). This will require FS firms to be more prescriptive with suppliers around their risk management approach and will require reviews and audits by the FS firm.

TLPT (Threat-led Penetration Testing): Ethical hacking for digital preparedness
TLPT, the fourth pillar, applicable to introduces a pragmatic approach to cybersecurity. Threat-led Penetration Testing, will be based on the guidance of TIBER-EU (Threat Intelligence Based Ethical Red Teaming) where it has been implemented involves ethical hackers simulating cyber-attacks across the whole attack surface of systemically important FS institutions. This isn’t just a compliance measure but a proactive strategy to identify and rectify vulnerabilities, making financial entities more robust against potential threats. TLPT exercises need to be seen as an exercise to strengthen the overall resiliency posture more than as an audit exercise; by coupling with cyber crisis simulation will create a sort of muscular memory in the c-suite and board in order to be prepare to the unprepared in case of real attacks and ransomware.

Transparent governance in the digital age
Accountability and reporting is one cornerstone principle, emphasising the importance of transparent governance. Financial entities are not only accountable to regulators, but also to their internal boards of directors. This principle necessitates the establishment of a robust reporting structure, ensuring that all stakeholders are informed about the institution’s digital resilience measures. This means that there is a consistent approach with internal accountability being first or second line of defence. The important principle is to avoid siloing the different requirements implementation and instead keeping a comprehensive and consistent approach.

IT failure or cyber events have a real impact on firms’ ability to operate

The executive board, inclusive of the Chief Executive Officer, are required to possess the requisite expertise and competencies to effectively evaluate the looming threat of cybersecurity risks. This includes the ability to critically review security proposals, engage in constructive discourse on various activities, formulate informed perspectives, and appraise policies and solutions that safeguard the resources of their establishment.

This builds on the requirements of the NIS 2 Directive which requires appropriate training for management on cyber and cyber risk oversight, and improvements to the compliance framework forming part of corporate governance which when combined with the incident reporting obligations to management puts responsibility for the cyber risk squarely on the shoulders of the board and executive management.

Because DORA is principle based it is required that each financial institution will set up a good governance model that will be able to keep pace with new threats and countermeasures (emerging threats such as Post Quantum Cryptography and Gen AI could be two good examples). This requires a paradigm shift from current isolated risk management practices to using an Integrated Risk Management (IRM) approach. Integration in this context is two-fold; (1) viewing digital risk in conjunction with other risks, and (2) linking risk management directly with cyber operations and using ‘assets’ serving as the backbone. Financial institutions need to move away from siloed risk management and embrace an integrated strategy that considers the interconnected nature of risks.

Changing the approach: Assets as the backbone
Management need to combine their role as stewards of the company’s financial assets and oversight of risk management. IT is the key element of most business capabilities, IT failure or cyber events have a real impact on firms’ ability to operate. IT assets need to protected, and understood as much as business ones.

IT assets need to become the cornerstone of the integration of business capability and effective IT management. Financial institutions must identify and prioritise their critical assets, understanding how digital risks can impact them. Critical assets support critical business capabilities and processes. This asset-centric approach allows for a more nuanced understanding of risk, enabling proactive measures to protect vital components of the institution. And to do that, the need for an automated and integrated solution is necessary to run an efficient model and get as an additional value the possibility to automatise processes and gain further efficiency.

Global implications: DORA’s ripple effect
While DORA is an EU regulation, its principles resonate globally. In an interconnected financial world, where borders are porous, DORA sets a precedent for cybersecurity practices. Its influence extends beyond the EU, shaping the global approach to digital operational resilience and integrated risk management.

Decoding the DORA narrative
In conclusion, DORA is not just another set of rules; it’s a narrative shaping the digital future of finance. It’s a pragmatic guide for financial entities to navigate the complexities of the digital realm.

Care should be taken to ensure that DORA is not treated like just another regulation that requires a ‘typical’ regulatory change management approach – identify obligations, update policies, confirm controls and then test. It requires a significant maturing of cyber defence as well as cyber risk management capabilities, both having active and directive support of management.

For the smaller firm, this will require transformation of a traditionally underinvested area. Management will need to be upskilled and provided with information contextualised in such a way that decisions can be readily and rapidly made. Making cybersecurity relevant for business management has been the challenge for the industry, now it is crucial for firms to be able to comply with NIS 2 and DORA.

As the financial landscape evolves, DORA remains a relevant script, encouraging entities to embrace resilience, minimise disruptions, and thrive in the ever-changing digital narrative. With accountability and reporting at its core, DORA ensures that financial institutions not only comply with regulations, but also actively work towards building a resilient, integrated, and secure digital future.

Building BRIC by BRIC

The tectonic plates of global politics are forever shifting. Sometimes, those changes are almost imperceptible, while others are much more seismic. “The world is changing,” the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his closing remarks at the annual BRICS summit in Johannesburg. “These realities call for a fundamental reform of the institutions of global governance, so that they may be more representative and better able to respond to the challenges that confront humanity.”

The three-day summit confirmed what had been anticipated for some time – that the BRICS group would be expanding its membership. With six new members joining its ranks as of January 2024, the bloc is more than doubling in size, giving a growing group of emerging economies a much louder voice on the global stage. Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will be the first wave of new additions joining forces with the group’s core members of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. More will follow in years to come, as the newly beefed-up alliance looks to expand its influence ever further. Over 40 countries expressed an interest in joining the group ahead of the Johannesburg summit, demonstrating a growing desire among middle-income economies to move away from a western-led global order.

China’s Xi Jinping – the most vocal proponent of the group’s expansion – welcomed the move as a “new chapter of solidarity and cooperation” across the alliance. And while the wider membership certainly shows ambition, the expansion is not without its challenges. Already regarded as a somewhat disparate and divided group, the BRICS bloc is unlikely to become any more cohesive once its new members are brought into the fold. Far from being politically, economically or ideologically unified, the new entrants are a largely disjointed group, each with their own aspirations and burdens. With new agendas to accommodate and diverging interests to uphold, the newly-bolstered BRICS group may soon find that less is more.

Losing momentum
The BRIC acronym was first coined by Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill in 2001, in an effort to capture the rising economic importance of Brazil, Russia, India and China. The transformation from academic idea to geopolitical institution began in earnest in 2006, with a meeting of the foreign ministers of the four founding BRIC states in New York City. The Russian city of Yekaterinburg played host to the first BRIC summit in 2009, with South Africa joining the group one year later – providing the ‘S’ to make the BRICS complete.

The BRICS nations had one key ambition – to ensure a greater role for emerging economies in global affairs

In the 2000s, the BRICS nations had one key ambition – to ensure a greater role for emerging economies in global affairs. There was palpable optimism surrounding the growth of developing countries in the first decade of the 21st century, with the BRICS nations in particular pipped for an astronomic economic rise. Led by China and its staggering and sustained growth, the BRICS nations largely met or exceeded economists’ predictions in the early 2000s, with their economies outpacing those of other advanced nations (see Fig 1). But, in the wake of the global financial crash, the BRICS economies started to lose momentum. By the late 2010s, Russia, Brazil and South Africa had experienced significant economic slowdowns, with China and India emerging as the two remaining bright spots in the BRICS bloc.

The group’s multilateral lender, the New Development Bank (NDB), has also achieved muted success since its launch in 2015. Touted as an alternative to the western-dominated IMF and World Bank, the NDB was created with ambitions of financing much-needed sustainable infrastructure projects across the global south. A worthy cause, certainly, but the NDB has been able to pay out just $33bn in approved loans since its creation almost a decade ago. The World Bank, by way of contrast, committed $104bn in 2022 alone.

Individually and collectively, the BRICS nations have somewhat underperformed in the past 10 years, with the notable exceptions of China and India. But that’s not to say that the BRICS bloc is insignificant on the global stage – far from it. Before the expansion, the group already represented 40 percent of the world’s population and more than 25 percent of global gross domestic product. There is no doubt that the alliance is a major force in global affairs – so why has it struggled to capitalise on its collective potential?

An uneasy alliance
Since its very inception, the BRICS group has been made up of seemingly strange bedfellows. Its founding members have little in common politically, economically or culturally, and internal tensions have left the bloc divided on a number of key issues, including the very question of expansion. While China has long backed the addition of new members, India, Brazil and South Africa have been less enthusiastic about throwing open the BRICS door, and have their own concerns over the bloc’s increasingly anti-US stance.

India and China, meanwhile, have a historic border dispute that dates back to the 1960s, and tend to view each other as regional rivals. Relations between the two major powers have become increasingly fraught in recent years, with clashes breaking out between troops along the disputed Himalayan border in 2020 and 2022. Despite de-escalation work, tensions between the two countries remain high, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is said to be uneasy with the sudden influx of Chinese allies to the BRICS group.

Indeed, while the six newest BRICS members may seem like a disparate and miscellaneous group on early inspection, a closer look soon reveals China’s influence. Newcomer Iran has been forging strong ties to Beijing in recent years, and signed a 25-year cooperation agreement with the superpower in 2021, committing the two nations to “political, strategic and economic” partnerships over the next quarter of a century. Fellow Middle-Eastern joiners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have historically been allied with the US, but have been seeking to recalibrate their relationship with the west and establish themselves as global powers in their own right. This has drawn both nations closer to China, their largest trade partner. Similarly, Egypt and Argentina have strengthened their financial and trade ties to China in recent years, while Ethiopia is a key site for China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, receiving approximately $16bn in Chinese investment between 2000 and 2020. With tensions between the US and China at an all-time high, the decision to admit a string of countries with ties to Beijing may well increase the BRICS’ geopolitical tensions with the west in the months to come.

Along with potentially stoking external tensions with the G7-led west, the BRICS expansion could lead to further divisions within the group itself. Iran and Saudi Arabia are longstanding rivals, only recently restoring their diplomatic ties after a seven-year severance. While this tentative rapprochement is certainly welcome, the tense history between the two nations may make it difficult for the group to unite on shared goals moving forward. More members ultimately means more voices in the room, each with their own interests to uphold. And in the BRICS organisation, all decisions are unanimous, meaning that each and every member must agree before a motion can be passed. More seats around the table will likely make it more difficult to reach unanimous decisions – especially when there are already internal divisions at play.

An amplified voice
So far, the BRICS has demonstrated lofty ambitions but limited impact. But its expansion comes at a time of heightened geopolitical instability, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marking a new chapter in 21st century international relations. The outbreak of war in Europe has seen notable shifts in geopolitical alliances, as Russia and Ukraine seek to gather support from allies old and new. While Russia has become something of a pariah state in the western world, Moscow has received significant support from its BRICS partners. China and India have both ramped up trade with Russia since the invasion, with India’s imports alone surging by 400 percent since Russian troops entered Ukraine. This uptick in BRICS bloc trade has allowed the Moscow military machine to press on despite unprecedented western sanctions on the nation, undermining the US-led support operation for besieged Ukraine.

Politically speaking, the BRICS core members have adopted a neutral position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict – with the exception of China, which voted against expelling its northern neighbour from the UN Human Rights Council in 2022. However, this neutral stance, coupled with an uplift in BRICS trade with Russia, has been interpreted by some critics as implicit support for the Kremlin’s campaign. Whether there is any truth to this or not, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has placed the BRICS in a more explicitly political position than ever before.

The group is no longer purely interested in promoting the economic interests of the developing world. Politics has seemingly risen to the top of the BRICS agenda, and with its upcoming expansion, the group’s sphere of influence is greater than ever before. While its internal divisions may initially pose a barrier to any meaningful collective action, the group’s growth shows that it is setting itself up to be a real alternative to the western geopolitical status quo. It is simply too large and too loud to be ignored any longer. And with a long list of developing nations looking to join the club, the BRICS group is certainly carving a space for itself on the global stage.

The quantum joke

If there is a single idea which sums up the field of mainstream economics, it is that prices are drawn by the forces of supply and demand – aka the invisible hand – to a stable equilibrium, at which the price accurately reflects intrinsic value. A logical consequence is that price changes must be due to extrinsic effects, such as news which affects the value of a stock. Because such events are random, prices should perform what the statistician Karl Pearson called a random walk.

Pearson illustrated the problem in a 1905 paper with an example of a drunken man, who takes a step in one direction, then another step in a different direction, and so on. The expected distance travelled is seen to grow with the square root of time – but “the most probable place to find a drunken man who is at all capable of keeping on his feet is somewhere near his starting point!”

The same idea had already been used by the French mathematician Louis Bachelier in his 1900 dissertation Theorié de la Spéculation, to argue that an investor’s expected profit or loss was zero. Prices move randomly up and down, but the best forecast for an asset’s future price is its current price. The typical size of the step was described by a parameter which he called the market’s “nervousness” and is now known as the volatility.

In the 1950s Bachelier’s thesis was dusted off and improved on by economists who were trying to model stock prices, and in particular compute the correct price of financial options (those instruments which give one the right to buy or sell a security in the future at a set price, known as the strike). The goal was realised in 1973 by the Black-Scholes option pricing model. Today, versions of this model are used to price options and other derivatives in global financial markets – and volatility has become the magic number used to evaluate financial risk.

From ear to ear
A key assumption of the Black-Scholes model, when it was derived 50 years ago, was that the volatility could be treated as constant. In practice though, traders assigned prices to options, which did not perfectly agree with the theoretical prices, but departed from them in a predictable way. Options which only paid off in the case of extreme price changes attracted a higher price. Since the option price depended on volatility, another way to look at this was that markets were assigning higher volatility numbers (known as implied volatility) to these options.

Volatility has become the magic number used to evaluate financial risk

The result of all this was that, if you plotted implied volatility against strike price (the price at which the option can be exercised), you got a curve that resembled a smile. Economists have long debated the reasons for the volatility smile, since it seems illogical from the perspective of classical finance. However, it makes more sense if you use a different kind of logic. The quantum sort.

In quantum economics (which is based on quantum probability, not quantum physics), the price of something like a stock is fundamentally indeterminate, so there is a base level of uncertainty (the financial version of the uncertainty principle).

Price perturbations occur due to transactions, which measure the price but also affect it. And in the quantum model, the uncertainty measured by volatility is not a constant, as in the traditional random walk model, but varies depending on the state of the market.

When markets are out of balance, as when there are more buyers than sellers, then the price is affected – in this case it goes up – but the volatility increases as well. And if you plot volatility over a period such as a month, against price change over the same period, then you get exactly the same volatility smile (though somewhat steeper). In other words, the smile is not some kind of illogical anomaly, or artefact caused by trader behaviour. It is a reflection of a real phenomenon.

Mispricing risk
The consequences of this for financial markets are no laughing matter. For example, the main index used to measure market volatility is the VIX index, which weights the implied volatilities of a range of options on the S&P 500 stock market index to arrive at a single number for the implied volatility. However, in reality there is no single number, because implied volatility is described by a curve.

The formula used to derive the VIX makes sense in the random walk world of economists’ imagination, but the actual world seems more in tune with quantum logic. The result is that risk is consistently mispriced by conventional models.

Economists have long known that the market is smiling, but because of their rigid obsession with classical ideas such as equilibrium, they didn’t know why. Quantum models, it seems, are in on the joke.

Blue bonds could be the answer to financing sustainable development

African countries are in dire need of massive resources to finance sustainable development. Having amassed a staggering $1.8trn in public debt over the past two decades to finance infrastructure projects, most nations have limited headroom for conventional borrowing. For this reason, countries are being forced to become creative and innovative in mobilising resources.

In October, for instance, Egypt raised $478m through a Chinese yuan-denominated panda bond, a first by a Middle East and Africa sovereign. Apart from diversifying its financing sources, the primary aim was to escape from high interest rates in the west considering the three-year bond came with an interest rate of 3.5 percent.

Two months earlier in August, Gabon became only the second African nation to issue a blue bond after Seychelles, which in 2018 had debuted the world’s first blue bond, raising $15m. In the case of Gabon, the ‘debt-for-nature swap’ resulted in refinancing $500m of its public debt and unlocking some $163m for marine conservation. The long-term blue bond, which matures in 2038, came with a coupon priced at 6.097 percent. This was lower than the coupons on the repaid bonds, which were between 6.625 percent to seven percent.

“Blue bonds hold a lot of promise,” says Sally Yozell, Director of the Environmental Security Program of the Stimson Center. She adds that Seychelles paved the way for other African nations to undertake blue bonds issuances, including steps for success.

Granted, the debt conversion for ocean conservation in Gabon that came with the tag of a ‘blue bond’ has raised debate over legitimacy. The fact that Gabon’s sole purpose in floating the bond was to refinance its debts has brought about the question on whether ‘blue’ bonds are being abused instead of the proceeds being ring-fenced for protecting and managing the marine ecosystem. The central African nation bought back three bonds, one maturing in 2025 and two in 2031, with a total nominal value of $500m. The buybacks were equivalent to around four percent of the country’s total debt.

Conservation cash
Simone Utermarck, Sustainable Finance Director at the International Capital Market Association (ICMA), explains that for blue bonds, the proceeds or an equivalent amount should exclusively be applied to finance or refinance, in part or in full, new and/or existing eligible green/blue projects. “Gabon is a debt for nature swap, not a use of proceeds bond,” she states.

A month after the Gabon issuance, which was arranged by the Bank of America and fronted by US-based The Nature Conservancy (TNC) that has set up deals worth at least $1bn, ICMA published a ‘practitioner’s guide.’ The objective was to provide issuers with guidance on the key components involved in launching a ‘credible’ blue bond and assist underwriters by offering vital steps that facilitate transactions that preserve the ‘integrity’ of the market.

Away from the legitimacy debate, the consensus is that blue bonds can offer African nations with coastlines a viable source for mobilising resources for conservation. Undoubtedly, Africa’s oceans and waterways are in peril. Wanton pollution, climate change, overfishing, illegal fishing and poor management, among other factors, are threatening to wipe out the socio-economic benefits that come from the water bodies. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing alone costs Africa over $2.3bn in economic losses annually, according to estimates from the African Union Commission.

The importance of Africa’s blue economy cannot be underestimated. Annually, it generates approximately $300bn, creating 49 million jobs in sectors like tourism, transportation, fisheries and aquaculture. Cumulatively, the annual value of Africa’s maritime industry is estimated to be over $1trn. Marine resources, particularly fisheries, underpin the continent’s sustainable blue economy as well as the food, economic and ecological security of hundreds of millions of people. Fish represent over 20 percent of total protein intake in 20 countries, accounting for approximately 200 million people. In some countries like Sierra Leone and Senegal, it accounts for over 70 percent of protein intake.

Nicholas Hardman-Mountford, Head of Oceans and Natural Resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat, contends that as populations grow and the demand for marine resources increases, Africa must prioritise conservation. “For Africa, it’s about ensuring a sustainable future for its people,” he notes. He adds that the Commonwealth has even developed a Blue Charter to help African countries harness their marine wealth sustainably. Among other things, the charter recognises the potential of innovative financing mechanisms like blue bonds to finance marine conservation.

Global growth
Though still in its nascent stages globally, the blue bonds market is expanding. According to the Stimson Center, 26 blue bonds were issued between 2018 and 2022 amounting to a total value of $5bn. This represented a 92 percent compound annual growth rate. Latin America and South Asia are two regions where the blue bond market is particularly vibrant and innovative. “The increasing presence of major multilateral development banks and financial institutions will likely help the growth of the blue bonds market,” avers Yozell, adding that the launch of the world’s first blue bond index in July this year is bound to accelerate growth.

Notably, the line between blue bonds and green, social and sustainability bonds is becoming extremely thin. In 2022, the global issuance volume across the whole spectrum of sustainable bonds amounted to $862bn, dropping from a record high of $1trn in 2021. The market is forecast to bounce back, with ICMA stating that 98 percent of total sustainable bonds issued globally are aligned with its principles. “In the last five years, a series of blue bond issuances demonstrate a growing appetite for ocean-themed bonds,” notes Utermarck.

For blue bonds, ICMA has designated eight categories that qualify for financing through proceeds of blue bonds. These include coastal climate adaptation and resilience, marine ecosystem management, conservation and restoration, marine pollution and marine renewable energy. Others are sustainable coastal and marine tourism, sustainable marine value chains, sustainable ports and sustainable marine transport. “As the issuance of blue bonds becomes more vibrant in various parts of the world, Africa has a unique opportunity to learn, adapt and implement these financial mechanisms to achieve both economic and environmental sustainability,” observes Hardman-Mountford.

A blueprint for bonds
Seychelles and Gabon have set a precedent. For both countries, issuing blue bonds was a no brainer. In the case of Seychelles, marine resources are critical to its economy. After tourism, fisheries is the second most important sector, contributing 20 percent of the gross domestic product and employing 17 percent of the population. Fish products account for about 95 percent of the total value of domestic exports.

Seychelles paved the way for other African nations to undertake blue bonds issuances

As one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, marine conservation is a matter of survival for the archipelagic nation of 115 granite and coral islands. This explains why Seychelles floated a blue bond with proceeds from the 10-year bond going towards the expansion of marine protected areas, improving governance of priority fisheries and the development of the blue economy. The government also set up funds to provide grants and loans to organisations and companies involved in marine conservation. Gabon, on its part, also needs to prioritise protection of its beaches and coastal waters as a matter of urgency. Apart from losing approximately $610m annually to IUU, the country hosts the world’s largest population of leatherback turtles, as much as 30 percent of the global population of the endangered species. It is also home to one of the largest olive ridley turtle rookeries in the Atlantic, and to the Atlantic humpback dolphin, recently classified as critically endangered.

To protect these species from extinction and preserve sustainability of its coastal waters, the country intends to deploy the $163m raised from the blue bond to finance a new marine spatial plan, improve management in current marine protected areas, strengthen enforcement against IUU fishing and support a sustainable blue economy. Tragically for the country, implementation of these measures now hangs in the balance following a coup that ousted long-serving President Ali Bongo just days after the bond issuance. “The experiences of Seychelles and Gabon provide valuable insights and inspiration for other African countries,” says Hardman-Mountford. The continent has 38 coastal states and a number of island states like Cape Verde, Sao Tomé and Principe, Mauritius, Seychelles and the Comoros. Collectively, Africa’s coastal and island states encompass vast ocean territories of an estimated 13 million square kilometres.

Blue bond buoyancy
Going forward, no doubt more African countries will turn to the global financial markets to float blue bonds to finance marine conservation. However, the level of sophistication, excruciating and complex processes, market conditions and other factors, both internal and external, mean that issuing a blue bond is not plain sailing. Currently, for instance, the high interest rates in western capital markets driven by the US Fed’s policy stances defined by extensive tightening cycles means that sovereigns must be ready to bear the burden of high interest rates.

“The success of blue bonds requires meticulous planning, widespread stakeholder engagement and an unwavering commitment to transparency and long-term marine conservation goals,” notes Hardman-Mountford.
For blue bonds, the bar for scrutiny has been raised following Gabon’s debt-for-nature swap issuance and the fact that TNC has faced criticism for using the ‘blue bond’ tag to help refinance more than $1.2bn of debt globally while generating only $400m for conservation. Going forward, regulators and investors are bound to demand more clarity.

Tax challenges at the top

Few challenges are as complex and ever-evolving as taxation, particularly for high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs). What was once considered a straightforward financial consideration has morphed into a multifaceted puzzle of regulations, most notably the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act and the Common Reporting Standard, bringing increased demands for transparency and a heavier compliance burden.

Tax brackets and investment strategies, too, have been made even more intricate by the seismic shifts brought about by Covid-19. In the wake of the pandemic, the financial world witnessed an unprecedented array of economic stimuli, tax code changes and shifts in global trade dynamics. These events, coupled with the perennial complexities of high-net-worth taxation, have thrust savvy investors and finance professionals into a new era of fiscal strategy.

Michael Parets, a partner specialising in private tax at Ernst and Young says: “The direction of travel is one that isn’t likely to change any time soon. It’s becoming increasingly critical for individuals to have a totally transparent view of their tax liabilities and obligations, and that of their families, across all the jurisdictions where tax is payable, as well as having systems in place to monitor any tax changes and their implications.”

Strategic tax allocation
The cornerstone of successful high-net-worth taxation lies partly in strategic asset allocation. By diversifying investments across various asset classes, including equities, bonds, property and cash, individuals can not only optimise their investment portfolios for long-term financial goals but also minimise their tax exposure.

HNWIs are acutely aware of the significance of optimising their available allowances. When weighing the advantages and disadvantages of annual allowances and potential contributions to pensions or stocks and shares ISAs, as well as assessing the merits and drawbacks of utilising carry-forward and capital gains allowances, they not only stand to benefit from potential income tax advantages (in the case of pensions) but also enable tax-free capital gains. Strategies like charitable trusts, donor-advised funds and direct donations not only support charitable causes but also offer appealing opportunities to reduce taxable income.

Estate planning goes beyond passing on assets; it’s about minimising estate taxes. For HNWIs this may involve the creation of trusts, strategic gifting and leveraging lifetime estate and gift tax exemptions to protect family legacies. Chartered Financial Planner Andy Hearne, of Financial Planning Partners (FPP), says: “Often the simplest of measures can be some of the most effective, such as adding to or retaining money held in pensions, which fall outside of a taxable estate, or simply gifting or even spending money. After all, you can’t take it with you.”

In today’s globalised world, many HNWIs have international investments and income sources. Navigating international tax laws, treaties and reporting requirements is essential to avoid pitfalls and maximise opportunities in cross-border taxation. Hearne tells World Finance, however, that this complexity can add risks. “All taxation regimes change and shift regularly, which in turn requires up-to-date expertise in each jurisdiction and regular reviews to ensure that any global tax planning strategy is robust and kept up to date,” he says.

For HNWIs with business interests, selecting the right business structure can have a significant impact on taxation. Whether it’s a private limited company, an LLP, or another structure, each has its own tax advantages. Succession planning should also be a priority to ensure a smooth transition of assets to the next generation.

Tailoring tax
In retirement, managing withdrawals from various accounts becomes paramount for HNWIs. Strategies such as pension drawdown, tax-efficient investments and retirement planning can be employed to minimise tax burdens and maximise the longevity of retirement savings. High-net-worth taxation is not static. Regular review and adaptation of tax strategies are crucial as financial circumstances change and tax laws evolve, ensuring that HNWIs remain compliant with tax regulations.

Hearne concludes: “It’s important to remember that tax planning prudently can add tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds over the years and decades. However, there’s a saying that goes: ‘The tax tail should not wave the investment dog.’ In other words, just because something is tax-efficient does not mean that it is the best route forward. It’s important to understand the pros and cons of a multitude of tax planning strategies before determining which combination would work best, in order to meet short, medium and long-term lifestyle goals, while also retaining financial flexibility for anything unforeseen.”

High-net-worth taxation is a complex and constantly evolving domain that necessitates meticulous attention, strategic planning and adaptability. This is particularly crucial considering that HNWIs make up only a small fraction of the global population while possessing a substantial share of the world’s wealth. According to Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report, the top one percent of wealth holders owned nearly half of the world’s wealth, underscoring the significance of effective tax management in this context.

We need to talk about bank supervision

Bank capital is back in the financial headlines. In late July, US banking regulators, led by the Federal Reserve, announced plans to finalise the so-called Basel 3 reforms (which banks like to call Basel 4, owing to their significant impact). The aim, according to a joint agency proposal, is “to improve the strength and resilience of the banking system” by modifying large capital requirements to better reflect underlying risks, and by applying more transparent and consistent requirements.

The announced proposals are tougher than many expected. They will cover more banks – including some that had benefited from Trump-era concessions – and they will require banks to include unrealised losses from securities in their capital ratios (among other changes). Overall, US regulators expect the most complex banks to increase their capital by 16 percent.

US banking supervisors, led by Fed Vice Chair Michael Barr, clearly have been emboldened by the spate of bank failures that started with the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank this past spring. But though the political mood has changed after that embarrassing episode, there is still fierce opposition to the new regulations. Recently, David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, warned that the “new capital rules have gone too far, they will hurt economic growth without materially enhancing safety and soundness.” Likewise, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon believes they will increase the cost of credit, potentially making banks uninvestable.

One can find even more blood-curdling forecasts on the Bank Policy Institute’s ‘Stop Basel Endgame’ website, which warns of “real consequences for families and small businesses across the country.” Clearly, the proposed rule changes have become a political battle. Nor is this solely an American issue. The Bank of England has also issued rather tough proposals – though British banks have eschewed high-flown rhetoric in responding. When American bankers say, ‘these proposals will end human life as we know it,’ English bankers merely admit to being a little concerned.

The debate will play out differently in different places over the next few months. In a recent working paper, Good Supervision: Lessons from the Field, the International Monetary Fund points out that capital ratios are currently higher in European banks than in American ones. That may partially explain why the European Union’s Basel 3 implementation plans do not envisage increases on the scale proposed in the US.

But more to the point, the IMF authors conclude that the recent bank failures do not have their roots in capital weakness. As the Swiss National Bank noted during the collapse of Credit Suisse, “meeting capital requirements is necessary but not sufficient to ensure market confidence.” The salient problem was that investors lacked confidence in the bank’s business model, and that depositors were withdrawing funds at a rapid rate. A lack of liquidity, rather than a capital shortage, was the straw that broke that camel’s back.

Similarly, US authorities’ reports on this year’s bank failures concluded that risky business strategies, compounded by weak liquidity and inadequate risk management, lay at the heart of the problem. But though supervisors had identified many of these problems, they “didn’t insist or require the banks to respond more prudently while there was time to do so,” the IMF authors explain.

Supervising the supervisors
Taking banking supervisors’ recent reviews as their starting point, the IMF authors draw broader lessons from the post-financial-crisis reforms and their differential implementation across jurisdictions. Notably, an absolute shortage of capital does not feature prominently among the weaknesses they identify, though they do argue that some countries use the Basel minimum requirements as a ‘one size fits all’ rule, thus failing to account for differential risks. There has been little use of the ‘Pillar 2’ process, whereby regulators can require additional capital if they determine that risk management is weak.

The IMF authors see far bigger problems in the lack of skilled staff in many places, and in the pressure regulators feel to make politically expedient, rather than prudent, decisions. For example, some supervisors pay little attention to corporate governance and business models, partly because they lack the tools and authority to do so. But supervisors also have failed to help themselves by under-allocating resources for oversight of small firms, and by following poor internal decision-making processes. The IMF’s overall conclusion is that regulation, in the sense of capital or liquidity rules, “is rarely, if ever, enough.” Far more pertinent is the quality of supervision, and of the supervisors themselves.

It is an important message, and one that central banks and bank regulators around the world should take to heart as the debate over capital requirements heats up again. Experience shows that marginal increases in capital ratios, or a touch of inflation in risk-weighted-asset calculations, may have far less impact than low-cost programmes to upgrade supervision. We need a cultural shift to embolden supervisors to act on their concerns. Earlier interventions, using tools and powers supervisors already have, could have helped avert some of this year’s unfortunate bank failures.

Is it time for a coffee cartel?

Coffee prices have soared in recent years, owing to unfavourable weather conditions and supply shortages in major producing countries like Brazil, India, and Vietnam. But even if consumers are paying more for their daily cup, coffee farmers are seeing little of the gain, because they lack sufficient bargaining power.

Since the 1950s, coffee has been among the world’s most-traded commodities – at one point, it ranked second, behind only oil – and many governments regard it as a strategic good. But not all coffee trade is created equal.

Countries in the Global South export low-value-added unprocessed coffee – raw beans and dried and seedless coffee – with Brazil, Colombia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Ethiopia controlling a combined market share of about 70 percent. Countries in the Global North dominate exports of higher value-added processed coffee – such as roasted beans and instant coffee – with Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France, and the Netherlands accounting for 70 percent of the market. Moreover, the coffee sector is dominated by just three developed-country firms – Nestlé, Starbucks, and JDE Peet – which together account for 77.7 percent of the total revenues of the sector’s 10 biggest players.

Prices of processed coffee dwarf those of unprocessed coffee: $14.30 per kilogram on average versus just $2.40. In fact, coffee producers in the Global South claim a small and declining share of the market’s value. Whereas in 1992, producer-country exports captured one-third of the value of the coffee market, by 2002, they captured less than 10 percent. Coffee farmers themselves get one percent or less of the final retail price of a cup of coffee, and about six percent of the price charged for a package of coffee sold to consumers in the Global North.

One for the bean counters
The obvious solution would be for coffee producers in the Global South to develop processing capabilities, in order to increase their exports’ value-added. But there are formidable barriers to progress on this front, beginning with the high tariffs developed countries impose on processed-coffee imports – 7.5 to nine percent in the European Union, 10–15 percent in the United States, and 20 percent in Japan. Unprocessed coffee is not subject to tariffs.

The coffee sector is dominated by just three developed-country firms – Nestlé, Starbucks, and JDE Peet

While developing economies also impose tariffs, they tend to be more symmetric across processed and unprocessed coffee. In Brazil, for example, both types of imports are subject to a 10 percent tariff. So, while developed-country-led multilateral banks and research organisations advise developing countries to increase their exports’ value-added, developed countries’ trade policies are discouraging them from doing so.

With developed-country governments apparently unwilling to change their tariff regimes, developing-country governments must rely on financial incentives to counteract them. For example, they can subsidise processed-coffee exports, and impose export tariffs on unprocessed coffee. Malaysia did something similar with palm oil: after the UK imposed high tariffs on processed palm-oil imports, Malaysia lowered taxes on processed palm oil and introduced an export tax on crude palm-oil exports.

Would-be exporters of processed coffee in the Global South also face non-tariff or technical barriers, such as sanitary and phytosanitary rules. These are, of course, entirely justifiable. Overcoming them will require the Southern exporters to invest in building technological capabilities and developing planting and processing approaches that meet international safety, environmental, and social standards.

Exporters in the Global South could even go so far as to produce and export branded coffees that are sold directly to consumers in the North. Branding and marketing is, after all, the highest value-added segment. The problem is that entry barriers in consumer markets are very high, and it takes considerable resources – and a significant risk appetite – to build up a new brand.

One way firms could circumvent some of these barriers would be to acquire existing brands. This is another lesson from Malaysia, which executed a hostile takeover of British palm oil firms in the London Stock Exchange. In fact, this kind of international acquisition has served as a useful catch-up strategy for a number of latecomers, not least China.

Collaborating for coffee control
Producers in the Global South have another option: they can create an OPEC-style coffee ‘cartel,’ which would have far more bargaining power on prices and tariffs vis-à-vis the Global North. While this solution may appear radical, it is feasible, given that the Global South’s top ten coffee producers command nearly 90 percent of the market. It is also justifiable, as the supply-side oligopoly that a cartel represents would be intended specifically to confront an existing demand-side (roaster) oligopoly.

First, however, the coffee sector in the Global South would have to be consolidated, with small firms being combined through mergers and acquisitions. The new large companies could work together with public research institutions to upgrade the quality of the coffee being exported and to change the value distribution. For example, the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia could work with the Colombian freeze-dried coffee producer Buencafe. The Malaysian Palm Oil Board could serve as a model here.

Of course, asymmetries in the global coffee market could be addressed in multilateral fora, such as the United Nations or the G20. But as long as developed countries actively impede their developing-country counterparts’ ability to make money from the coffee they produce, Southern producers have little choice but to take matters into their own hands. Tariffs and subsidies, hostile take-overs, and even the formation of a coffee cartel should all be on the table.

The sun is setting on Saudi oil

In Al-Ula is ancient Hegra, once a prominent trading centre of the Nabateans and now home to a set of 111 tombs intricately carved into the imposing sandstone rock faces lying at the base of the basalt plateau. Rising out of the desert over a thousand kilometres away is Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital and main financial hub. Pre-1938, before oil was first struck in the country, the kingdom was a largely nomadic nation relying on tourism for its income. Its oil and natural gas revenues have turned it into a hugely wealthy country, with a 2017 Forbes profile stating that “its petroleum sector accounts for roughly 87 percent of budget revenues, 42 percent of GDP, and 90 percent of export earnings.”

Its transformation in a relatively short space of time now means that Saudi Arabia has the largest number of millionaires in MENA according to Credit Suisse’s 2022 global wealth report. The stratospheric rise of a nation has come with several consequences. The first and perhaps most important is that there is a huge gap in terms of education, skills and training of Saudi nationals.

Historically the kingdom has relied on foreign workers for skilled and menial labour and the ‘Saudisation’ of the country has been a long-term project going back well over 60 years, with the aim of getting Saudis employed in the private sector. In Madawi Al-Rasheed’s A History of Saudi Arabia, she writes, “A shortage of local candidates for highly skilled jobs together with the reluctance of Saudis to engage in menial work meant that the country remained dependent on Western expertise for specialised industries and Asian labour for construction and other unskilled and menial jobs.”

We don’t need no education
According to McKinsey, the public sector “employs more than two-thirds of all Saudi workers” and these jobs are generally better paid than the private sector. Startlingly, they also don’t seem to involve much work. Civil service minister Khaled Alaraj, speaking at a roundtable in 2015 said: “The amount worked doesn’t even exceed an hour – and that’s based on studies.”

The truth seems to be that the majority of Saudis don’t need to work particularly hard to live well and that is, for many onlookers – especially those in relatively impoverished nations – an enviable position to be in. So what if there is a skills gap? Until now, foreigners have filled that gap and for several decades that arrangement has worked out well for the kingdom (if not always for those it employs).

It seems unrealistic to suggest that in seven years Saudi Arabia will have freed itself from oil dependency entirely

Well, it becomes a problem if the source of the country’s wealth, oil production, suddenly takes a massive, unexpected hit. The pandemic was painful for oil-rich nations. Many will remember the oil industry going into freefall in 2020 as lockdowns came into place and transport effectively ground to a halt. The fallout from this was immediate for the kingdom. In May 2020, Bloomberg reported “a record $27bn monthly drop in the Saudi central bank’s net foreign assets” caused by the oil crash. Saudi Arabia’s finance minister, Mohammed Al-Jadaan, reacted to these events, saying “it’s very important that we take very tough and strong measures, and they might be painful, but they’re necessary.”

Fortunately, the world’s largest oil exporter had sufficient fiscal reserves to weather the Covid storm, and the recovery has been nothing if not stellar, with an IMF report declaring Saudi Arabia “the fastest growing G20 economy in 2022” on the back of oil’s recovery and strong non-oil GDP growth.

Under pressure
There is now another challenge on the horizon that will likely signal the eventual end to the flow of oil and to the flow of wealth that has sustained the steady development of towering desert skyscrapers. And this one might prove a little more difficult to navigate.

The world has woken up to climate change and the global effort needed to counteract it will mean the gradual phasing out of fossil fuels as we transition to more sustainable and green alternatives (see Fig 1).

According to OPEC, Saudi Arabia possesses around 17 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and in a world where these reserves are no longer needed, the kingdom’s current world standing would be severely diminished. How Saudi Arabia manages the transition will determine what happens next. On the face of it, not much has changed. Oil is still running the country.

And that’s a problem. Production in August 2023 was at nine million barrels a day, down from 11 in September 2022, which has driven Brent crude to $95 a barrel. According to a report by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, the Saudi economy, “including the non-oil private sector, still relies heavily on government spending that is fueled by oil revenues.” It is something of a paradox. The kingdom needs its oil money to help pay for its net zero pathway. Saudi Arabia’s answer to this wider global shift in energy policy is in its national transformation programme, Vision 2030.

This is split into several different programmes and mega projects aimed at addressing its historical labour issues and to help grow and diversify the Saudi economy, including several green projects. According to the US International Trade Administration “by 2030 Saudi Arabia plans to generate 50 percent of its electricity from renewables and the other half from gas,” and while this is a laudable goal, it seems unrealistic to suggest that in seven years the kingdom will have freed itself from oil dependency entirely.

Only time will tell
But time is the critical factor here. A study by the University of Manchester concluded that high-capacity countries such as Saudi Arabia would need to cut production 43 percent by 2030 and end production by 2039 to remain in line with Paris climate targets.

Saudi Arabia does not need to look far for inspiration. Going back to Hegra, there is plentiful evidence that the Nabateans were a mightily resourceful and innovative people. Dotted around their tombs are the water wells they dug – many of them still in use today. It proves that our histories need not be cautionary tales; they can be monuments to what we leave behind. Civilisations will always rise and fall, but our future prosperity is measured by our actions.

IMF reckoning on fallout with rogue nations

Africa and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have for years been strange bedfellows. In times of economic bliss, the continent often tends to deal with the IMF at an arm’s length. Yet when the tides turn and economies take severe beatings, a majority of African countries turn up at Washington DC with a bowl in their hands, begging. This offers the opportune moment for the Bretton Woods institution to demand ‘structural reforms.’ For most African governments, there is often no escape route.

Over the past two years, this has been the reality playing out in Africa. With the economies of African countries like Egypt, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Tunisia and Nigeria among others ravaged by debts, impacts of Covid-19 and external shocks including the Russia-Ukraine war, the continent has witnessed a forceful return of the IMF. As a tradition, the multi-lender has come bearing a basket of conditions for bailouts and other forms of financing. In effect, this has evoked the memories of the 1980s and early 1990s when structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) left a bitter taste in the mouth of African countries.

“The IMF is a firefighter. When you call the firefighter, you should not expect them to provide any meaningful help with structural problems caused by a fire,” says Ken Opalo, Associate Professor at the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service. He adds that, largely, the current relationship between African governments and the IMF is fundamentally different compared to the crises of the 1980s and 1990s. However, the common denominator between then and now is that African nations are in desperate need of finances from the IMF’s deep purses owing to prolonged economic crises.

Currently, a majority of African countries are going through a state of economic turmoil. In fact, the IMF reckons in its regional economic report released in October that, for sub-Saharan Africa, 2023 has been a difficult year. Owing to inflation, exchange rate pressures and elevated debt vulnerabilities, gross domestic product (GDP) growth is expected to fall for the second year in a row to 3.3 percent from 4 percent last year. Though a rebound is forecast next year to 4 percent, this is not guaranteed. “A slowdown in reform efforts, a rise in political instability within the region, or external downside risks could undermine growth,” states the IMF in the report.

Putting out fires
The forceful return of the IMF to put out economic fires across Africa has been in the making in recent years. In Egypt, massive borrowing by the President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi regime to fund extravagant mega projects has sunk the country into a debt abyss. External debt, according to the Central Bank of Egypt, currently stands at $157.8bn. Apart from debt, the country is also struggling with foreign exchange shortage at a time when the Russia-Ukraine war has pushed commodities and oil prices through the roof. The effect has been a local currency in a state of paralysis and skyrocketing inflation that hit 39.7 percent in August this year compared to six percent in the same month in 2021. Under the worsening economic realities, Egypt has turned to the IMF for a $3bn bailout.

This time the IMF is paying more attention to safeguarding developmental gains

The economic crisis in Egypt is similar across many other African countries. In Zambia, default on external debts amounting to $17.3bn has forced the country to beg for a $1.3bn IMF bailout. In Ghana, severe economic and financial challenges including defaulting on some of its domestic and international debts saw the country turn to the IMF for a $3bn 36-month financing arrangement. Tunisia, on its part, has negotiated for a $1.9bn bailout, while Kenya secured $1bn under its extended credit facility with the Bretton Woods institution.

Maged Mandour, a political analyst and author of the upcoming book Egypt Under El-Sisi, contends that the economic crisis in Egypt, as in most other African nations, is deep and the IMF offers a remedy, albeit with bitter conditions. “The desperate need for bailouts gives the IMF the edge in pushing for structural reforms,” he states. He adds that in the case of Egypt, the IMF cannot afford to bury its head in the sand akin to 2016 when it approved a $12bn loan but opted to ignore the deep control of the economy by the military. “Conditions on the current loan aim to force the government to demilitarise the economy,” he notes.

The fact that the IMF is determined to push reforms in troubled economies is evident. For countries seeking bailouts and emergency financing, the lender has imposed tough conditions and implementation of austerity measures. This means an end to government subsidies on commodities and fuel, increases in taxes for governments to generate more revenues to meet their debt obligations, privatisation of burdensome state companies, a cut down on unnecessary expenditure, layoffs to reduce the public wage bill, adoption of fully flexible exchange rate regimes and enhancing transparency and accountability, among others.

Safeguarding sectors
According to Opalo, unlike the SAPs of the 1980s and 1990s, the IMF has somehow changed and is today more realistic. Considering that African countries and their political and policy processes are also a lot more mature, the IMF understands that the push for structural reforms should not come at the expense of social sectors. “This time the IMF is paying more attention to safeguarding developmental gains made in education, healthcare and other social sectors,” he notes.

The desperate need for bailouts gives the IMF the edge in pushing for structural reforms

For governments, however, the pain of the conditions is unbearable. In the case of Egypt, for instance, the IMF push for an end to the military’s tight control of the economy, a situation that has suffocated the private sector, is causing discomfort. The government is preparing 32 state companies for privatisation, the majority of which are under the control of the military, and has even signed deals worth $1.9bn, but President El-Sisi knows that his continued hold on power is entangled with keeping the military happy. Though the regime has reluctantly agreed to privatise state entities, it is bluntly refusing to implement the condition of further devaluation of the Egyptian pound, not before presidential elections slated for December.

“Egypt is not ready for a radical departure from the current configuration,” avers Mandour. This, to a large extent, explains why the IMF is withholding disbursements agreed under the $3bn bailout. Disbursements under the 46-month programme that was signed in December 2022 are subject to eight reviews. The first was originally scheduled for March but is yet to happen owing to the fact that the IMF is unhappy with the country’s progress in fulfilling the terms of the agreement.

Unbearable terms
Egypt is not the only African nation that is edgy with the IMF conditions. In Tunisia, President Kais Saied has rejected what he termed as ‘diktats’ for the $1.9bn loan package agreed in October 2022.

Despite reeling in a deep debt hole amounting to $36.2bn, which is 77 percent of GDP, Tunisia wants the IMF to review the conditions of the loan. For the country, abolishing food and energy subsidies and making layoffs to cut the public wage bill are bound to instigate unrest. Notably, Tunisia has been bold in standing up to the IMF owing to its unique location that enabled it to reach a financing pact with the European Union aimed at stemming irregular migrations. The country has already secured $135m under the pact. “Tunisia is basically blackmailing the EU to get funds to stop migrants,” says Mandour.

But not all countries are playing hard ball. Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, Angola and The Gambia are among countries that are adhering to the IMF conditions. Kenya, for instance, stands out. The East Africa nation has faithfully implemented IMF conditions for its $1bn financing package. These include abolishing food and fuel subsidies, doubling of value added tax on petroleum products from eight percent to 16 percent and embarking on restructuring of troubled state corporations, among others. Some of the reforms, which have earned Kenya rare praise from the IMF, have ignited protests due to skyrocketing costs of living. “We commend you for what you are doing on your fiscal measures. The country is certainly headed in the right direction,” said Kristalina Georgieva, IMF Managing Director during a visit to Kenya in May.

The love-hate relationship between the IMF and African nations has become one of the critical drivers for the clamour for widespread reforms of the global financial architecture. The continent has been vocal on the fact that the international financial system is overwhelmingly based on a creditor-centred model. In essence, the model often locks out African countries from fair, concessional borrowing. In addition, Africa contends that the system restricts access to affordable capital and is also characterised by ‘conditional’ lending. For the continent, reforms would not only open doors for debt relief but will also unleash floodgates of financing. Currently, Africa’s public debt stock stands at a staggering $1.8trn.

“African governments must manage their finances better even as they push for debt relief and more reasonable evaluations from credit rating agencies to lower their cost of borrowing,” notes Opalo. Failure to adopt prudent management of public resources means the cycle of economic crises is bound to continue. For this reason, the IMF will always be on hand with its bitter pill of structural reforms.

The looming pensions dilemma

Angry Parisians, heaps of uncollected rubbish, clashes with the police. While being a traditional French pastime, demonstrations also carry a symbolic meaning, capturing the zeitgeist of the time. If the May 1968 riots were the product of a bored youth, this spring’s protests over pension reform convey another message that reverberates beyond France: the coming pension crisis. The protests were sparked by the rise of the pension age from 62 to 64, bringing France in line with the European average. The reason, the French government argued, was that the system would collapse if the status quo remained intact.

Anger over the delay of a well-deserved right after decades of toil is rippling across the globe. Pensions are becoming a hot-button issue for governments, not just because they are important for older voters, but also because their allocation is underscored by deeply-held beliefs in social justice and intergenerational solidarity.

Under pressure
Pension systems face a crisis due to a combination of demographic trends, economic conditions and government policies. Populations in developed countries are ageing fast, with rising numbers of retirees putting pressure on pension systems. By 2050, the ratio of pensioners to working-age citizens in the developed world is expected to rise to 1:2 from the current 1:3 (see Fig 1). The pandemic accelerated this trend by pushing older workers to retire. Pension systems in eight of the world’s largest economies will face a staggering shortfall of $400trn by 2050, estimates the World Economic Forum.

Governments have sought to alleviate these pressures, but reforms are at best half-baked solutions and often create new problems. Systems have generally shifted from defined benefit (DB) pension plans, where retirees receive fixed benefits, to defined contribution (DC) plans that tie benefits to contributions. This places responsibility on workers to manage their retirement savings, which increases risks for those lacking financial literacy. Many are not saving enough, creating a vicious cycle that can strain pension system sustainability.

Policymakers hope that pension funds can fill funding gaps through smart investment, but their performance has been marred by market instability. Fifteen years of low interest rates pushed pension funds to turn to risky alternative assets that offer higher returns. Last year, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, one of Canada’s largest funds, was forced to write down the $95m it had invested in FTX, a crypto exchange that went bust. The recent surge in interest rates has improved funding levels, enabling funds to earn hefty returns on bonds. Pension plans controlled by the UK’s Pension Protection Fund reported a surplus of £431bn last spring, compared to a £132bn deficit in 2020. However, higher interest rates have also exposed vulnerabilities in little-known corners of the financial world, such as ‘liability-driven investment,’ a derivative investment strategy used by UK pension funds that sparked a crisis in the government bond market in September 2022.

While policymakers have known for decades that reforms are necessary, progress has been slow. France may be an outlier among its European peers for raising the retirement age too late, but nearly half of OECD members face similar problems; Parisian riots demonstrate why such policies can be politically explosive. The UK government has delayed plans to raise the state pension age, fearing reactions from older voters. Pension reform can also cause generational conflicts, with younger workers fearing that pension systems operate as Ponzi schemes that may collapse before they retire. In the UK, the system’s sustainability is undermined by the ‘triple lock’ rule, which ensures that the state pension increases annually by the highest of price inflation, earnings growth or 2.5 percent; a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the rule has increased annual pension spending by £11bn. “The UK state pension is relatively poor compared to many other countries, so something needs to be done about that,” says Iain Clacher, an expert on pensions at Leeds University Business School, adding: “Longer-term, much more generous limits on private sector accumulation will have to be the solution. With much noise made about annual and lifetime allowances, this will ultimately cap the pension that accrues, and so the state pension will always be a bigger component of someone’s overall retirement income.”

While policymakers have known for decades that reforms are necessary, progress has been slow

Across the Atlantic, many US pension funds struggle to provide retirement benefits, with state pension debt reaching $1.3trn. Last spring, legislators from Illinois and New Jersey requested a federal bailout of their states’ public pension systems. A 2022 study by the insurance company Milliman found that among the country’s 100 biggest public pension plans, one in four were below the 60 percent funding threshold. Critics point out that pension administrators eagerly spend profits from good years, while making over-optimistic economic assumptions about future returns. Although most public retirement systems are not in immediate danger of insolvency, “many need some notable improvements to ensure they aren’t vulnerable to economic downturns or investment risks,” says Jon Moody, Vice President of Research at the Equable Institute, a US think-tank that studies retirement policies, adding: “If there is a sustainability crisis, it will be related to how costs influence decisions related to future benefit values or government programme cuts.”

Others, like Teresa Ghilarducci, a retirement expert at the New School for Social Research, call for a shift to a government-backed social safety net for pensioners. “There is a US retirement crisis, but no pension crisis. The public employees’ pension funds are not the problem, in fact they are part of the reason the crisis is not worse,” says Ghilarducci. “The crisis is nearly half of middle class workers going into retirement without a pension and only the basic Social Security benefit. Millions more elders will be poor in the next 10 years.”

Risky business
Aiming to raise funding levels, governments push pension funds to adopt riskier investment strategies that could contribute to capital formation and economic development. The UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has set out a plan encouraging defined contribution pension plans to invest five percent of their assets in private equity, venture capital and start-ups. The government believes this could boost investment in high-growth companies by £50bn by 2030, while expecting the typical pension to increase by over £1,000 annually. Some experts, however, have raised concerns over transition costs and liquidity. “The types of investments the reforms focus on are by their nature illiquid, whereas DC members can switch their asset allocation just by logging into their provider and changing their fund,” says Clacher.

Critics have also pointed out that the reform fails to push funds to support UK companies. Currently, DC pension funds invest just 0.5 percent of their assets in unlisted UK companies. UK pension and insurance funds reduced their holdings of UK-listed companies to four percent last year from around 50 percent in 2000, while fixed-income holdings grew to 72 percent. If invested in the UK, pension fund assets could increase productivity and wages and eventually generate additional pension contributions, says David Blake, an expert on pensions teaching at City, University of London: “This could have given the UK the highest productivity rates in Europe. Instead, over the last 25 years, pension contributions have been invested in international equities and bonds which have done nothing to improve UK productive investment and productivity. The reforms are an attempt to change this, but they are in danger of being too little too late.” Others point out that investment should be diverted toward firms active in high-growth areas and tackling global challenges, such as climate change. “It’s imperative that the Chancellor allows pension funds to invest only in venture capital (VC) firms that are committed to mitigating the associated risks,” says Thea Messel, co-founder of Unconventional Ventures, a VC firm, adding that investment in start-ups that develop solutions to long-term issues, such as global warming, health and transport, will help pension funds yield steadily high returns over longer periods.

One of the plan’s goals is to build economies of scale by consolidating smaller funds. However, long-term investment has to come from smaller DC schemes, given that private DB schemes are closed to new members and are gradually being offloaded to insurers. “Unless there is a plan to consolidate these schemes, it will be difficult to achieve the scale needed to invest in the big infrastructure investments the government wants to see,” Blake says.

The perils of investing in risky assets became clear in 2021 when the Pennsylvania teachers’ pension fund discovered chronic misreporting of its investment returns, resulting in higher member contributions to fill the gap. The scheme’s funding levels had dropped to just 60 percent due to rising pension benefits and a costly investment programme that included underperforming private equity and high-risk holdings such as loans financing Iraqi oil fields. Another problem is the lack of transparency, as private equity managers often guard their activities as ‘trade secrets.’ In some cases, crucial details are not shared with pension fund officials, many of whom lack financial training, while private equity valuations are often inflated by managers. “The opaqueness around how private equities are valued can contribute to the growth of unfunded liabilities,” says Moody from the Equable Institute, adding: “In cases where they are over-valued, required contribution rates can be set too low, which would result in unfunded liabilities purely because of an error in how the assets are valued.”

Performance is also questionable, despite the hefty fees involved; a 2021 JP Morgan study found that private equity only marginally outperforms stocks. Cases of over-reliance on private equity returns in the US can serve as a cautionary tale for UK pension funds whose previous dalliance with private equity was hampered by similar problems, according to Blake: “Unless the issues of poor transparency, high charges and the difficulties in accessing the true performance of private equity firms are resolved, there is likely to be a repeat of what happened 30 years ago.”

Power and profits: welcome to the mafia

Hailing from Aspromonte, a mountainous region in Southern Italy, Anna Sergi has first-hand experience of the mafia’s devilish appeal. Her latest book Chasing the Mafia is an idiosyncratic travelogue that combines memoir, sociological analysis and investigative journalism. Through anecdotes, personal memories and records of criminal cases, the University of Essex criminologist dissects the inner workings of the most powerful of Italian mafias, the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta, explaining how it spread its tentacles around the world, often with the complicity of banks. From the pristine beaches of Australia to Canada’s snow-covered prairies, Sergi follows the traces of a versatile organisation that is decentralised, globalised and innovative, just like a modern business. Beating it, she explained to World Finance’s Alex Katsomitros, will take a bit more than heavy-handed policing and money thrown at the problem.

What is the ‘ndrangheta?
It started as a brotherhood of so-called ‘honourable men’ that appeared after Italian unification in 1861. Fast forward 100 years and you find an organisation well established in the small villages and cities of southern Calabria, a region suffering from the perception that southern Italy is different. During the ‘Mafia Wars’ in the 1960s and 1970s, the clans needed money, because Calabria was poor. Younger generations started the so-called ‘kidnapping season,’ kidnapping around 160–200 people until the government made it legally difficult to pay ransom. They made a lot of money that was later reinvested, notably in cocaine.

How did they overtake Cosa Nostra?
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra was involved in a bloody war, won by the Corleonesi clan. They were headed by Toto Riina, a psychopath. Sicily was in a state of war, with killings in broad daylight. This was the peak of Cosa Nostra’s power, but also its demise. In 1992, it decided to attack the state, killing judges Falcone and Borsellino and planting bombs in northern Italy. The same year the port of Gioia Tauro was opened where the ‘ndrangheta invested money from kidnappings, moving into the profitable drug trade. The Italian state was going through its own crisis. A corruption scandal erupted that shook the political system. So the state was weak and its few resources were focused on Sicily. Calabria remained in the shadows until 2008 when we had the first ‘ndrangheta report. By then, it had dominated the cocaine trade.

Did its decentralised nature contribute to its success?
Absolutely. Cosa Nostra failed because it centralised everything in the hands of a psychopath. It has a top-down structure where the boss-of-bosses decides everything. The ‘ndrangheta is the opposite. Clans are autonomous. They don’t have to agree on a strategy – that happens only on a need-to-know basis. Coordination structures are not hierarchical, they are about recognising who has more power. Those who do, sometimes come together to solve problems.

Everyone is laundering money through the City, not just Russians.

How do they launder money?
It’s rarely laundered in Calabria, because the authorities are well-versed in discovering that activity. Laundering usually happens in northern Italy or Europe. ‘ndrangheta clans invest in small, cash-intensive businesses like restaurants. Sometimes you see bigger investments through puppet intermediaries that participate in consortia bidding for EU funds.

Is there collusion with banks?
Usually the ‘ndrangheta launders drug money through third-party brokers, other criminal groups that operate as intermediaries: Chinese for Europe and Pakistani or Indonesian for Australia. The second layer of money laundering involves direct engagement with banks; in Europe, Switzerland, the UK, Belgium and any country that allows ‘smurfing’: holding small sums in individual accounts without asking many questions. So European banks are complicit.

When the war in Ukraine started, the City was criticised for laundering Russian money. Is the ‘Italian connection’ big too?
Everyone is laundering money through the City, not just Russians. Why wouldn’t they? It’s easy. There are two types of UK-based financial intermediaries. Individual brokers, usually Italian, who make fake investments or launder money through the legitimate financial system. Alternatively, you have investment in shops or real estate. In one recent case, a clan was laundering money by selling non-existent flats in Calabria to British clients through a London law firm. Usually these deals get discovered when brokers get in trouble for something else.

Have they also started offering their own banking services?
Some clans do, especially clans from the city of Reggio Calabria where they are particularly financially savvy. There is a shift from drugs to more sophisticated activities like banking fraud. They provide fake financial services as loan sharks.

Does the ‘ndrangheta tap into the increasing complexity of the financial system to hide money through its army of financiers, lawyers and accountants?
Absolutely. They have these types of professionals within clans. It’s unbelievable how many lawyers some families have. They have fewer accountants, but sometimes some financial services and tax advisors. They also bribe people, but that’s riskier.

Do governments condone this sort of financial crime?
You can’t control every single transaction. You either have financial efficiency or complete safety. There is a utopia of safety whereby we assume that everything is safe. But in reality there is a threshold of tolerability where certain things are allowed until they become too problematic. In Australia, Italy and Germany, things are getting problematic, because they are expanding into other activities, like manipulation of elections. There is cocaine, but also investment in the legal economy. So what’s the priority? Is it to stop dirty money from entering the financial system? Or catch it after a company has been set up? Usually it’s the second.

Raymond Baker, an authority on financial crime, recently told World Finance that US authorities should try to stop drug money laundering, rather than just trafficking. Would that work with the ‘ndrangheta?
The point of drug trafficking is to make cash. Mafiosi don’t want to live an illegal life. They launder money in ways that evolve into semi-legal activities. Some clans don’t even want to be mafia groups forever. So it should be a priority. But you can’t even stop half of large-scale money laundering. Banks don’t want to do more checks, their clients wouldn’t like it. Do we want more efficient or safer finance? Efficiency always wins.

You mention in the book that the Mafia delegitimises the state’s authority. Does it tap into localism, especially Southern Italian separatism?
Italian mafias have exploited separatist movements, particularly a sentiment that order can only derive from local rather than national authority. But there is no ideology, no will to substitute the state or create an alternative one. They just take advantage of its weaknesses. For Calabrians, the state has many, many faces. It’s not always reliable. Its anti-mafia procedures are often contradictory. The mafia exploits this ambivalence to convince people that they should trust them rather than the state.

So what can governments do? Is economic development the solution?
Economic development alone won’t solve the problem. Mafias are parasites, the more you give them to steal, the more they will steal. What you can do is create economic wealth that translates into social wealth. One problem the mafia faces is recruitment. It’s a matter of alternatives for people. Some NGOs provide alternative paths and that’s disrupting for mafia families. However, employment and education are poor in Calabria. People distrust the government and try to find shortcuts. When those shortcuts become organised, you have mafias. Italy will receive EU funds for post-Covid recovery that could go into ‘levelling up,’ but until we level up education and employment expectations, not much will change. You can’t just send money there and hope that it will solve the problem.

Is the current Italian government doing enough to tackle the problem?
No. Meloni leads a populist far-right movement that is very anti-South. Everything she’s proposing is undermining anti-mafia investigations. They are passing legislation that limits the types of surveillance and financial investigations prosecutors can do. She supports those who believe that there is something wrong with the South, alienating people. Her government makes the mistake that many other politicians made: considering the mafia a cancer that needs to be extirpated, instead of understanding its roots within society. No Italian government has done anything serious against the mafia for at least 15 years.

Will the digitalisation of the economy weaken the ‘ndrangheta?
As Falcone said, the mafia is a human phenomenon that has a beginning and an end. We just don’t know when that end is. Mafias adjust to economic changes. Currently within the ‘ndrangheta there is a tendency to evolve into semi-legal service providers. Today, most ‘ndrangheta families are indistinguishable from other family businesses. What distinguishes organised crime is that it’s not just about profit. It’s about power, control of territory. If you weaken their power, their profit-making capacity will suffer. But I don’t think I will see that in my lifetime.

You are from Calabria. Have you ever felt threatened because of your job?
I have never felt threatened. I have felt being observed, but I know the difference between being observed because of curiosity and as a threat, because my father, a journalist, had received threats. I have felt intimidated in Australia. If you are embedded in the territory, your family is there and you are perceived as a troublemaker, then intimidation will be about people around you and coming from people around you. I don’t think I create problems because I talk about the mafia. They are used to that. I might be perceived as a troublemaker abroad, because I raise public awareness, for example by participating as an expert witness in trials in Australia or Germany. As a Calabrian, I recognise intimidation. But I hope they are too smart to target me.

The difficult art of rebranding

In today’s world of rapidly evolving consumer preferences, businesses typically rebrand every seven to 10 years, although this isn’t always necessary if your branding is strong. At the beginning of October, we saw British financial institution Nationwide undergo its biggest identity overhaul since 1987.

Not all rebrands will be successful, which is why thorough research, planning and understanding of the brand’s audience is essential. In the past year, one of the most noteworthy business rebrands was Elon Musk’s decision to transform Twitter into X, which was met with a wave of criticism. With the backlash Musk and Twitter faced, it begs the question, what is the best way of going about a rebrand? Why does branding matter?

Good branding helps you stand out from the competition, builds an emotional connection with the target audience and creates a consistent brand experience. The success of a business ultimately depends on the quality of its products or services and the effectiveness of its marketing. However, choosing a great business name helps brands gain the recognition needed to succeed.

Six appeal
Rebranding can be a great way to refresh your brand, reposition yourself in the market, or address negative perceptions. However, it’s important to do it right. If you rebrand at the wrong moment or make changes that don’t align with your audience, you can alienate your customers and damage your brand reputation. Here are six things that businesses looking to rebrand should consider.

Thorough research, planning and understanding of the brand’s audience is essential

Background research: In the initial phase of crafting, or re-crafting, a brand identity, research and understanding are vital. This phase includes all of the research you conduct before generating ideas and includes defining and researching your target audience, your competitors and the market. Lean on resources like Google Search, Product Hunt and the Fortune 500 list for name inspiration, and tools like Google Trends and Trend Hunter for more advanced research into brand names and current trends.

Generating ideas: Finding inspiration can be challenging but there are plenty of useful tools available. Businesses may utilise a business name generator or online tools like dictionaries or thesauruses to generate new name ideas. Explore all possibilities and avoid narrow thinking. It’s okay to have a few name ideas in mind before you start, but don’t get stuck on a single idea early on. This can prevent you from exploring other options that may end up being better matches in the long run. Write everything down and shortlist later on. Explore all possible synonyms and related terms to come up with as many ideas as you can. Remember success will be gauged by how well it relates to your market, not you personally.

Brainstorming a list of names: Compile all your ideas and inspirations in one central place for ease of viewing, then, begin the brainstorm. Guidelines such as aiming for 50 name ideas or suggesting names with no more than five syllables can help you discover more usable names. Avoid special characters and word alternatives, such as replacing words with numbers or using common endings like ‘R’ us. Generic brand names should also be avoided as they can be difficult to recall. Keep your brand name ideas flexible. Consider Amazon; their transition from an online bookstore to the broad retailer they are today would have been impossible had they included the word ‘books’ in their name. Owning a single, generic word, like Apple, is also challenging and requires time to establish, trademark, and secure the domain name. Avoid this option unless you have a large budget for domain acquisitions and marketing.

Auditing ideas: A business name should be evaluated holistically, as even seemingly minor flaws can damage a brand. To effectively gauge a name’s suitability, consider the name’s language and cultural connotations to ensure it won’t be misinterpreted. Say it out loud and get an understanding of what it sounds like. Are there any potential mispronunciations? Finally, is it memorable? This can be one of the most important points for ensuring the name resonates with your target audience and sticks in their minds.

Final ideas: At this stage, you should have a shortlist. There are just a few remaining things to check before you make things official. It’s important to check that there are no legal or trademark conflicts, that there is availability in terms of social media, domain names (both local and international) and mobile app name. It is useful to have some good taglines that will work with your brand name. You should also use this time to compare any positives and negatives from the audit between names.

Feedback: Responses comes from a place of personal preference so it should not form the basis of the ultimate decision, but it often brings up valid points that may have been missed, despite the rigorous methods outlined above. Finally, this stage encourages a well-informed decision that isn’t swayed by personal preferences. This should help you decide on the overall name that best fits your brand going forward.

Clearing the air over transition finance

The journey to net zero is proving a hard one. The fine words and ambitious targets of COP conferences are not easy to turn into reality and the changes in government policy, especially in the UK, are making that journey even tougher for many businesses and their investors. Finance is central to meeting this challenge but the major institutional investors have at times looked uncomfortable as they try to match fine statements about helping the world tackle climate change with coherent and consistent investment strategies.

At the heart of this struggle is the concept of transition finance. The words might appear to carry an obvious meaning – using investment funds to support the transition from a fossil fuel dependent, carbon intensive world to a net zero carbon world. If only it was that easy. Defining transition finance has proved far from simple as there are a host of terms and alternative definitions swirling around the whole area of what is loosely referred to as green finance: sustainable finance, climate finance, green finance, impact investments, socially responsible investing all compete for attention, leading to a lack of clarity and making institutional investors an easy target for climate change campaigners, especially those aggressively targeting the big fossil fuel industries centred on coal, oil and gas.

For some institutions the response has been to focus a proportion of new investment into obviously green projects, such as renewable energy. That still leaves them with the challenge of what to do with their massive investments in fossil fuels: that is where transition finance comes in. It is focused on supporting those businesses in their transition journeys.

Carbon cynics
There is, however, a deep cynicism about how carbon-intensive businesses are using money earmarked to support their transition to a greener world. How do investors know that they are not merely replacing money that would have been earmarked for transition projects and are instead diverting it back into fossil fuel projects using the luxury of the new investment for the transition?

Having a transition plan is a great start, but it’s only half the battle

Peter Bosshard, Global Co-ordinator of the Insure Our Future campaign, sums up the doubts about the enthusiasm of the fossil fuel sector to wholeheartedly embrace the transition to a net zero world: “Looking at the fossil fuel industry over the past few decades I don’t think it is impossible for coal, gas and oil industries to transition but we don’t see the will to do it.” He points to the intense lobbying of US federal and state regulators by the fossil fuel giants as an indication of where their priorities lie: “I think we have to accept that they are not engaged in the transition to green energy.”

There are reasons to be more optimistic, says Russ Bowdrey, Executive Director, Climate Research at MSCI Inc, and he says institutional investors have a crucial part to play in turning pledges into reality: “Having a transition plan is a great start, but it’s only half the battle. For change to manifest itself, the plan needs to be followed through and turned into reality. This is where incentives will be key. Executives and decision makers need to be incentivised to make the transition work,” he said.

Bowdrey continued: “At the same time the picture is more nuanced. Institutional investors and underwriters have a role to play in increasing pressure on corporates to ‘do the right thing’ through aligned incentives. What is becoming clearer is that there is a straightforward risk appetite angle to these too which providers of capital and insurance need to approach with eyes wide open.”

The challenge of bringing clarity to this confused debate is vexing practitioners and academics alike. The Centre for Climate Finance and Investment at the Imperial College Business School has tried to pick a way through, defining green finance as “sources of funding to new capital and operating expenditures that generate measurable progress towards the achievement of a well-recognised environmental goal.” Its analysis of the various terms and definitions led the Business School to offer a succinct definition of transition finance: “Transition finance is capital provided to economic agents to achieve a minimum rate of carbon emissions reduction.” This still leaves open the related questions of what might be an acceptable minimum rate of carbon emissions reduction and how you measure the impact of investment in it.

Things are heating up
The first question is the source of intense debate as the impacts of global warming are felt in dramatically changing weather patterns around the world. The ambitious targets that flowed from an agreement to limit global warming to a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase over pre-industrial norms that 196 countries signed up to at COP21 (Conference of the Parties) in Paris in 2015 are coming under increasing pressure. The debate over what that means in terms of achieving net zero carbon emissions and, crucially by when, rages on and will be played out again at future COP meetings. The most widely accepted target date for achieving net zero emissions to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius commitment is 2050 and that is largely what financial institutions are focused on. Climate change campaigners are pressing for a more ambitious timetable. While that is a wider debate that will set the parameters for the finance sector, the issue of measurability and providing a practical framework for transition finance has moved centre stage.

The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) launched, as its name suggests, in Glasgow for COP26 in 2021, has recently initiated a consultation aimed at giving additional substance to a four-point strategy for transition finance it announced last year. Within an overall objective of developing and scaling of climate solutions, this encouraged investors to support the climate transition by allocating capital to solutions, companies and assets aligned with the 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway, or companies and assets with a serious commitment to transition. It also said they could invest in the timely phasing out of highly polluting assets such as coal mines and coal-dependent energy producers.

Now, GFANZ wants to refine those definitions and support financial institutions to forecast the impact of these strategies on reducing emissions with some practical tools. Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England and now GFANZ Co-Chair and UN Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance, set out the ambition behind GFANZ’s latest proposals: “To achieve the largest and most rapid reduction in emissions possible, transition finance must be mobilised – urgently and at scale.

Trillions of dollars are required to bring emissions down and private finance will need to play a central role. We need to be able to track impact by measuring the expected decarbonisation contribution of financing. This consultation links decarbonisation contribution methodologies to the GFANZ financing strategies as a proposed approach to measuring the impact of transition finance over time.”

GFANZ is gathering market feedback, with the expectation that it will be able to influence the debate at COP28 and beyond. It is working on a principles-based approach to segment portfolios by the four key elements of its earlier strategy, backed with greater transparency.

To provide further clarity around transition finance, it is also addressing the issue of measurability of the impact of transition finance through a concept called Expected Emissions Reductions (EER), which it says will allow financial institutions to quantify the ‘emissions return’ of their transition finance activities more effectively.

This has not immediately impressed those looking for the finance sector and its regulators to bring greater confidence to measuring the impact of their investments: “There is a fundamental problem with EER approach in that it is based on an unknowable counter-factual baseline, crucially what is business as usual over the coming decades”, says Paddy McCully, Senior Analyst of Energy Transition at California-based Reclaim Finance.

“Of course lots of educated guesses can be made about this but a counter factual is, and always will be, impossible to know. And because of this there will always be a tendency for BAU projections to assume high emissions, so that the financial institutions can show that their interventions will produce a large gap between business as usual and what actually happens, and so generate lots of EERs,” McCully continued.

There is also fresh, if stuttering, pressure coming from the European Commission, which has issued its own proposals on transition finance, including its own definition: the “financing of climate and environmental improvements to transition to a sustainable economy, at a pace that is compatible with the climate and environmental objectives of the EU.” The Commission’s recommendation clarifies how EU firms can voluntarily use the existing regulatory framework as a means for facilitating transition finance but stopped short of recommending any new rules. These will have to wait until after the European Parliament elections in June 2024 and the arrival of a new Commission next November.

Taking the temperature
In the meantime, institutions will be looking to position portfolios in the expectation of some of these new rules becoming reality in the next few years. Many have turned to the bond markets, where an estimated $2trn has been raised since the European Investment Bank issued the first Climate Awareness Bond in 2007, according to Deloitte. Although green bonds are an important funding source for renewable energy projects, they currently represent less than three percent of global bond market issuances. Within that, bonds focused on transition finance are an almost negligible proportion (see Fig 1). This is where the sort of initiatives being driven by GFANZ come in. It acknowledges there is a huge challenge in unlocking the scale of finance required to achieve significant decarbonisation of the real economy – both through funding clean energy and helping existing businesses genuinely committed to the transition.

Creating consistent definitions that are applicable across markets and sectors will help to scale transition finance to ensure real economy decarbonisation, help financial institutions independently identify their risk exposure and the investment opportunity ahead. They can also serve as safeguards to verify that the reduction of emissions in their portfolios corresponds to actual emissions reductions in the real world, rather than being achieved solely through divestment from high-emitting assets. More money, with greater clarity and measurable impact that can win the trust of investors, governments and climate change pressure groups, is what the world will be watching for as institutional investors are pushed more and more into the net zero spotlight with the scrutiny that brings.

Dubai’s plan for economic growth

Astute observers will have noticed that the Dubai Financial Markets General Index in the UAE is up almost 30 percent in the past 12 months, with volumes rising by nearly a quarter. For comparison, the FTSE 100 has been effectively flat over the same period, the Dow Jones Industrial Average up only 15 percent, the CAC 40 in Paris up less than seven percent, the DE40 Index in Frankfurt also up a mere 15 percent and the JP225 in Tokyo up around 19 percent.

The boom in Dubai is being led by the property sector, where two giant Dubai-based companies, Emaar Properties, owner of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and its subsidiary Emaar Development have seen their shares rise more than 50 percent and more than 70 percent respectively this year. This has spilled over into other sectors such as banking, where Commercial Bank of Dubai, for example, saw its shares up 25 percent year-on-year at one point, and tourism, with shares in Air Arabia, the low-cost airline based in the next-door emirate to Dubai, Sharjah, rising 45 percent from their low a year ago.

The boost to Dubai’s stock market is good news for the current ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, who also serves as prime minister of the UAE. In January this year he unveiled the ‘D33 Agenda,’ which has the ambition of doubling the emirate’s GDP by 2033, the year that will mark exactly two centuries since the emirate’s foundation.

The aims of the D33 Agenda focus on doubling the volume of Dubai’s foreign trade

The D33 Agenda focuses on growth, foreign investment, and trade, to turn Dubai over the next 10 years into a top-three international tourism and business destination, by creating a globally competitive business environment and reducing business costs. The aims of the D33 Agenda focus on doubling the volume of Dubai’s foreign trade, and turning the emirate into a top five global logistics hub and a top four global financial hub and a top three global destination for business and leisure visitors.

Other initiatives include bringing 65,000 young Emiratis into the labour market in promising sectors, and launching an initiative called ‘Sandbox Dubai,’ which will allow the testing and marketing of new products and technologies, to make Dubai a hub for incubating innovations.

Potential investors in the emirate are being wooed with policies such as zero percent income and corporation tax in Dubai’s free zones, and only five percent value-added tax. The emirate is already the largest recipient of foreign direct investment in the Middle East, and is looking for investors and partners from overseas in nine different sectors, from healthcare and pharmaceuticals to trade and logistics, and from finance to aviation – and even interplanetary exploration.

Outperforming larger rivals
Dubai is effectively promised a dynamic property sector thanks to forecast growth in the emirate’s population of 75 percent by 2040. Historically the Dubai property market has easily outperformed bigger rivals, with real estate assets generating 120 percent returns for investors in rents and capital in the 10 years since the global financial crisis of 2008, against 75 percent returns in London and 63 percent in New York.

At the same time Dubai remains one of the cheapest major cities in the world for the wealthy to make a home: in 2022 $1m would buy 105 square metres of luxury property in the emirate, against just 21 in Hong Kong, 33 in New York, 34 in London and Singapore, 44 in Shanghai, 60 in Tokyo and 70 in Berlin.

The recently passed Foreign Direct Investment Law allows foreign ownership in onshore companies up to 100 percent, depending on the industry. Administrative processes have been simplified to allow certain professional service activities to be established online by investors from nearly 120 countries.

Oxford Economics, which promotes itself as the world’s foremost independent economic advisory firm, predicted in October this year that the UAE economy would grow by 4.4 percent in 2024. The firm said growth was being driven by a number of factors, including government initiatives to support economic diversification. Scott Livermore, chief economist at Oxford Economics Middle East, said he expected continued growth in the property market and a strong recovery in travel and tourism, with Dubai surpassing pre-pandemic visitor levels by the first half of 2023. He said he expected a 40 percent increase in international visitors to the UAE this year, driven by the UAE’s National Tourism Strategy ambition to become a major global tourist destination by 2031.

Legacy systems meet cloud technology

Amid the fast-paced evolution of technology, banks have managed to stay current with the ongoing innovations in their field. Transitioning from the era of safes and account books to leveraging data and cloud technology, banks have significantly transformed in terms of their capabilities, assets and services provided to their clients.

In light of this progression, Antony Jenkins, CEO of 10x Banking’s comments referring to banks as ‘museums of technology’ back in June were somewhat surprising. For one thing, his statement does not seem to completely capture the full extent of the digital transformation that banks have undergone despite the challenges of regulation and security concerns. Furthermore, modernising legacy financial systems that have been configured for specific use cases often requires more intricate and meticulous effort than a straightforward or cursory implementation.

If we draw comparisons between banks, especially traditional bricks-and-mortar financial establishments and the systems used by Transport for London (TfL), we can find common ground. The infrastructure of TfL, with its Victorian-era tunnels and inherited rolling stock, could be seen as a ‘transportation museum.’

However, TfL has been consistently modernising, incorporating advanced technology such as tap-in / tap-out ticketing, the development of the Elizabeth Line, and the ongoing renewal and replacement of rolling stock – all of which have helped TfL prepare for today’s commuters and travellers. Much like banks, TfL is merging old and new technology, enabling the organisation to adapt and evolve to effectively cater to the changing demands of its contemporary customers.

In the case of banks, especially those with large legacy IT systems, the question of whether all systems need a technology update is equally as complex as updating transport systems. This is due to the banking sector’s frequent changes in products and services, along with the need to comply with constantly evolving regulations. Consequently, enhancing the IT infrastructure in the banking sector is a continuous process, driven by changing needs but perhaps bolstered by a new wave of fintech that can evolve both business and customer experiences.

Nonetheless, the transformation of banks in the past decade or so has demonstrated that traditional IT systems can exist alongside state-of-the-art cloud technology, delivering sturdy and adaptable solutions for digital and mobile banking as well as data analysis.

Ready for an upgrade
Banks aiming to modernise digitally should take a measured approach, focusing on business needs, cost-efficiency, and new revenue opportunities. The primary focus of digital modernisation should be to address the business needs of the bank. This could include improving customer service, streamlining operations or enhancing security measures. While addressing these things is important, so is the fact that updating legacy systems is a costly endeavour. Banks need to ensure that works are necessary and there will be a significant return on investment when integrating new technologies into their systems. Some examples of these returns could be increased savings from more efficient processes or the ability to offer new services that generate additional revenue.

Retiring legacy systems and migrating to more modern platforms, such as the cloud, can provide numerous benefits for businesses. These benefits extend beyond simply upgrading technology; they can also lead to significant improvements in efficiency, cost savings and customer service.

However, the process of assessing and migrating thousands of systems is not a trivial task. Adopting technology for its own sake is rarely advised. It should be carefully considered and may only become strictly necessary when the cost of maintaining legacy systems outweighs the benefits of keeping them. This requires time and resources to understand the impact of outdated technology on business operations. Without this thorough evaluation, businesses risk increasing costs due to potential inefficiencies or compatibility issues that may arise during the migration process.

Moreover, a direct ‘lift-and-shift’ migration to the cloud without re-architecting or optimising the applications can result in missed opportunities. Re-architecting involves modifying the application to better suit the cloud environment, which can lead to major efficiency gains and improved customer service. Similarly, optimisations during the migration process can help businesses take full advantage of cloud-native capabilities, such as scalability and elasticity.

While retiring legacy systems and migrating to the cloud can offer substantial benefits, it’s crucial for businesses to conduct a comprehensive assessment of their existing systems and plan their migration strategy carefully. This will help them avoid potential pitfalls and ensure they fully leverage the advantages of modern cloud technology. Banks can, and will, tap into new innovations and technologies. However, digital transformation in banking needs a well-considered strategy accounting for regulations, business priorities and customer needs.

The metaphor of banks as ‘museums of technology’ tends to downplay the complexity and restrictiveness of legacy systems that banks must navigate daily. Upgrading these systems presents complications that require due consideration to overcome, and which guarantee that the final result will be appreciated.