22nd August 1999
Bank's new CEO, Rohini Nanayakkara begins her day with a huge dose of oxygen.
She needs it before she goes into her 19th floor office in the bank's new
highrise, the Millenium Towers to battle out bad bottom lines. There was
a flutter in the banking industry and investing public when Lalith Kotelawala
hired her to run his bank, last October. How has the iron lady of banking
fared so far and what are her plans to turn the bank around? See The
iron lady begins mopping up operations Picture by
By Mel Gunasekera
It was the deal of the week. After two months of discussion, the proposed buy- out of Forbes & Walker Ltd. (FWL) by the company's senior management and Mercantile Merchant Bank Ltd. (MMBL) went ahead last week.
The acquisition will be finalised after the share sales agreement is signed next week and with a due diligence exercise to follow, company officials said.
Vanik Inc. came out a winner in this deal pocketing Rs. 625 mn in the process. On successful completion, the senior management of FWL would own 26% of the shares of FWL.
While market speculation was rife that MMBL paid a stiff price, MMBL Chairman, Milinda Moragoda described it "as a good bargain." He said, the buy-out will be funded by MMBL, an institutional and an individual investor.
MMBL was keen on investing in the plantation sector as they missed the bus earlier, Morogoda said.
"This was our chance, with the plantation values going low we got another chance of getting into it. We looked at Forbes earlier when the Ondaatji Corporation was selling it off. But decided against it." MMBL will now become the largest tea broker and the largest rubber broker in Sri Lanka. There will be no merger between Mercantile Produce Brokers (Pvt.) Ltd., (which controls 9% market share), and Forbes and Walker Tea Brokers (Pvt.) Ltd., (21% market share).
Both companies would be run as separate entities, each having its own strengths, MMBL official Nouzab Fareed. The acquisition will provide MMBL with total integration in the sector, creating further opportunities for the group in the future - a move which the management Forbes & Walker is fully supportive, he said.
Analysts saw Vanik's disposal of its plantations as a timely move in the context of the short term downward pressure exerted on the Group's profitability by its involvement in this sector. Vanik made a Rs. 50 mn capital gain out of the deal, a senior analyst said.
Vanik won a bitter battle with rival investment banker Asia Capital to buy Forbes in October 1997 for Rs. 105 mn.
"Circumstances have changed and the most important thing for a merchant banker is not to have sentiment to its business activities other than those that are his core business," Vanik Chief, Justin Meegoda commenting on why he sold part of a company he fought tooth and nail for. "Plantations was not a core area for us. However, I am still optimistic about the plantations and will still give medium term profits. Now upward potential is there," he said.
He declined to comment as to what he would do with the Rs. 625 mn, but analyst say he may use the money to retire part of Vanik's Rs. 4 bn debt. Meegoda said he would continue his acquisition streak. "We are a merchant bank and if we see a good opportunity we will go for it."
However, Vanik will continue to own and be involved in the other companies that became part of the Vanik Group with its acquisition of Forbes Ceylon and Forbes & Walker in October 1997.
These companies represent sectors in which Vanik wishes to be involved in the medium and long term, and they do not, at present, have a significant impact on the Group's cash flows and profitability.
Depite the re-structuring, 33% of Forbes Plantations Ltd. would continue to be owned by Tea Plantation Investment Trust Plc UK.
One of the conditions attached to this sale would be the necessary approvals being obtained from Tea Plantations Investment Trust and the golden shareholder of Kahawatte Plantations Ltd. for the transfer of 66% of Forbes Plantation Ltd. from Forbes Ceylon Ltd. (the existing shareholder) to Forbes & Walker Ltd. Meanwhile, Vanik announced on Friday that two million 15% Vanik debentures and 2 mn Vanik ordinary shares which are presently held by F&W Ltd. will not form part of the assets of FWL for the purpose of the proposed sale.
A probable merger might make NTT the majority stake holder in the local communications industry.
International news wires reported last week that Telekom Malaysia, MTN's (Dialog) parent company, might be in possible talks with Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp (NTT) to create a strategic alliance.
Telekom Chief Executive, Mohamed Said Mohamed Ali was quoted during a conference call last week saying that Telekom was not involved in any deals yet, but had also said "where there is smoke, there is fire."
If this deal goes through NTT will acquire a 20 per cent stake of the estimated 75 per cent held by the Malaysian government in Telekom.
NTT at present holds a 35 per cent in Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) who in turn have a stake in Mobitel Ltd., one of the four cellular operators in Sri Lanka. This particular deal will give NTT a stake in MTN through Telekom making NTT a majority stake holder in the local Telecommunications industry.
NTT is also one of the two companies short listed to purchase the 10 .5 per cent stake in SLT. This would make NTT, presently managing SLT the majority stake holder in Sri Lanka's dominant carrier. The Public Enterprises Reform Committee (PERC) is expected to give its decision on this matter by month end. (SF)
Parliament amended the National Development Bank (NDB) Act last Thursday paving the way for the Bank to venture into the housing finance business.
NDB will tie up with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and India's giant Housing and Finance Development Corporation (HDFC). A new company, NDB Housing Ltd. has already been floated and the company is expected to commence operations in a few months, NDB General Manager, Ranjith Fernando said.
While NDB will hold the controlling stake of the Rs. 600 mn company, IFC and HDFC will hold a 15% stake each, he said. HDFC, considered a model housing finance venture in Asia, will provide the technical expertise to the new company.
At present, NDB provides funding for large-scale housing projects and supporting condominium builders. However, the Bank has been prevented from lending at retail level to individuals due to legal impediments. NDB recently ventured into the insurance business by tying up with Zurich Financial Services Ltd.
The bank has a strong presence either directly or through strategic alliances in venture capital, leasing, stock broking, fund management, unit trust, and investment banking. In 1998, NDB recorded a post-tax profit of Rs. 774 mn, compared to Rs. 738 mn in 1997.
Group after-tax profits increased from Rs. 759 mn to Rs. 828 mn last year. The Bank's income had increased from Rs. 3.5 billion to Rs. 3.9 billion while Group income topped Rs. 4 billion from Rs. 3.5 billion in 1997.
NDB was set up as a wholly state-owned institution by an Act of Parliament in 1979. Following a change in ownership structure in 1993, 61% of the Bank's share capital was transferred to private ownership.
In 1997 the Bank was privatised further by the early conversion of its convertible debentures and the disposal of the resulting shares. This reduced the direct government stake to 12.2% thereafter a further 2.56% was allocated for the Employee Share Option Scheme. Despite being a quoted company, the Bank continues to function under its original statute, as amended. (MG)
By Tharuka Dissanaike
Serendib Touring, a pioneer hotel management company, was reborn as Serendib Leisure last week. A complete corporate overhaul preceded the name and identity change of the 20-year-old company. Founder Chairman Asker Moosajee retired into a non-executive role and Abbas Esufally, MD HEMTOURS took over as Managing Director last April. Srilal Mitthapala has been appointed to the newly created CEO slot of Serendib Leisure, which launched its new logo and branding in the press last week.
The controlling interest in the parent company Serendib Hotels Ltd. was bought by Leisure Asia Investments Ltd., a conglomerate headed by the giant Hemas group.
Chairman of Leisure Asia Investments, Chandra Wijenaike will continue as Chairman Serendib Hotels Ltd. Asker Moosajee, one time Chairman of the Ceylon Tourist Board and a veteran in the travel trade, sold his 43 % stake in Serendib Hotels to Leisure Asia Investments five years ago.
Serendib Leisure will focus entirely on hotel management and marketing. The company already manages four hotel properties and recently took over the marketing of TASKS SAFARI KAMP at Thanamalwila. Hotel Serendib, Hotel Reefcomber, Club Hotel Dolphin and Hotel Sigiriya come within the company's portfolio.
The Central Bank has painted a pic- ture of optimism about Sri Lanka's economic performance in the second half of this year. According to Central Bank sources the economy is likely to grow by 4 per cent in the second half.
This optimistic expectation is based on an increase in exports in June, an increasing trend in industrial production and a growth in tourist arrivals.
Exports increased by 10 per cent in June, whereas exports actually declined by 9 per cent in the first five months. The Industrial Production Index, we are told, has also registered an increase.
Tourist earnings are likely to improve this year with a significant increase in the number of tourists. Tea prices may take an upturn. There is also reason to think that paddy and food production would be much better this year.
Let us first take stock of what actually happened in the first half of this year. Export performance was dismal. Exports in the first half was actually 9 per cent less than last year. This was mainly due to a massive 21 per cent decline in agricultural exports caused by a sharp decrease in tea prices.
Industrial exports too declined by 5.6 per cent. Given this scenario in the first half of this year, could we expect a reversal in performance and our final out-turn in export performance to be good ?
The Central Bank has cited the increase in exports of June as an indicator of a reversal of the trend in the first five months. Besides this, they have cited an improvement in the Industrial Production Index.
However, the fact that intermediate and investment goods imports have declined in the first six months, is not an encouraging sign for an expectation of increased industrial exports.
We are also unaware of the reason for the sudden improvement in exports in June.
Despite the sharp decrease in agricultural export incomes by 21 per cent in the first half of this year, there is hope for a recovery in agricultural exports. We base this on the fact that our export agricultural crops have shown an increase in production and tea and rubber prices are expected to rise somewhat.
While the main causes for the dip in tea prices was the increased global production of tea and dislocation of markets, our success in negotiating a sale of tea to Iraq and possible improvements in Russian demand may lead to an improvement in prices.
The slight economic recovery in East Asia and increased international prices owing to an appreciation of their currencies are likely to lead to an upturn in rubber prices.
In the first six months, tea production increased by a further 5 per cent, rubber production by over 6 per cent and coconut production by 3 per cent. If prices of these commodities rise our agricultural exports should record increases.
The other favourable development has been the increase in tourist arrivals by 23 per cent in the first half. If the trend continues the country is likely to register over 400,000 tourists this year.
Fears of the Y2K problem in Western Countries it appears will bring a surge of tourists to Sri Lanka at the end of this year. Tourist earnings are therefore likely to record a high growth.
Meanwhile our foreign exchange reserves have been tumbling down. At the end of 1997 our external reserves were US$ 3132 million. By end 1998 it declined to US$ 2907 million. At the end of May this year, reserves had declined further to US$ 2731.
These reserves may be adequate to import 5 months of projected imports and there may be no cause for alarm. Yet our foreign exchange reserves have reached the lowest since 1994.
This declining trend is symptomatic of fundamental weaknesses of our economy and our trading vulnerability. We must recognise this and act.
No doubt the business community would hope that the Central Bank's optimism about the second half of this year will materialise. But optimism alone would not help. Action like the recent decrease in the statutory reserve requirements for commercial banks from 12 per cent to 11 per cent could spur economic activity.
Commercial banks would have to respond quickly with reduced lending rates for it to be effective.
Other measures too may be necessary to give a boost to an economy which has lost its momentum recently.
By Mel Gunasekera
It is annoying to have your credit card stolen, but to have it swiped by the thief is a nightmare. The invasion of the credit snatchers is terrifying.
Now thieves don't just steal your credit cards, they steal your whole credit identity.
Armed with your ID and your spotless credit, they can apply for and use dozens of credit cards. And they can stay at it for weeks, because you don't get the bills for awhile.
The new credit bandits come in two varieties, both equally lethal. Amateurs will swipe your credit ID because their own has dried up. Using your good name, they go on a buying spree. The damage could be deadly.
Credit card frauds are every banker's/merchants nightmare. Last year alone frauds accounted for around US$ 3 trillion worldwide.
Sri Lanka on the other hand reported US$ 90,000 worth of frauds over the past year. If you think the figure was somewhat staggering, consider this.
Fraud accounts for Rs. 0.65 for every Rs. 100 transacted in Sri Lanka-that's one of the lowest in the Asia Pacific region, according to Visa International officials.
Fraud accounts for US$ 0.12 for every US$ 100 transacted in the Asia Pacific region while US$ 0.24 for every US$ 100 is lost worldwide, says Ronnie Daniel Frederick, Visa International Director (Asia Pacific Region).
Sri Lanka's fraud numbers may seem smaller due to fewer cardholders. "This is not so," says Cyril Mundy, Manager Card Centre, Hongkong Bank.
The ratio is low, as all banks take a very singular approach towards it by working very closely with the merchants and the police, he said.
With ten players (nine banks and one financial institution) in the field, the industry reports 120,000 cardholders todate with an annual 40 per cent growth over the past year.
Sri Lankan's on average spend around Rs. 5 bn a year using credit cards, says Mundy.
However, having one of the lowest card fraud rates is nothing to crow about, Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officials say.
Only a very limited number of plastic card frauds are reported to the police.
Perhaps it is due to the fact that such criminal acts are not reported to protect the credibility of the financial institution, says T Anandaraja, Senior DIG (Rangers).
"This is not a healthy situation and such crimes will help the criminals to go ahead and continue undetected. May be not against the same establishment but against another," he said addressing a training programme conducted by Sri Lanka Security and Risk Management Taskforce in association with Visa International.
If a merchant has been found to committing a fraud we take him out and the other banks don't deal with him either, and we also put a list out on bad customers and merchants which is updated monthly, President of the Taskforce, M D Amarasiri said.
There is also the problem of internal staff, says Mundy. All of us have not ignored it, we have dealt with it very seriously. Staff found to have committed a fraud have been remanded and eventually found guilty, he said.
Sri Lanka has seen a mix trend in card frauds, with a mixture of high value and low value frauds being reported. In most instances, it's a case of lost and stolen cards being used by unauthorised people, says Amarasiri.
The trend is a bit different in the Asia Pacific region. Simple cardholder carelessness accounts 50 per cent, while counterfeiting causes 20 per cent of the problem, Frederick said.
Credit card crime in general is an Asian based problem. The onset is probably Asian based but its not to say that other nationalities do not get involved in fraud.
When people talk about credit card frauds in general they mean Asians, by all means you do get the Russians and the Nigerians we are not only talking about Sri Lankans. In fact the first card fraud we uncovered was by a Malaysian Chinese group, he said.
Most of the counterfeit cards detected in Sri Lanka have come from abroad. Recently there was a case of counterfeit Canadian credit cards being circulated in Colombo. The users were Sri Lankans domiciled in Canada. The two Canadian banks that were being defrauded alerted the local authorities here and they were arrested within two days.
Supermarkets, jewellery shops and restaurants are some of the places counterfeiters love to patronise. The taskforce alerts members, the police and the merchants whenever they are tipped off of any counterfeit cards in circulation. Banks also share information on defaulter through the credit information bureau.
To alert ongoing counterfeit activities as well as to speed up the investigation procedures, all banks recently agreed to gift two computers to the CID.
Visa International has agreed to further equip these computers with a global information software. This will link the CID to Visa international offices throughout the region as well as other law enforcement facilities in Asia Pacific countries.
Card bandits are also having a field day since the advent of the internet. The internet is worldwide and cannot be easily controlled. It is also the only single source of supply of merchandise or service, which doesn't involve identification.
For instance when books are bought on-line, they are delivered to an address. But if someone buys software on the Internet there is no physical evidence to say it came to a particular computer.
In order to combat internet fraud Visa International, Mastercard and other credit organisations are in the process of introducing SET (Secure Electronic Transaction) to ensure safe electronic transactions on the Internet.
SET involves two types of security. It will encrypt the data and will have a method of certifying who is sending and receiving the data.
Electronic transactions are tipped to cost higher if SET is to be introduced, however, pilot studies are being carried out prior to its launch.
Credit card giants are also in the process of bringing in legislation to make Internet suppliers responsible for their transactions.
Internet providers will be charged a fee if they are found to have permitted transactions, which are not true.
Amarasiri said that the taskforce is thinking of appraising local internet service providers on card fraud methods.He said that the lack of proper legislation is holding back the combat of card fraud.
Credit and debit cards remain largely unregulated in Sri Lanka.
At present, the penal code is used as a power to deal with some of the offences. However, the existing laws do not recognise plastic card as a tool for evidence.
Most credit card offences committed in Sri Lanka come under cheating. If an unauthorised user forges his signature, that amounts to forgery. If he steals the card then it's a theft charge.
DIG Anandaraja says that Sri Lanka requires a combination of a legal and security system; and competent investigators to counter fraud if the crime trend is to be arrested.
With an average of 1.5 cards being owned by Sri Lankans, we are yet to reach the stage where credit and debit cards will replace traditional cash transactions.
"Sri Lanka is still a very young industry," Frederick says.
People are still getting to know that plastic is as valuable as cash, so it's important they take proper precautions, he cautioned.
Sri Lanka's initial steps towards cashless society began in early 1980's with the introduction of the 'Golden Key' credit card.
Its usage was initially limited due to the limited recognition of the card, difficulties in convincing customers and merchants of the benefits of using plastic money and also the lack of awareness.
Commercial banks began issuing credit cards in the 1980s, along with the introduction of a range of new financial instruments. These were initially limited to local transactions.
With the liberalisation of the current account in 1994, banks began to issue global access credit cards.
The popularity of credit cards has increased rapidly, thanks to various facilities and benefits offered by the card issuing banks, and aggressive advertising campaigns. It is estimated that each bank alone spends around Rs. 5 mn in advertising.
While greater use of credit cards may reduce the conventional demand for credit cards, it could also lead to a faster growth of private sector credit.
The use of credit cards is becoming popular in Sri Lanka. While there are many advantages associated with cards, there are also disadvantages such as card users becoming excessively indebted.
The most recent information indicates that past dues (over three months in arrears) amount up to 7 per cent of outstanding credit card balances, while overdue (one in three months arrears) amount to about 19 per cent.
Secure Electronic Transaction (SET) standard, championed by Visa International and Mastercard along with other card companies, was designed to secure on-line transactions by encoding payment details while making certain of the true identity of merchants and cardholders.
Unlike simple security software, SET cleverly maintains a secure audit trail traceable by card companies, keeps card details away from merchants while it authorises payment, and ensures the identity of the parties in the transaction.
However, the SET specification and implementation is rife with problems that could scupper the initiative and reveal inadequacies with SET as a payment solution.
Initially devised in 1995 as a protocol to provide trusted Web-based transactions, SET failed to meet its launch date in autumn 1997. Despite the launch hitch e-commerce is doing very nicely without it, SET's critics say.
But Visa has thrown down the gauntlet by saying it expects the majority of all Web-based transactions to be SET-based by 2001.
The attractions for Web retailers to use SET should be clear enough: It shields them from fraud. Credit-card companies treat transactions differently, depending on whether the customer is present or not.
If present, banks accept liability for any subsequent wrangles over the transaction and the merchant gets paid. But if the order is made via telephone, fax, e-mail, or the World Wide Web, the merchant assumes the risk.
So to win over merchants, credit-card companies now say that if SET is used, the transaction will be treated as if the customer was physically present, due to SET's use of digital signatures that authenticate both buyer and seller.
SET's promoters believe the incentive is attractive since banks and retailers are always looking for ways to reduce fraud levels.
Credit-card companies believe the Internet poses the potential for increased fraud. By creating a climate in which cardholders feel more secure and merchants are protected, they hope credit cards will become the e-commerce payment standard.
On the offensive
And SET's backers are on the offensive: A new SET seal for on-line retailers have begun appearing. The problem is, however, that retailers are not taking the bait. And since SET is still in a trial stage, only a handful of banks in Europe, Asia and North America support its digital certificates for Internet shoppers. In addition, SET relies on "digital wallets" that plug into browsers manufactured by third-party software vendors such as IBM and VeriFone Inc., which have been slow to develop products.
Yet credit-card companies claim that today's e-commerce environment is still in embryonic form. SET would give consumers the confidence to engage in more sophisticated on-line transactions, since the protocol authenticates Web retailers' sites and keeps credit-card numbers hidden from merchants.
Indeed Visa executives signal that SET may one day become the only standard that credit-card companies will accept. "From a matter of precedent, as we've entered more technology to make the system more secure or more economical, we've eventually made [the techniques] mandatory," noted Frederick.
By Dinali Goonewardene
Seylan Bank sold its 10 per cent stake in NDBS Stock Brokers to the National Development Bank (NDB). "We have not earned any return on our investment in NDBS Stock Brokers for about five years and we also have Ceylinco Stock Brokers," General Manager, Seylan Bank, Rohini Nanayakkara said, explaining the rationale underpinning the divestment.
"Seylan has Ceylinco Stock Brokers and we don't want a conflict of interest to arise by their holding a stake in NDBS Stock brokers" Chairman NDB S K Wikremesinghe told The Sunday Times Business. NDB is now the sole owner of NDBS Stock Brokers.
NDBS Stock brokers had a profit after tax of Rs.10.4 mn in the financial year 1998. With a return on equity of 35 per cent it is among the top tier of stock brokers in Sri Lanka. It has a market share of 9 per cent.
However with the stock market in the doldrums for the past few years broking houses have not been lucrative investments. In fact a few broking houses have been up for sale for a while. DFCC , which received a greenlight from the Colombo Stock Exchange to engage in stock brokering, has not commenced operations. Consultants Pricewaterhouse Coopers have advised DFCC not to pursue this line of business.
Meanwhile, Union Bank, which has also received CSE approval to engage in stock broking is awaiting Central Bank approval to commence operations.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRC) last week approved a proportional tariff proposal submitted by MTN Networks (Pvt) Ltd. to issue pre paid phone cards with a validity period of 60 days.
Under this scheme MTN's pre paid card users account balance will expire in 60 days from the last time it was used or when subscribers have zero credit. After the card expires, and if a balance remains, the card user will have a 15 day grace period, within which the card holder can extend the credit validity for another 30 days by paying Rs. 100. The card holder also has the option of getting a new card within the grace period, which will automatically retain the previous leftover credit.
However, Celtell's pre paid card launched in 1997 has only now submitted a tariff proposal to approve its pre paid phone card validity period. Celtell's prepaid card however offers a validity period of 45 days compared to the 60 day validity period offered by MTN. The TRC is expected to pass a ruling on this issue soon.
Ceylon Tea Services Ltd's turnover has increased by 11 per cent to Rs. 1.19 bn for the year ended March 31 1999. "This was due to the company's strong performance in Australia and New Zealand and it has contributed to making it the company's best performance to date," Chairman, Ceylon Tea Services, Merril J Fernando told shareholders in his annual report.
Profit before tax increased by 190 per cent over the previous year to Rs. 336 mn. However this included Rs. 89 mn which was realised from a transfer of a 60 per cent holding in Dilmah Properties (Pvt) Ltd and in Print Care (Ceylon) Ltd.
Return on capital employed (ROCE) increased from 3.8 per cent in the financial year 1997/98 to 30.09 per cent in 1998/99. This was primarily due to an increase in profit margins although asset turnover has declined marginally.
The cost of tea increased by 8 per cent from the previous year. Rs. 77 mn was spent on marketing and distribution. "This was largely attributed to marketing activity in New Zealand and Australia where brand share is growing steadily," Merril Fernando said. The company is establishing operational structures in these countries and funds have been generated for this purpose from the distributor in New Zealand.
"Events in Russia remain a bad dream and the rouble crisis in August aggravated this situation," Mr Fernando said. The company reduced its dependence on Russia and spare production capacity created by the Russian crisis was utilised in other markets.
The company's capital gearing ratio declined from 8.9 per cent in 1997/98 to 4.2 per cent in 1998/99. Interest cover declined from 8.05 times in the financial year 1998 to 5.23 times in the financial year 1999.
Earnings per share (EPS) increased from Rs. 15.45 in 1997/98 to Rs. 46.11 in 1998/99. Dividend per share increased to Rs. 3 from Rs. 2.50 the previous year. The company's Price Earnings ratio (PER) was 2.17 in comparison to a market PE of 6.7.
"Based on a full order book I expect to bring you good news again next year," Mr. Fernando, said outlining the company's future prospects. " The company intends to establish its presence in the United States and strengthen its position in Canada as a part of its market expansion programme, designed to reduce risk through market diversification," Marketing Director, Ceylon Tea Services, Dilhan Fernando told The Sunday Times Business. The company markets its teas in 82 countries at present.
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