Financial Sector Overview
Southern Sudan gained its national independence in 2011 following several years of military and political conflict. South Sudan is Africa’s youngest state and its medium- and long-term economic prospects are constantly threatened by the fragile security environment. With a surface area of 644,329 km2, the country has significant oil reserves. In 2018, the country had 12.9 million inhabitants. Basic infrastructure - including roads and communication facilities, drinking water supply, health, education and electricity - is seriously lacking, while the economy is suffering from Dutch disease. Indeed, apart from oil exploitation, the other sectors of the economy are performing very poorly, despite their significant development potential. In 2017, the oil sector accounted for 70% of GDP, agriculture 10%, manufacturing 7% and services 6.1%. The resurgence of armed conflicts in 2013 and 2016 has further clouded economic diversification prospects. The country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell sharply from USD 12.5 billion in 2015 to USD 3.1 billion in 2016 and USD 3.2 billion in 2018, with a sharp depreciation of the local currency - the South Sudan Pound (SSP) - against the US dollar. South Sudan is expected to regain lasting political stability so that far-reaching reforms can be undertaken to strengthen the country's basic infrastructure and macro-economic framework, improve public sector governance, significantly diversify the domestic economy and further mobilise non-oil fiscal revenues. The country ranked 185th (out of 190 countries) in the 2019 Doing Business ranking, up from 187th in 2016.
Overview of the Financial Sector
The recent hyperinflation and the sharp depreciation of the local currency have negatively impacted the soundness of the financial sector, mainly the banks that make up most of the national financial landscape. As a result, many banks have posted significant levels of non-performing loans. According to the Doing Business 2019 report, poor access to credit is the biggest impediment to the development of the local private sector. A credit bureau, Creditinfo, was set up in 2015 by the country’s central bank. However, it is not yet accessible to all financial institutions, including microfinance institutions. Although the domestic financial infrastructure is still under construction, players in the sector still benefit from international correspondent banking relationships in order to make financial transactions with the outside world possible. Large East African banks are using their international networks to connect South Sudanese banks to the international financial system. This implies that most domestic banks have accounts that allow them to operate USD transactions in the region's financial systems, such as those in Kenya or Uganda. The national central bank - Bank of South Sudan (BSS) - is responsible for regulating the financial sector and focuses its supervision mission on ensuring that financial institutions comply with legal and regulatory requirements. New minimum capital requirements have been set by the BSS: USD 30 million for foreign-owned banks and USD 15 million for locally-owned banks; while the milestones for enhanced risk-based financial sector supervision are gradually being put in place.
Banking Market Structure – As at April 2018, the banking market consisted of 26 commercial banks, including 12 locally-owned banks, 6 foreign-owned banks and 8 banks with mixed capital. The sector's cumulative assets amounted to SSP 255.6 billion at end-December 2018, equivalent to USD 1.66 billion or 52% of GDP in the same year.
Loan and Deposit Structure – As at 31 December 2018, credits to the private sector reached SSP 6.8 billion (USD 44.1 million) and increased by 146% compared to December 2016. These bank credits accounted for about 1.4% of the 2018 GDP, showing the very low contribution of the domestic banking sector to private sector development. The asset structure shows that 27.2% and 24.7% of the banking sector's assets in 2018 were held in foreign exchange and central bank deposits respectively, while commercial banks sharply reduced their exposure to public debt securities as early as 2017. Bank credits mainly financed "domestic trade, restaurants and hotels" (44.7%), foreign trade (14.6%) and real estate (12.1%) sectors. Bank deposits collected remained well above the credit granted between 2011 and 2018. As at 31 December 2018, deposits were equivalent to SSP 92.3 billion (USD 599.2 million), while the banks' commitment coefficient (loan/deposit ratio) remained below 10% in recent years: it rose from 6.2% in 2015 to 9.9% in 2017, then 7.3% in 2018. Deposit and lending rates - Deposits earn very low interest in the domestic financial system: lending rates have tended to fall from 1.31% in December 2013 to 0.03% in December 2018. On the other hand, lending interest rates remain high: the interest rate differential increased from 12.8% in 2013 to 15.8% in 2018. This increase in the interest rate differential reflects a low level of development and competition in the local banking sector.
Banking Sector's Financial Strength – The fall in oil prices has led to a decline in the activities of some domestic banks due to the drastic reduction in the flow of external credit and foreign currency liquidity. Political and security fragility has also contributed to raising the cost of banking services and limiting access to them. The adverse impact of these shocks on the banking sector can be seen in the increase in non-performing loans (up to more than 50% for some banks), the sharp depreciation of the local currency against the US dollar and the under-capitalisation of banks which are required to maintain a minimum regulatory ratio of 20%. According to an IMF report (2019), the BSS has recently been working on the adoption of regulations to resolve banking crises in order to encourage domestic banks to strengthen their capital base, carry out mergers or take-overs where necessary, or even force the bankruptcy of those in unsustainable financial situations.
The financial inclusion rate in South Sudan remains low compared to the average for sub-Saharan Africa and low-income countries. In 2017, only 8.6% of the adult population (aged 15 years and older) had an account in a financial services institution, compared to 42.6% for sub-Saharan Africa and 34.9% for the global low-income country average. Furthermore, only 4.7% of adult women have access to formal financial services, while 24.5% of adults have access to finance through informal channels (compared to only 3.4% for those with access to formal credit offers). Microfinance and mobile money services are poorly developed, although there is room for growth.
Like the banking sector, microfinance is also embryonic, although microfinance services were historically present in the country before political independence. The market is dominated by non-profit, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private sector non-bank financial institutions (NBFIs). Although this type of financing offer tends to broaden the range of financial services for SMEs and low-income households, the social impact of microfinance in South Sudan remains limited to a few tens of thousands of clients. In 2016, there were 12 MFIs in the sector, including NGOs (sponsored by international organisations), Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLAs) and NBFIs. A microfinance development support facility, the South Sudan Microfinance Development Facility (SSMDF), was established in 2009 by the government and multilateral partners as an umbrella structure providing loans and technical assistance to MFIs, savings and credit cooperatives, and new structures wishing to provide financial services to low-income populations.
Overall, the microfinance sector suffers from a fragile security environment that hinders its development. In addition, the needs of the microfinance sector remain significant regarding technical assistance, financial infrastructure, refinancing, capacity building and strengthening of the regulatory framework.
Mobile Money and Digital Finance
Mobile money is also in its infancy in the country, with the formal introduction in 2019 of the first mobile phone financial services regulated by the BSS which are expected to promote the financial inclusion of much of the population which lives in rural areas. However, informal mobile money transactions took place in the country before 2019 through distribution agents not licensed by local regulators using mobile money platforms belonging to telephone operators in neighbouring countries such as Uganda and Kenya, where more than one million south Sudanese live. The sector's development potential remains significant, as more than 4 million out of 12.9 million South Sudanese owned a mobile phone in 2018: a penetration rate of 31%. Recent statistics indicate that only 7.3% of the adult population is engaged in digital transactions in the country.
The BSS is also working to modernise payment systems in partnership with the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the East African Community (EAC). In July 2019, the AfDB approved financing for a project to develop digital and national payment infrastructure, including the implementation of the Real Time Gross Settlement System (RTGS), automated processing of bank cheques, electronic settlement of securities transactions and an electronic clearing system for all types of payments.
South Sudan's insurance sector is made up of about ten insurance companies, some of which operated throughout the country before independence. East African insurance companies, especially Kenyan insurance companies, are also represented on the domestic market through their subsidiaries. In 2014, 10 insurance companies were active in the country. A new sector law, passed by parliament in 2010, provides for the strengthening of prudential provisions and the creation of a commission in charge of supervising and regulating the sector. According to the latest available data published by Africa Reinsurance Corporation (Africa Re), total insurance premiums collected in the country stood at USD 285 million in 2013, i.e. a penetration rate of about 0.5% of GDP. Non-life insurance premiums accounted for 95.8% of the domestic market, while the sector's density was about USD 9 million during the same year. In July 2018, South Sudan joined the African Trade Insurance Agency (ATI) in order to boost its foreign trade and benefit from technical assistance in dealing with international investors and traders.
There is no stock exchange in South Sudan. Most financial market transactions relate to transactions in government-issued securities, in which domestic banks invest most of their assets. According to data from the Global Impact Investor Network (GIIN), more than 50 investment funds are targeting South Sudan as a potential market, with about USD 18 million already invested in 9 development projects in 2015.
Social Security System
The Pension Funds Act that came into force in 2012 established a national pension fund called the South Sudan Pensions Fund (SSPF). Its mission is to manage public servants' pensions, collect contributions and invest assets under management within the limits defined by law. The SSPF is also responsible for receiving and paying pensions which were formerly under the management of the Sudanese pension system. Indeed, following negotiations with Sudan, South Sudan did not start paying the pensioners until 2019, initially focusing on the 235 pensioners who worked and retired in Sudan before political independence. It is expected that the payment of benefits to post-independence retirees, many of whom are still working, will be made during a second phase due to liquidity constraints within the SSPF. The statutory retirement age is 65 years.
As at 31 December 2018, there was no pension system covering private sector workers, apart from a few life insurance offers from insurance companies. However, the government is planning to set up a social security fund with broader coverage of financial services and beneficiaries in the near future.