With words he hoped would serve as a sharp kick in the rear for banks, Kazakhstan’s president has sparked a crisis for at least one troubled domestic lender.
After listening to a report presented by the National Bank on April 18, President Nursultan Nazarbayev grumbled that some lenders were misusing bailout funds provided by the government.
Nazarbayev said that the government has spent more than $9 billion injecting liquidity into stressed banks and that the funds have not been returned to the state’s coffers. He then named specific banks.
“EximBank, Astana Bank, Qazaq Banki … are showing terrible figures because shareholders did such a bad job in managing these banks,” he said. “If they want to save these banks, why don’t the shareholders deposit and return that money that they withdrew in a most improper manner.”
He then said government programs for propping up banks would be terminated.
That immediately sparked panic among customers at the named banks. The worst-hit was Astana Bank, which positions itself as an innovative and service-oriented company. Clients immediately took to cashing out their accounts.
It was quite the rollercoaster ride. The day after Nazarbayev’s remarks, Astana Bank published a glowing account of its finances and offered assurances it would abide by its obligations. But by April 23, the bank announced it was being forced to limit how much money it could pay out to retail accountholders. The restriction is to remain in place until May 2.
Such was Astana Bank’s parlous situation, that even rival Qazkom scrolled a sign of solidarity on the broad electronic facade of its Almaty headquarters reading: “Hardships make us strong. Astana Bank, everything will be fine.”
Kazakhstan-based brokerage Freedom Finance described Nazarbayev’s remarks as “unexpected — just as the consequences of comments made by the main person in the country can be unexpected.”
Banking experts have noted that the three lenders named by the president were hardly the only delinquent institutions, making it particularly unfair that they should have been singled out.
Despite a succession of bad experiences, the bulk of people in Kazakhstan continue to keep their savings in the banks, but the are understandably sensitive to possible trouble at the financial institutions. In the fall of 2017, customers at RBK Bank mounted something of a minor run on the bank after it was downgraded by international ratings companies.
Sometimes, it is social media and messaging apps that trigger the alarm. In 2014, messages circulated on WhatsApp predicted the imminent collapse of several domestic banks, prompting savers to pull out their cash. Later, one of the main banks hit, Kaspi Bank, offered a $500,000 reward for anybody who could come forward with information about who had spread the rumors.
There is not much banks can do when it is the president that is spreading this kind of anxiety.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.