Banking on Africa: Barclays vs Standard Chartered vs Old Mutual

LONDON -- Question 1: What was the third region, along with the U.K. and U.S., which Barclays' CEO Antony Jenkins identified as the focus for investment in his recent strategic review?

Question 2: In what region is Standard Chartered planning to double its revenues in the next five years?

There are no prizes for guessing that the answer is Africa, but the questions highlight how significant the region could become. Natural resources, a burgeoning and increasingly wealthy population, and massive Chinese investment are great attractions, but in a difficult and notoriously corrupt continent, it's safer to invest through companies doing business there. Banking is especially well-placed to benefit from economic development.

Last year, Barclays folded its directly owned African operations into its Johannesburg stock exchange-listed subsidiary Absa bank, now renamed Barclays Africa. As a result, Barclays' interest rose to 62%. A unified ownership and operational structure will help expansion in the continent.

Barclays Africa has the largest number of bank branches on the continent, with 1,300 spread over 10 countries. Africa chipped in £0.5 billion to Barclays' pre tax profit last year, contributing a quarter of the group's total retail and business banking result.

Standard Chartered
Standard Chartered is focused on wholesale banking and is well placed to exploit investment and trade links between Africa and Asia. With operating profit of $800 million, Africa contributed about 10% to StanChart's bottom line last year. Income has risen at 15% p.a. over the past five years, and it's that rate of growth that leads the bank to target a doubling of revenues within four to five years.

The bank will invest $100 million in new branches over the next three years, and expand its retail business to areas such as mortgages and Islamic banking.

Old Mutual
Life assurance group Old Mutual is a purer play on Southern Africa, which accounts for 70% of group revenues. It has a 52% shareholding in Johannesburg-listed Nedbank. One of the four largest full-service banks in South Africa, Nedbank has about half the number of branches on the continent as Barclays but is investing to expand selectively.

Nedbank made £0.8 billion of operating profits last year. That's bigger in absolute terms than either Barclays or StanChart, and about half of Old Mutual's total operating profit.

The new China
Africa is not yet the new China, but astute companies are positioning themselves in anticipation of the continent's growth, and astute investors will keep an eye on them. Spotting investment trends early, and thinking differently, can be one way of growing your wealth. There's more on that theme in this report. Reading "Ten Steps to Making a Million in the Market" won't make you rich, but it could help you plan your investment strategy better. You can download it by clicking here -- it's free.

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