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Thursday, 12 January 2017

Aly Shalakany, senior partner, Shalakany Law Office

Aly Shalakany is senior partner at Shalakany Law Office, which he joined from Linklaters in London. Aly is a noted specialist in finance, projects and mergers and acquisitions — he’s also our Weekend Edition columnist, where his Beyond the Rubicon offers an “inside baseball” look at the intersection of business, economy and finance from the point of view of a practitioner at the top of his game. We respect Aly’s legal chops — particularly his insights into energy and infrastructure transactions. But longtime readers who know that Enterprise was first conceived as a print magazine about entrepreneurs will not be surprised that, as talented a lawyer as he may be, we really love him for his passion for entrepreneurs: Aly is the chairman of The Cairo Angels, a group of about 50 members (almost all of them Egyptian) who invest their personal money and leverage their experience and network to benefit the businesses in which they invest.

2017 will be the year of more economic reform. It’s also going to be a year where we start to see upside stories in oil and gas, banking, and fintech.

Why fintech? The Central Bank of Egypt has addressed the major issue for the banking system — the FX piece. That will definitely still be a work-in-progress throughout at least the first half, but they’ve made clear their next big priority is innovation, and the CBE is taking fintech seriously. Look at the micropayments regulations they’re discussing. And then banks have heard this — two have launched fintech accelerator programs. They have to become more efficient, they have to grow through rising financial inclusion, and they have money to invest in this. VC funds in Egypt and throughout the region can see the story, and they’re well-capitalized to invest.

I would have said tourism would be the sector to outperform, but that was prior to the terror attack on the Coptic Cathedral compound, but I no longer see it as being something we can positive about for the first half of 2017. Maybe at the back end of 2017. Oil and gas looks set to have a very strong year — Rosneft’s investment in Zohr underscores strong global interest in the Egypt story, and we’ve been receiving a lot of interest in smaller deals from the right sort of investors. The interest is primarily in upstream, but midstream is looking increasingly interesting. There’s significant interest in refining, and when Qalaa’s Egyptian Refining Company comes online, that will be proof of concept. If it takes off, it we’ll see other transactions.

I remain hopeful, though not entirely optimistic, that Egypt will become a regional energy hub. That would be a game changer for years and years to come.

From what we’re seeing right now, there will still be lots of interest in energy and infrastructure projects in 2017, driven in no small part by the liberalization for the power market over the coming few years. We’re seeing larger-scale renewable energy investments outside the feed-in tariff. Infrastructure, from roads to the metro to rail, could be on the table. Water and desalination have been on the back burner and there’s an expectation they could be tendered in 2017.

I think real estate — residential in particular — will be challenged this year. I see better prospects for retail and office space in the coming year. Residential could come back sooner rather than later if ever there is a government-led, private-sector implemented program to build affordable middle-class and low-income housing. That’s not a pipedream. I was speaking with a Moroccan developer that specializes in that segment and they’re very profitable because the government has set in place the right structure. Real estate is a strong lobby, and it’s an easy win for the government from a public point of view. This should be an easy sell.

The biggest opportunity for the economy is in the 17 points outlined by the Supreme Investment Council — I have a lot of love for those points. I think this is perhaps the first time we’ve had a cohesive policy statement as a roadmap; it’s something businesses can use to prepare the investment plans and their budgets. But to make this happen, we need to make progress on multiple fronts, not least of which making it easier to do business, providing access to finance for SMEs and accepting tax incentives. On the incentives — it’s wrong to simply maintain we won’t do them. If we want to be competitive, we need all of our cards on the table. With SMEs, they’re our largest employers. If you want to cut unemployment, you need to bring them into the fold with carrots, not sticks. Give them tax breaks, because they’re not paying it anyway. Give them access to funding, like the CBE is doing with the initiative it now has on its drawing board. The big obstacle there could wind up being the banks — they just don’t know yet how to loan to SMEs. And on the bureaucracy, I would love to see them extend what they’re doing with permits and licenses for industrial projects to other areas: Get a temporary permit. Get into business. Then we’ll talk later about full licenses and environmental and all the rest of it.

Biggest challenge for the legal industry has been the influx of law firms from abroad over the past few years, which has translated into additional competition. Competition forces everyone to up their games, but it brings additional pressure and you start to ask: Is it a growth market or is it quite saturated?

There are very difficult conversations happening now on fees and retainers after the float, but I think most in the industry are being sensible. You can’t suddenly pass on the full impact to your longstanding clients. We’re seeing shared pain, splitting the difference right down the middle. That’s going to drive efficiencies in the market.

On the IPO front, you’re going to continue seeing private-sector-led IPOs in safe sectors, the demographic plays. So food and beverage, consumer products, retail — sectors where the main drivers are purchasing power and population growth, because purchasing power will crawl back up. I see a lot of M&A activity in the same sector. You’re going to see growth and then consolidation.

Then, of course, you have the government program, which looks set to start with oil and gas. With state-owned enterprises, I always look at the upside. If it’s done well and accompanied by institutionalization and capacity building, you can have great success. Look at Telecom Egypt. It’s not an easy business, but it’s well-run and well-led, they’ve put a solid governance structure in place, and it makes solid profits. A series of strong offerings will really boost capital markets. We need more liquidity.

If I had to start a new business today? Angel investing, without question. One of the joys of being an angel investor is that you get a back-set view of multiple sectors. There are so many industries I find fascinating, so this really ticks the box for me. Of course angel investing isn’t for everyone — it’s a very risky asset class — but I’m passionate about it, and if you don’t risk more than you can afford to lose, it’s fantastic. And remember, there are many very successful angel investors who target SMEs, not startups. Look at Neveen El Tahri and the success she’s had in this space. If you want exposure to something really vibrant, it’s a great ride. You meet amazing people, get to bounce a lot of ideas around with companies you would never have imagined yourself involved in.

What question will we be asking at the end of this year? “What’s a stabilized rate for the EGP?”

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