Loan Loophole Saved Central Bank Head From Kazakh Debt Claim

(Bloomberg) -- The new chief of Kazakhstan’s central bank dodged a debt claim in 2014 thanks to a legal system that’s failed to protect lenders from rampant defaults and repeated crises.

In 2014, Yerbolat Dossayev and three business partners were given a reprieve on repaying 1.9 billion tenge, then worth $13 million, that they’d personally guaranteed to the central Asian country’s biggest bank at the time. It’s not clear whether the debt was ever repaid. Within three years, the lender, Kazkommertsbank, was buckling under the weight of a currency devaluation and numerous bad loans. It required a 2.6 trillion tenge ($6.9 billion) rescue, in part from the regulator that Dossayev was appointed to head up last month, and was taken over by a smaller bank.

That Dossayev, one of Kazakhstan’s richest men and its economy minister at the time, was able to avoid repaying the lender is emblematic of the problems facing the banking system he’s now in charge of reviving. Plagued by risky lending and poor debt collection, the industry has gone through a decade-long slump that’s cost the state at least $18 billion in bailouts. Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev called his cabinet “cowards” for its failure to fix the sector a month before entrusting it Dossayev.

‘Gargantuan Task’

“The problems with the banking sector go much deeper than Dossayev -- as a key part of the system that created those problems -- is able to address,” said Kate Mallinson, an expert on Kazakhstan at Prism Political Risk Management Ltd. in London. “The central bank is not independent and it will be a gargantuan task to clean up the Kazakh banking system.”

Dossayev and his partners gave up to $20 million in guarantees for a credit line their company TOO GasMunayOnim got from Kazkommertsbank. But several years later, when the company failed to pay interest on 13.2 billion tenge of debt, the bank went after the businessmen’s assets. In 2014, their wives successfully sued the bank, the company and their own husbands, claiming they weren’t aware of the guarantees. By law, if spouses don’t approve such encumbrances, an agreement can be voided.

The Almaty-based cassation court even went so far as to rebuke GasMunayOnim and Kazkommertsbank for acting in a manner that was “dishonest” and “in violation of the requirements of business partnership.”

Halyk Bank JSC, which acquired Kazkommertsbank to become the country’s dominant lender, declined to comment about the lawsuit and the debt, citing confidentiality. The central bank declined to comment.

Minister, Banker

Dossayev’s wealth was estimated by at $110 million in 2014, making him one of the 50 richest Kazakhs. Starting after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he and his business partners built up holdings that included retail, banking and oil-service assets. Dossayev alternately worked in the government and as a banker until he was named economy minister in 2012. He was serving as a deputy prime minister when he was appointed to head the central bank at the end of February.

He takes over a central bank that has been focused on taming inflation after a slump in crude prices triggered a currency crisis in Kazakhstan, central Asia’s biggest oil producer. The tenge lost as much as half its value after its free float in 2015. By February of this year, inflation slowed to 4.8 percent.

Some heavy lifting has been done to clean up Kazakhstan’s financial industry with Halyk Bank’s takeover of Kazkommertsbank, and a more than 1 trillion tenge rescue of Tsesnabank JSC was completed this year.

Now, Nazarbayev wants policy makers to prioritize growth before his presidential term ends next year. The government said today that it was moving beyond statements and would form an agreement with the central bank on working together to that end.

Part of those measures include the implementation of a 600 billion-tenge lending program to stimulate the economy. Yet supervision of the banking industry remains “weak,” with some lenders failing to disclose their real asset quality and regulators tolerating some “underprovisioning,” according to S&P Global Ratings.

“Kazakhstan’s banking regulators lack independence and can be subject to political interference from the government, government-related entities, and politically connected bank owners,” S&P analysts including Irina Velieva wrote in a note on Monday.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.