As central banks tighten monetary policy in the West, financial institutions are failing. First Republic was snapped up by JPMorgan in a government-orchestrated rescue. That followed the failures of Silicon Valley Bank, Signature Bank and Silvergate. In Europe, 166-year-old Credit Suisse was sold to arch-rival UBS in an emergency takeover.
Regulators moved quickly to address these crises. However, confidence in some banks remains fragile, especially those whose business models make them vulnerable to deposit flights.
We live in a globalised world; stress in the financial system tends to spread across borders. Given this backdrop, what does this mean for the financial system outside Europe and North America – and in particular, how safe are banks in Saudi Arabia? For any economy, the banking sector is one of the most vital industries, directing a nation’s savings into profitable investment.
The answer is reassuring. By multiple measures, the Saudi banking system remains strong and well-positioned to continue to support the local economy. Saudi banks are well-regulated, well-capitalised, highly profitable and highly liquid. This makes them well-positioned to continue lending to households and businesses.
One of the critical indicators used to assess the health of the banking sector is the capital adequacy ratio (CAR) – the ratio of regulatory capital to risk-weighted assets. This indicator aims to ensure that banks have sufficient capital to absorb losses and continue to operate, even in stressful market conditions.
As our first chart shows, Saudi banks’ CAR reached 19.9 percent in 2022 – near a decade-plus high, and exceeding SAMA’s regulatory minimum of 12.5 percent.
The second-most-important measure of a bank’s safety is the ratio of non-performing loans (NPL) to total loans. This bad-loan ratio fell to just 1.8 percent in 2022, as the next chart shows. That’s down from 2.2 percent in the pandemic year of 2020 – and well below the post-GFC level.
This indicates that Saudi banks are effectively managing credit risks – especially given that SAIBOR, the local interbank offer rate, has spiked given the riyal’s peg to the dollar.
Now we turn to liquidity risk. This is complex to measure, as it involves a range of factors that can affect the availability of cash and liquid assets.
As Chart 3 shows, Saudi banks’ ratio of liquid assets to short-term liabilities was 39.7 percent at the end of 2022, down slightly from 41.3 percent in 2021. The stability of this ratio suggests Saudi banks have an adequate level of liquidity to withstand a spike in withdrawals from customers.
Considering a longer timeline, we examined the 2010-2022 period and found a positive relationship between Saudi banks’ liquid assets and the NPL ratio – that is to say, as the ratio of bad debts rises, liquid assets also increased. The reverse was also the case.
Another measure of financial strength is the net stable funding ratio (NSFR) over a one-year horizon. This fell from 127.2 percent in 2020 to 121.7 percent in 2021, but remained well above the regulatory requirement of 100 percent – enabling banks to easily fund their activities.
On to profitability. An important measure of this metric is the interest margin versus total income – which shows how much a bank earns on its interest-bearing assets compared to the interest it pays on its liabilities.
In 2022, this ratio reached 77.9 percent, as Chart 4 shows – near a decade-plus high. Meanwhile, banks’ non-interest expenses stayed low.
Finally, we move to return on assets and return on equity (ROE). These indicators cannot be overstated when it comes to banking sector strength.
The Saudi banking sector posted an ROE of 12.5 percent in 2022, up from 10.8 percent in 2021. The Saudi banking sector posted an ROE of 12.5 percent in 2022 – higher than their US counterparts, and well above the ROE for European banks. That represented an increase from 10.8 percent in 2021.
In summary, don’t look for contagion to spread to Saudi Arabia. Its banks are well-positioned to withstand a potential downturn this year, despite the significant rise in local interest rates and fluctuating oil prices. The sector remains a reliable haven for both depositors and investors, helped by the strong oversight of the central bank and a strong local macroeconomic environment.