Morocco royals plan to lower bank stake amid protests

Reuters , Friday 4 Mar 2011

Decision follows criticisms of companies controlled by monarch and family associates

Morocco Protest

A conglomerate in which King Mohammed's family is the main shareholder has put a stake in Morocco's biggest bank, Attijariwafa, up for sale amid protests in the country, the bank's managing director said on Thursday.

Controlled by the royal family, the conglomerate Societe Nationale d'Investissement (SNI) and its affiliate ONA Group have stakes spanning mines, steel, cement, supermarkets, sugar refining, banking, telecommunications, insurance and renewable energy.

Led by a youth movement that calls itself the February 20 Movement for Change, thousands of Moroccans took to the streets in 53 towns and cities last month to urge the 47-year-old ruler give up some of his powers to a newly elected government.

Echoing concerns by businessmen, the protesters also criticized the perceived domination of companies controlled by the monarch and his family and figures close to the palace.

Attijariwafa, strongly present in Africa, has not been among affiliates that SNI and ONA have cited as candidates for sale after they announced in March 2010 plans to merge.

The bank's managing director Ismail Douiri told Medi 1 radio that a sale of a stake in Attijariwafa was possible. SNI holds a 48 per cent stake in Attijariwafa, North Africa's biggest lender by assets.

"If there is a sale or a reduction of SNI's stake in our (Attijariwafa) share ownership, it will certainly be within the spirit of the March (2010) statement.

"The composition of our share ownership will change but our governance will probably not change since we have already been under a relatively independent model of governance ... that answers to a board of directors where SNI and other institutional investors are represented," he added.

An analyst who attended an earnings conference with the bank's management on Monday said Chairman Mohamed Kettani spoke of SNI plans to reduce its stake by between 15 and 20 per cent.

"Such a move should distance SNI from Attijariwafa's management and tackle criticism by some that it has become a purse for businesses owned by the king and his entourage," he added.

A 20 percent stake in Attijariwafa would be worth 15.8 billion dirhams based on Thursday's close.

ONA and SNI delisted in August to merge under a new investment holding company with the goal of later selling majority stakes in several subsidiaries via the bourse.

ONA said then it would cede control on the bourse of autonomous entities starting with sugar refiner Cosumar, Lesieur edible oil firm and food business group Centrale Laitiere/Bimo/Sotherma.

None of those sales has been conducted yet.

Officials at Attijariwafa could not immediately be reached for comment. The bank posted a 3.3 per cent rise in its 2010 net consolidated income to 4.7bn dirhams.

The analyst who attended the post-earnings conference said Chairman Kettani said "they want the stake to be bought by a strategic partner.

"The announcement itself led many of us to believe that a suitor has already been found. The rumor points to an investor from the Gulf Arab region, which would make sense for an Attijariwafa that seeks to expand more aggressively in Africa."

Santusa Holding, a unit of Spanish Banco Santander, owns around 4.6 per cent in Attijariwafa, making it the biggest foreign shareholder in the bank, Casablanca bourse data show.

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