Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Interview 18: Thanos Niforos-Finance talks

This time in DUBAI PROFILE NEWS (DPN) Blog, we do host a really interesting interview about the financial market, especially in days where the world is facing a deep recession. Thanos Niforos (TN) a person with a long term experience in the banking industry share with us his ideas and thoughts. For sure an interview that is more than worthy to read it. The contact email of Mr. Niforos is

DPN: Thanos, you got born in Athens, Greece 43 years ago, what do you remember from your childhood?

TN: It is wonderful that nowadays it is possible to make personal movies of our own lives and our loved ones, places of play, study, work and holidays. It should make the human memory refreshed all the time. The power of our own recording device is vastly greater than that of any technological equivalent such as a camera and I believe all our life experiences are recorded in its smallest detail at all times. These details are my parents’ new ventures and travels all over the world and their commitment to provide me the best education that I could get. I remember our visits to my parents’ birth places and their efforts to inherit to me the ability to recognize the context of family, culture, community and society.

DPN: Thanos you do have an exposure in the Banking Industry from 1991. May you let us know briefly your career up to now?

TN: I have an exposure in Banking since 1991, in Investment & Corporate Banking since 1996, in Brokerage and Wealth Management positions since 2005. In the domain of Banking, Finance, ecurities Industry (BFSI),I have served as a Investment & Corporate Banker, Equity & IPO Analyst, Equity Broker & Wealth Manager with presence in EMEA, MENA and APAC regions. The last 20 years, I have been involved in conducting business plans, offering memorandums, DCF valuations and comparatives multiples analysis, equity partners introduction, financial analysis, reporting, negotiating contracts, commercial due diligences, supervision of key micro and macro indicators, structured LTV facilities, factoring and leasing. I have raised Euro 500 million  in new funds via multiples IPO's, SPO's, syndicated loans, working capital vehicles, convertible bonds, private placements and I managed investment requests for portfolio investments as well as investable assets totaling Euro 250 million in traditional, hybrid and alternative asset classes. Currently, I advice, structure and represent, visionary business plans and valuations which are seeking new funds and co-investors from major financial hubs as well as wealth portfolios which are seeking a worldwide expertise.

DPN: You used to be also a member of a core Investment Banking team advising public stated companies in Greece for their privatization process. Describe us some of your achievements.

TN: I was a member of the Investment Banking team of National Investment Bank of Industrial Development the Investment Banking arm of National Bank of Greece. Undoubtedly, it was one project of major significance to me, since I was involved in a national objective with a large scale financial engineering with innovative procedures for those days and for the prevailing financial framework. During the privatization process of the public stated companies from 1997 up to 2000 in Greece, my primary responsibilities were the analysis of financial statements of the Public Utilities Industry, the preparation of the due diligence questionnaires with active participation in the interviewing process with the top management. My primary objective was to gather and process all the necessary quantitative and qualitative data for the development of business plans, evaluation reports, preliminary and final offering circulars.   

DPN: How do you see the future of Greece after all the latest developments there?

TN: Your question is taking place in a very difficult global political and financial environment and time for my country. We are in front of a coalition-interim government and the leaders involved in this government will lead and guide with their decisions the future of the Greek nation and the vision of the European Union and Euro zone to a new era. The future of Greece is in the Euro area and we have not to stop dreaming of a better future and we have to make a concerted effort. The situation is like that someone hung in our feet unbearable weights throw us in deep water sea and ask from us to swim to the next coast. We know how to swim but we need to strengthen our muscles and to get out from these murky waters stronger and safer. Aldous Huxley once said that, “experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.” In numbers, Greece had forecasted €17.9 bn for debt service in 2012 so a €4.5 bn reduction in debt service is a big deal, although this is a 25% reduction, not a 50% one. The government had budgeted a 1.5% of GDP primary surplus in 2012, which this deal could boost to 3.6%. What is less clear is debt amortization: Greece needed €35 bn to amortize debt in 2012 and €37.6 bn in 2013. Presumably some of that debt is either shaved off or pushed into the future. But we do not know how much yet – that can make a big difference on how much of the second €100 bn official sector tranche goes to merely replace private sector debt. 

TN: Whenever we are talking about personal, corporate or public finance we have to understand if finance is an art or science. At the end finance is the process of channeling funds from savers to users in the form of credit, loans, or invested capital through agencies. May be finance is both an art, because it contributes to a product development and science because it has tools of measurements, although these activities increasingly converge through the intense technical and institutional focus on measuring and hedging risk-return relationships that underlie shareholder value. But since we talk about finance we have to define money whether paper or coins, fiat or electronic, and your question guides me to a philosophical path which in reality is a historic one, of what money is? The growth of monetary institutions has largely paralleled that of trade and industry; today almost all economic activity is concerned with the making and spending of money incomes. The history starts by the use of barter-like methods that may date back to at least 100,000 years ago, though there is no evidence of a society or economy that relied primarily on barter. Instead, non-monetary societies operated largely along the principles of gift economics. When barter did occur, it was usually between either complete strangers or potential enemies. From the earliest times precious metals have had wide monetary use, owing to convenience of handling, durability, divisibility, and the high intrinsic value commonly attached to them. Whether an article is to be regarded as money does not, however, depend on its value as a commodity, except where intrinsic worth is necessary to make it generally acceptable in exchange; the relation between the face value of an object used as money and its commodity value has actually become increasingly remote. Paper currency first appeared about 300 years ago; it was usually backed by some "standard" commodity of intrinsic value into which it could be freely converted on demand, but even during the early development of currency, issuance of inconvertible paper money, also called fiat money, was not infrequent. These gold standard notes were made legal tender, and redemption into gold coins was discouraged. By the beginning of the 20th century almost all countries had adopted the gold standard, backing their legal tender notes with fixed amounts of gold. After World War II, at the Bretton Woods Conference, most countries adopted fiat currencies that were fixed to the US dollar. The US dollar was in turn fixed to gold. In 1971 the US government suspended the convertibility of the US dollar to gold. After this many countries de-pegged their currencies from the US dollar, and most of the world's currencies became unbaked by anything except the governments' fiat of legal tender and the ability to convert the money into goods via payment. So, money I can say is a “token”, like the cloakroom “ticket” that can be redeemed for one’s coat at the end of the operatic performance and please add what Joey Adams said about bankruptcy; that is a legal proceeding in which you put your money in your pants pocket and give your coat to your creditors. Otherwise, money if they are about to disappear, they were never there.
DPN: Apart from Greece, the whole European region is into an ongoing recession mainly in the south part of it. Whats your forecast on what will follow? Are there ways to exit this recession? Are China and other Asian and BRIC countries willing to bailout Europe?

TN: Undoubtedly, we need new avenues for growth and to tackle the increasing problem of unemployment together with a political logjam. The problems are not Greek, are not European, are not American but global even though some believe that Europe woes are bigger than the US worries. Obviously, the European crisis is quite serious at this moment but it is all interconnected. Had the United States had a more effective recovery, it would have made a big difference in Europe as well. Maybe the huge fiscal crises in Europe, the whole sovereign debt crises in Europe might have been arrested. If the Germans want to save Europe, they must reverse their policies and start running large trade deficits even if that comes with slower growth.  If not, the euro will break apart and peripheral Europe will almost certainly default on its obligations to Germany. Either way Germany loses.  The only way to save the euro (and incidentally to prevent Germany’s banks from being forced to absorb huge losses on peripheral European debt) is for Germany to spur consumption and investment enough to reverse the current account surplus.  Only this will allow peripheral Europe to grow and to earn the euros needed to repay the debt.

As political horizons get shorter, leaders choose short-term fixes at the expense of medium-term solutions.  Since they are unlikely to be in office to benefit from the medium-term improvement, they discount its effect at much higher rates than they discount short-term policies.  The result is that the crisis gets worse, not better.
This seems to be what is happening in Europe.  In order to postpone the crisis, perhaps because of upcoming elections in a number of important countries, European leaders are choosing quick fixes at the expense of long-term European growth, and of course this will simply increase the probability and cost of a crisis. Europe is capital-rich and in fact is a net exporter of capital. The reason peripheral European governments cannot get financing is not because there is a lack of capital or liquidity but simply because their solvency is questioned by investors. If Europe is asking China to lend into a fund that is effectively guaranteed by Germany, then there shouldn’t be much Chinese reluctance.  In that case however I would have to wonder why Europe needs help from foreigners.  Germany has little difficulty in borrowing on its own. But even if this will take place it will probably occur through a strengthening of the euro against the dollar. And given weak domestic European demand, this means that either Europeans will buy from foreign manufacturers what they would have bought from European manufacturers, or it means Europe will export less.

DPN: Do you believe that the future of the global economy is in Asia-Pacific and Middle East and North Africa Economies?
TN: There has been no decoupling of developing economies, or more narrowly the BRICs, from the developed world. All that has happened is that the transmission from one to the other has been delayed. Since most global consumption comes from the US, Europe and Japan, the collapse in their demand will ultimately be very painful for the BRICs and the rest of the developing world.  But, I would like also to mention that the significant step towards a Trans–Pacific Partnership with a broader scope as compared with a Free-Trade Agreement, that took place on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Honolulu among nine economies like Singapore, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, US, Vietnam, Australia, Malaysia and Peru. The next step is for Japan to apply to join the FTA something that I think we will have a very significant step towards an Asia-Pacific Free Trade Agreement, in a time of instability in the world economy and when you look at what's happening in Europe. As far as Middle East is concerned, a region of extremes, technically, is a region that includes southwestern Asia and Egypt with the most countries located in the region has rich deposits of oil and therefore depend on mining to run the economy. On the one hand, rich countries such as Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia dominate the oil industry around the globe; poor countries such as Gaza and Yemen rely on subsidies and aids. But, like everywhere else in the global economy, the financial crisis has taken a toll on the Middle East and Central Asian economy as well. The Middle East economy was hit in 2008-2009, as oil prices dropped.  But the downturn proved to be a blessing in disguise for countries like Qatar due to high demand for gas.  For most Middle East countries, the prime cause of the decline in their GDP was the cut in oil production by the OPEC. According to the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, the OPEC will begin to increase oil production once the economy gains traction. Analysts have predicted that oil prices would reach an average of $75 in 2010, as compared to $62 in 2009. If oil prices reach the predicted levels, the Middle East economy will witness growth, as reported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Until now, the Middle East and North Africa region continues to grapple with instability in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings. The draining of public finances, elevated levels of inflation and high rates of unemployment seem to paint an unfavorable picture for the region in the short term. According to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) World Economic Outlook report, inflation in the region is expected to average around 7% in 2011 and 10% in 2012. In addition, the report noted the adverse impact of weaker growth in the United States and Europe on commodity prices, foreign investments and economic activity. The IMF expects the oil-exporting economies to expand 5% this year and slip to around 4% growth in 2012 due to continued economic uncertainty. On the other hand, economic growth of the oil-importing nations, particularly the ones hit by social unrest, is likely to remain subdued in the near term. Furthermore, it has forecasted an average growth of 1.4% in 2011 and 2.6% in 2012 for the oil importers. And encouragingly, the report has slightly raised its growth outlook from 1.0% to 1.2% in 2011 and 1.8% in 2012 for Egypt – the most populous Arab nation. According to the IMF, Saudi Arabia and Qatar would be the fastest growing GCC countries, while the UAE will experience relatively slower growth.

DPN: You advise, structure and represent visionary business plans and strategic models which are seeking new funds and co-investors from two major financial hubs such as Singapore and Dubai in the context of a diversified portfolio of investments. What makes a business plan successful? What are the differences among VCs, Business Angels/Seed Capital and Incubators/accelerators?

TN: Good question indeed! I am a traditional banker the last 20 years covering a large range of banking activities with the last six years focusing in private wealth management. But there is nowhere such challenge to compare with that of designing something from the very beginning; from the idea generation up to the exit strategy. Is part of my strategy for the wealthy family vision, values and organization. There are far more investment choices available to the wealthy family today for tactical selection within an overall strategic model of Hybrid and Alternative Asset Classes, than for any preceding generation. It is important to understand and to pick very carefully and at the right time only the items that fit the investor’s overall strategy and add specific value to the portfolio. This is the reason that business ideas have no value and it is the planning, not just the plan, that makes business planning work. As Warren Buffet says “our favorite holding period is forever” and why not if something is planned well or is a unique invention like social media? Anyway time is fictitious. So answering to your question what makes a business plan successful, I would suggest that it has to get people committed and to be communicated and to identify assumptions clearly. The idea of itself it may be the root for a big success but the implementation of a realistic ideas get points. Every business plan ought to be measurable and to include tasks, deadlines, dates, forecasts, budgets, and metrics. So the key to your question what makes a business plan successful is answered with a new question. Does it achieve the business objective? We in SquareOne Financial Solutions Pte Ltd simply can’t look at business plans as generic. You have to start with whether or not the plan achieved its business purpose. Some plans exist to get investment. Some are supposed to support loan applications. Those are specialty uses that apply to some business situations, while almost all businesses ought to develop management-oriented business plans that exist to help run the company, not to be presented to outsiders. The business plan used internally to manage the company doesn’t have to polish and present the company to outsiders, so it probably lives on a network, not on paper. But the plan as part of high-end startup looking for VC or angel investment does in fact have to present the business to outsiders. These are very different plans. Some of them have sales objectives, selling an idea, and a team, and a market, to investors. Some have a support objective, reassuring a lender about risk, usually with assets. My favorite business plans are about structure the necessary financing ingredients and managing: starting and growing a company. But what are the differences acting as a Business Angel or Venture Capitalist? The underlying characteristics that delineate angel investors are much different than that of venture capital firms. Venture capital investing is generally the most well-known type of start-up investment services available in the market. Although many entrepreneurs are aware of venture capitalists and associated venture funding, many are not aware of the process, issues, and concerns that arise when engaging with venture capitalists. This is primarily a function of nature of the organizations and background of the two types of investors. Where angel investors generally invest smaller amounts of money with the goal of facilitating the start-up company’s move to the next level of third-party investment from venture capital firms, venture firms generally invest large sums of money with the goal of cashing out in three to five years through an initial public offering (IPO) or through an acquisition by a large corporation. Angel investors focus much more on seed and early stage company funding. In addition, the interaction between the angel investor and the start-up company versus that of the venture capital firm and the start-up company are generally very different. Where the angel investor(s) are more nurturing and patient toward the start-up company, the relationship between venture capitalists and the start-up firm can many times be better characterized as an “adversarial” relationship based on meeting financial projections with unrealistic expectations. The start-up company is concentrated on the “should be projections” of the financial statements, as opposed to the realistic issues in developing a business. Given this difference, and the necessity of working with the venture capital community, it is highly recommended that entrepreneurs and their start-ups work with venture capitalists that have “hands-on” start-up experience. This will facilitate a much more mutually beneficial relationship between the two parties, the entrepreneur and the investor. Acting as an incubator can be challenging and it cannot replace business initiative, personal effort and resourcefulness. There is a term used called "incubator syndrome" in which the entrepreneur allows their initiative and judgment to be replaced by those of the consultants in the center. While the consultants may give superb advice, it is the entrepreneur's responsibility to make the business succeed. A growing trend in incubators is for the incubator to receive a piece of the action in exchange for office space, cash and lots of business support. They are essentially becoming venture capitalists with the benefit of being on site to help get the business off the ground. The usual amount such incubators ask is about a 20 percent equity stake. Many of the incubators that operate this way style themselves as "startup junkies." They know a lot about what gets a company off the ground right and are enormously helpful in getting a business off on the right foot. For an investment of anywhere between $100,000 to $300,000 plus office space and services, they receive the vicarious thrill of being part of a startup and substantial returns if the business succeeds. For each spot available there are at least 20 applicants so this new type of venture definitely is appealing to all. So far results have been impressive if you are one of the lucky ones to win a place in these incubators. Statistics claim that among US companies that received angel investment funding last year, the average amount of capital raised was about $450K. While the top tier of angel investments go to the technology, medical and healthcare sectors, investments have been made in a wide variety of business sectors. The amount of active angel investors in America continues to grow, with the Small Business Administration estimating that there are now over 250,000 active angel investors in the US, and that they provided funding for about 30,000 companies per year.  Figures from the UK showed that 40% of business angel investments delivered a negative internal rate of return (IRR), but 10% delivered an IRR of more than 100%, usually over a five to seven year period. No figure has been estimated for the Middle East, but the large number of wealthy individuals should mean there are plenty of potential angels. This is what the Arab Business Angels Network (ABAN) aims to address. The network was conceived by the Young Arab Leaders during the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2005, with Dubai International Capital (DIC), the private equity investment arm of Dubai Holding, its founder and lead institutional investor. DIC made its first foray into angel investing last year through its US$2.6 million Pan Arab Business Plan. It invested in an ostrich farm in Jordan and paper producer in Egypt, both of which have successfully expanded following the capital injection. ABAN will bring together individual and corporate investors who want to access early stage opportunities, with membership by invitation only. The target value for each investment is between $100,000 and $1 million. In the same philosophy, is that in recognition of its growing professionalism and catalytic role in the venture ecosystem of Singapore, the Singapore government agency in charge of promotion of start-ups (SPRING Singapore) offered public funding support to BANSEA (The Business Angel Network Southeast Asia) since 2007. Under a scheme called the Incubator Development Program (IDP), SPRING provided funding for up to 70% of the qualifying cost of BANSEA operations. This public funding support enabled the organization to employ a full-time executive director who could organize activities professionally and provide services to members to generate income. Ending, is part of the wealthy family organization and for the next generation vision to create a business angel investment which has a history of creating jobs - something that is crucial to the continued development of the Middle East and Asia-Pacific economies - and should also create deal flow for venture capital and private equity firms as the businesses mature and are ready for later stages of funding.

DPN: Do you have any life philosophy to share with us?

TN: A meaningful contribution for innovative ideas with the potential for systemic change. My driving force is the social entrepreneurship behind an innovative idea that chooses action over rhetoric every time.

DPN: One of your next projects is a multi-thematic blog which is coming on-air soon. May you let us know some more things about it?

TN: The discover the Equator Capital & Vision @ World blog, is not a simple blog to explore. It is more than an innovative portal-blog, is a personal hub of my views of the world markets, businesses, art and personalities adjusting according to the sentiment that it prevails worldwide. A roller coaster of social and business innovation which it will host new ideas, artistic creations, ventures, personalities, expressions of lives.


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