Interview with Colombia’s Financial Superintendent – Gerardo Hernández

Why should our readers be interested in Colombia?

Foreign investors know that Latin America is growing and they see Chile, Peru and Colombia as an exciting micro-region. Within those countries they recognise that Chile is more mature, while Peru has a smaller population. That leaves Colombia – a well-managed, well-regulated economy with good rule of law and exciting growth prospects. Places like Venezuela and Ecuador are clearly different propositions while Brazil is like a continent in itself.

In particular there are lots of opportunities for financial firms here. There is lots of demand in the market with many Colombians that are underserved. Financial penetration here stands at just 66% so the potential for growth is considerable. As a result we are seeing a lot of international interest. Banks, insurers – everyone. The infrastructure programme is also attracting industry.

The SFC is looking to extend its mandate over Colombian conglomerates – why is that?

Many of the country’s big banks are part of conglomerates that have other financial operations such as insurance. For example Banco de Bogotá, Bancolombia and Davivienda are all part of larger groups. So instead of regulating each unit individually we want to inspect them as a whole. We want the possibility to ask them to raise capital if necessary – a complete supervision.

Are they angry about that?

No. Indeed some of them want that. The reason is that right now many Colombian banks are buying abroad, especially in Central America. Banco de Bogotá, Bancolombia and Davivienda have all recently made significant acquisitions in Central America. There have also been purchases in South America too. The banks realise that they need to be better regulated if they are to expand internationally. In many cases they have had some difficulties in the countries that they are entering because Colombia is lacking that regulation, so they realise this will help them. After all if they want to participate in international capital markets people will look at their supervision, so this is a good window of opportunity for us to expand our remit.

Some British investors are worried about Colombian standards of corporate governance and instance of corruption. How much of a problem is it?

Last year we had an IMF/World Bank evaluation where they judge financial supervision and regulation with international standards such as Basel and the results were very good. Obviously we have a lot of things to do but the main conclusion of was that we are heading in the right direction. Moreover, since then we have reformed the quality of the capital held by local banks in accordance with international standards. Another important step that we have take in Codigo Pais. This is a form of standards that institutions can choose to meet, and the list of those that have or haven’t is public knowledge. Looking forward I believe the fact that Colombia has been accepted to join the OECD will be positive for regulation. That is because the OECD will review our legislation and standards so if something needs to get done it will.

Colombia had a better Financial Crisis than the UK. In what ways have you learned from the mistakes made in Britain and America?

In many ways we learned from our own financial crisis here in Colombia in the 1990s. That crisis was caused by the housing sector and many public-sector banks were wiped out by it. That taught us that public banks are not always well managed and inspired us to set new regulations for the housing market. If the US had our regulation the subprime crisis wouldn’t have happened. In Colombia there are a lot of rules that control housing finance. We don’t have flexible interest rates so that the homeowner knows how much their payments will be for the whole period.  Purchasers must pay 30% of the total price upfront while banks can foreclose quickly in event of default.

If the US had our regulation the subprime crisis wouldn’t have happened. “

With regards to the recent Financial Crisis we learned the importance of co-ordinated action between institutions. The Ministry of Finance, the central bank, other sections of government now discuss the situation of the economy and the measures we can take. For example last year credit growth was very rapid so we raised reserve requirements to slow it down. Thanks to that measure credit growth went from 23% to 12%, which we felt was more consistent with what’s happening in the economy and more sustainable for the future.