Page last updated at 09:51 GMT, Monday, 3 November 2008

Nigeria speculators' wild cash ride

Stockbrokers on the trading floor of the Nigerian Stock Exchange in Lagos

By Andrew Walker
BBC News, Lagos

The first time Peter Ugochukwu heard about shares was when his father died in Nigeria.

It was suddenly revealed he had a portfolio worth thousands of dollars, a hidden fortune that his family knew nothing about.

"We found stocks, and bonds, and all kinds of things. We realised - this is money!" the 33-year-old management consultant from Lagos said.

They were all talking money money money
Investor Peter Ugochukwu

After this discovery, Mr Ugochukwu (who agreed to talk to the BBC only on condition that his real name was not used) became one of thousands of Nigerians who played the stock market last year and won.

The bubble over-inflated the market in Africa's number one oil exporter.

The inevitable correction in value led to some losing their investments, and ended in severe damage to the reputation of the exchange in Africa's most populous nation.

No crunch

Nigeria's banking sector has only been open to international trade of wholesale debt for a short time, and so its exposure to the global credit crisis is limited.

But last year, just as banks were waking up to their problems in the US, Nigerian investors rode a rapidly expanding stock bubble as the value of shares went through the roof.

Money being counted in Nigeria in July 2008
Some shares doubled in value in a matter of weeks

Now the bubble has burst and the stock values have reduced to a saner level, but some people have been burned by their experience.

In April 2007, banks and insurance companies were really the only shares to invest in on the Lagos stock exchange.

Their value rocketed, drawing in more customers to highly publicised Initial Public Offerings.

Some of the adverts for the share issues suggested that there was no way the value of the share would go down, a practice illegal in Europe and the US.

Banks were borrowing money from each other to buy shares in other banks, and as awareness of the rising value of the stock market filtered out to the public, people were tempted to buy in to the ride.

A small number of individual speculators like Mr Ugochukwu borrowed thousands of dollars from banks - as much as a whole year's salary for a civil servant - to buy what they believed would be a sure-fire money-making scheme.

The loans had huge rates of interest, as much as 25%.

'Share fever'

But "naive" investors thought it was free money, and the stock market would not fail, analysts told the BBC.

There is a huge naivety in Nigerian investment institutions, a sense that the market is a one way bet
Equities analyst Matthew Pearson
"Share fever" did not last and prices tumbled, wiping a third off the value since March.

"All my uncles were doing it too," said Mr Ugochukwu.

"They were all talking money money money. Were they too greedy? Well, they're making money legally so, what's the problem?"

Financial analysts said the Nigerian stock market experience was a classic example of greed gone too far.

"There is a huge naivety in Nigerian investment institutions, a sense that the market is a one-way bet," Matthew Pearson, equities analyst for investment group Renaissance Capital, who specialise in emerging markets.

The stock market made huge profits for some, doubling in value in a matter of weeks.

"You're left thinking: 'How much is enough?'" he said.

Tipping point

The boom reached its zenith after banks began to rein in the loans they laid out to fund the boom.

Analysts say this was at the request of the Central Bank of Nigeria, worried at the pace of the booming market in an economy that is based on a single export -oil.

But it denies it interfered.

The tightening of money available for shares, and analysts' growing concern over the market's over-valuation, ended the boom.

Then international investors pulled out.

In the panic of the plunge, the stock market experienced a suspicious "technical fault" which prevented downward trades being reported for over a week.

Afterward limits were placed on how much value a share can lose in a single day, but it is not enough to rectify the dent in confidence resulting from unregulated speculation.

The market is now being subjected to "death by a thousand cuts", according to Mr Pearson.


Mr Ugochukwu said he sold his shares close to the top of the market, unloading his depreciating stock.

It was the thought of losing the whole thing and owing all that money that made me get out
Investor Peter Ugochukwu

"I was so scared," said Mr Ugochukwu.

"It was the thought of losing the whole thing and owing all that money that made me get out."

He had borrowed $12,700 (7,800) and bought bank and insurance shares, which raced up to over $33,900 (20,000).

Individual investors bought a relatively small number of shares traded on the market, but they were following the principles laid down by the markets' largest investors, the big banks themselves.

Although analysts say the number of individuals who bought shares since the beginning of the downturn is small, Mr Ugochukwu says he owes his fortune to novice share investors.

"At first the only people who were doing this were in the banking industry, or who knew what was going on."

"Then as the public, the novices, started to get involved, those first in took their profits," he said.

Learning lessons?

More bubbles lie ahead, according to Mr Pearson.

"When these speculators got out of the stock market, they poured their cash into property, which is now in the middle of a new boom in Nigeria, while house prices crash globally."

A three-bed roomed flat in Lagos, one of the most chaotic and violent cities on earth, can cost a similar amount to a luxury flat in Knightsbridge, in west London.

"In the next 12 months the same thing that happened to the stock market will happen in property," said Mr Pearson.

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