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LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigeria's banking sector could see 20-25 percent loan growth over the next three to five years as demand for both consumer and infrastructure finance increases, the chief executive of Stanbic IBTC (IBTC.LG) said.
Chris Newson, head of the Nigerian unit of South Africa's Standard Bank (SBKJ.J), said growth would be driven by Nigeria's significant infrastructure finance needs as well as the emergence of small businesses and a growing middle class.
"If you think about what would be a reasonable level of growth within risk assets across the industry, our sense is a 20-25 percent is not completely unrealistic," Newson said on Monday in an interview as part of the Reuters Africa Investment Summit.
Africa's most populous nation has a huge infrastructure gap.
The government has announced multi-billion dollar plans to privatize the power sector in a bid to end chronic electricity shortages, while new roads, bridges and homes are being built in cities including the capital Abuja and commercial hub Lagos.
"There is an advisory opportunity but there is also an asset opportunity. Where we have liquidity and capital, as we do, we'll be looking to take on some of those assets on to our own books," Newson said.
A widening middle class in the nation of 150 million people, combined with the potential for the growth in small business as infrastructure improves, also present opportunities for personal and small business banking.
"We think the engine room of growth coming out of Nigeria will particularly be in that business banking, individual environment," Newson said in his offices in Lagos.
"The question of consumer finance is very, very young in Nigeria and the opportunity there we think over time is very significant," he said.
He said Stanbic IBTC had 151 branches in Nigeria, double the number it had in 2007, and was still in an "investment phase."
Newson said the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) -- a state-run "bad bank" set up to soak up non-performing loans in the banking sector following a $4 billion bailout in 2009 -- was an important first step in developing a strong and sustainable financial system in Nigeria.
AMCON Chief Executive Mustapha Chike-Obi told Reuters last week the company, which is also tasked with recapitalizing the rescued banks, was on track to soak up all bad credit in the sector by the end of the month.
"AMCON and the recapitalization is only one step in the process. We need to realize that the heart and the core of the problems in the sector were really around corporate governance and risk management," he said.
"The questions over time will be are the lessons learned, and the capacity of both the industry and the regulators to manage those two key aspects."
He said he anticipated a further round of consolidation in the banking sector once the system had been fully stabilized.
One major challenge for businesses in sub-Saharan Africa's second-biggest economy is a lack of long-term credit, something Newson said was changing as the capital markets develop.
Although Nigeria has 20-year bonds, the bulk of liquidity is in the shorter-term 3- and 5-year papers, making long-term risk pricing difficult, particularly with a lot of long-term infrastructure financing denominated in dollars.
Newson said Nigeria's debut Eurobond, launched in January, was a step in the right direction, giving it a greater ability to price and hedge dollar risk.
He also said he believed Nigeria had a "healthy level" of foreign reserves which were adequate for it to continue to support the naira currency.
Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi last month criticized calls from the IMF for greater exchange rate flexibility, saying he did not believe the naira was overvalued.
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Editing by Jon Loades-Carter