Prime Minister Gaston Browne is again attempting to put public pressure on the directors of the Eastern Caribbean Amalgamated Bank (ECAB) to allow the government to retain ordinary shares in the financial institution.
He said the board had given a commitment to allow the government to increase its shares even while they were trying to acquire Scotiabank Antigua. Browne told Observer, had that commitment not been given, the government would have encouraged the Antigua Commercial Bank (ACB) to buy out the Canadian bank instead.
“They continue to frustrate the government for years now,” Browne said on a local radio station on the weekend, adding that the directors are “behaving like they are authorities unto themselves”.
“We were the ones who gave the bank the opportunity to get scaled up, to get Scotiabank branch, to making ECAB the largest bank on the island and between the management and the directorship they continue to treat the government with contempt,” he asserted.
ECAB is currently one of the largest indigenous banks in Antigua and Barbuda, and the government has 25 percent preferential ownership, which gives it first claim on distribution of profits but restricts it to voting only on resolutions which directly affect its rights.
However, more than three years ago, the administration wrote to the board of directors asking to convert those shares to ordinary shares, which would allow the government to claim full voting rights in the decision-making process. In 2021, Browne told Observer that his government intended to sell citizens some of its ownership in the local bank when it converts to ordinary shares.
Together with ACB which owns 15 percent of ECAB, Antiguan and Barbudan shareholders will then account for 40 percent of shares and voting power in the institution thereby increasing domestic ownership.
“This is an issue of increasing the Antigua and Barbuda share in the bank and if we felt that there was not the opportunity to increase the Antiguan share then we would have placed those assets into ACB because ACB is owned practically 100 percent by Antiguans and Barbudans,” Browne told Observer.
The prime minister, as he did last year after ECAB’s acquisition of Scotiabank, accused the directors of deliberately delaying the conversion. He claimed that they were allowing the profits to increase yearly so that the value of their shares can increase which, in turn, would reduce the government’s share value in ECAB.
“I think what they’re trying to do is to increase the retained earnings of the bank so that they can whittle down the shares of the Antigua and Barbuda government,” he said.
The prime minister also lashed out at the Chairman of ECAB’s board, Craig J Walter, an Antiguan and Barbudan citizen who he accused of helping to stymie the conversion process.
Browne said he expected that Antiguan directors would “act with a little more alacrity and push to get these things done expeditiously”.
“You’ve been given sufficient time and I believe that your actions are deliberate,” he stated.
There are plans to list ECAB on the Eastern Caribbean Stock Exchange, thereby exposing it to a wider selection of investors and financing.
Efforts to reach Walter were unsuccessful up to press time.