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A computer screen is reflected in the glass window of a booth where a broker monitors the market at the Karachi Stock Exchange.AKHTAR SOOMRO/Reuters

The seaside metropolis of Karachi is Pakistan's largest city, its commercial hub and a city plagued by violence. Adding to the already volatile mix is the Pakistan Taliban, which is now firmly embedded in Karachi. But amidst the mayhem, businesses are thriving and capital markets are soaring.

In old Karachi, behind metal gates, barriers and security checks is a low-rise office block from which Canadian Nadeem Naqvi steers the country's largest stock market: the Karachi Stock Exchange, with a market capitalization of $41.5-billion.

Mr. Naqvi moved to Pakistan in 2005 and took on the managing director job in 2011 with a mandate to modernize the exchange.

The KSE has a market capitalization of $41.5-billion – a tenth of the size of the Bombay stock market. Last year, it ranked among the top emerging markets in Asia.

With historic democratic elections scheduled for May 11, Mr. Naqvi spoke to The Globe and Mail about his optimism about Karachi and Pakistan.

What has it been like steering the exchange – it must be a roller coaster?

In one word: exhilarating. Not without sleepless nights, I can assure you. … On the political front there have been ups and downs, although I was lucky enough to be in an era when we had uninterrupted democratic set-up – the quality of that democratic set-up as a point aside. But that was a first for Pakistan. And now we are in the process of the first democratic transfer of power from one democratic set-up to the next … We have faced direct backlash as a result of Pakistan's role in terms of war on terror and the backlash Pakistanis have to face every day. But within that dire dynamics you have seen a stock market that has performed incredibly well last year. It was up 50 per cent in local currency terms – the KSE100 Index – and it was up 36 per cent in U.S. dollar terms making it one of the top three best performing emerging markets in Asia last year.

There is still an issue of risk that companies are trying to square with their business agenda and whether to invest in Pakistan. That's not unreasonable, is it?

No. I think it's absolutely clear to international companies that operate in emerging markets that the risk factor is high. In Pakistan particularly, the risk factor is doubly high because effectively the truth of the matter is that we are a war economy. There is a full-scale war that is going on across the border [in Afghanistan] and it is also impacting our border areas. … The other factor of course is petty corruption.

The Karachi Stock Exchange investor base is quite small. How are you going to grow it?

In the case of Pakistan the total number of registered investors is less than 300,000 … which is a tiny fraction of the potential in a population of approximately 180 million. … This [investor base] is a very insignificant number. Reportedly, Bangladesh has an investor base of one million.

Are you looking at all to overseas Pakistanis?

If you'll study the regional markets, overseas diaspora have played a huge role in the development of the Indian stock market – the NRIs, or non-resident Indians. Similarly, with overseas Chinese who played a big role in the development of the Shanghai stock exchange. In Pakistan, that has not happened.

By various estimates there are between six and eight million Pakistani-origin people living abroad and in Canada itself. In Ontario alone, it is estimated anywhere between 350,000 to 400,000 Pakistani origin people reside… [Our] board of directors has actually directed the management to explore, starting this July, specific roadshows to make this diaspora aware of the advantages of investing in the Pakistan stock market.

There are so many people who have an eye on the exit sign. Why stay in Karachi?

Call me mad. It could be excitement. Actually, at the end of the day, you look at economic opportunities and facilities available for the family as well as quality of life.

I love Toronto…But at the same time here [in Pakistan], there are two things… It was my passion to at least assist in creating or laying the foundations of an institution which had high standards in terms of professionalism, governance and transparency and show the world that it can be done in Pakistan. That was the challenge, and I think I can take partial satisfaction – I am not fully satisfied – but we have come half way through. I still have a year to go on this contract.

The other decision was our parents. Both for my wife and myself one of the reasons for coming back was that our parents had reached an age where they are frail. And other than the physical presence, I think emotionally they need us.

Do you at all feel unsafe in Karachi?

I grew up at one stage in my life in Beirut… I saw the beginning of the civil war there and that war was on religious lines, on economic lines, and sectarian lines and Beirut imploded on itself and the authorities simply became powerless beyond a point. And that risk is there [for Pakistan], I have to admit. It will be I think the biggest single task of the new government to face up to this reality, to take it and tackle it head on…

With a report from Reuters

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