Plush leather seats on the top floor of the Casablanca Stock Exchange overlook the picturesque grid of wide boulevards and stucco municipal buildings of Casablanca city, alive with a hustle and bustle characteristic of an economic capital on a weekday. It is Friday afternoon and Karim Hajji, the CEO of the Casablanca Stock Exchange, is beaming.

“We have all the ingredients that enable the Casablanca Stock Exchange to function according to international standards,” he says. “The companies listed on our exchange reflect the Moroccan economy, which is fairly well diversified. Morocco has several sectors, all of which are represented on our exchange, such as telecommunications, real estate, banking and insurance, construction materials, and agro-food.”

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It is no coincidence that Morocco’s Stock Exchange is based in Casablanca. Often referred to as 'Casa' by locals, Morocco’s largest city is home to 3.2 million people, according to estimates from the United Nations, and it plays host to the country’s largest international airport, as well as one of the world’s largest artificial ports. Thus the Casablanca Stock Exchange is emblematic of the continued role the city plays as the country’s economic powerhouse.

Founded in 1929 and privatised in 1993, the Casablanca Stock Exchange is north Africa’s largest stock exchange, and one of the few regional exchanges with no restrictions on foreign participation. “What really helped our stock market grow was this privatisation process,” says Mr Hajji. “We have seen major company assets sold through the stock exchange such as the privatisation of Maroc Telecom, which today has the largest market capitalisation on our stock exchange. We have attracted foreign investors because we have a central depository, which has received an 'A' rating from Thomas Murray; a global settlement system managed by the central bank; and we also have an independent capital markets authority, which is a member of the International Organisation of Securities Commissions.”

Of all the cities in all the world…

Morocco is determinedly positioning itself as an international financial centre, and an important component of its government’s strategy is centred on modernising existing institutions, as well as launching new projects, aiming to reinforce investor confidence in its institutional capacity and business environment. Casablanca will continue to play a central role in developing the country’s economy. Being home to the headquarters of top Moroccan businesses, the government’s move to develop the Casablanca Finance City project, which offers prospective investors a financial hub at the country’s economic heart, was a logical step forward.

“Casablanca Finance City is meant to be a regional financial centre serving north-west and central Africa,” says Said Ibrahimi, the CEO of Casablanca Finance City. “Thus the project represents a decisive step to deepen and internationalise the Moroccan financial sector, aiming to make Casablanca a regional platform for capital markets with a view to attract multinationals, financial institutions and professional services firms to establish their regional headquarters here.”

The driving notion behind this project was the perception that there exists a need for a commercial hub to serve business and finance in the region. The Casablanca Finance City will thus fill this gap, providing a clear point of access within the region and fostering a central meeting point for both incoming and expanding businesses within the continent.

“The Casablanca Finance City is driving a new dynamic of reforms, both within the financial sector and within the general business environment,” says Mr Ibrahimi. “It facilitates access to deals by offering investors a business ecosystem that ensures the availability of financing and access to business opportunities arising from the growing demand in the region.”

Diversified outlook

Nonetheless, in its efforts to diversify and develop the Moroccan economy, the country's government continues to look to Casablanca and beyond, in order to diversify its economy and its centres of commerce. “Being present in Morocco, for example in Casablanca, gives you economies of scale,” says Anass Alami, the director-general of public financial institution CDG Group. “This scale can be created without additional costs. For example, you can find relatively cheap yet competent labour, as we have good universities and qualified people who are trained to international standards, yet also very close to the African culture.”

As the country looks to develop into a regional hub, crucially for the African market, but also more generally for other neighbouring markets, CDG Group has been instrumental in aiding the government to achieve this. As a 50-year-old public financial institution, CDG Group is active in the pensions and savings sector, managing social security funds. It is also a major stakeholder in the country's financial sector; and a leading operator in Morocco’s territorial development. 

“As the largest long-term investor in Morocco, we definitely play a role in helping [the country], and specifically Casablanca, to be an international financial centre [in two ways],” says Mr Alami. “The first is basic infrastructure – we provide plug-and-play office bases for new institutions that would like to set up operations here. We are also a long-term investor, and we contribute to extending the maturity of long-term savings, through new products. We are a unique player in securitising assets, as we hold a majority stake in the mortgage and assets securitisation business.”

CDG Group has also been preparing industrial zones to offer both local and international manufacturers that are establishing their presence in Morocco's state-of-the-art parks to conduct their operations with ease. "We invest heavily in industrial parks as we develop land for businesses that would like to set up base. So we try to do good to the overall Moroccan economy, but also at the same time we remain focused on making returns."

The arm of the Moroccan government stretches far, and its strategy seems centred on making the country a competitive FDI destination through integrating several institutions and regions within its economic strategy. This move may well be a success in maintaining the economy on its growth trajectory  -- and the financial-services offering lies at the heart of this strategy.