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Africa isn’t borrowing much but paying dearly for debt

By Misheck Mutize, The Conversation | February 25th 2020

There is renewed concern about the sustainability of rising debt levels in many African countries.

Much of this debt is being incurred through foreign currency denominated Eurobonds issued on international financial markets.

The total value of Eurobonds issued between 2018 and 2019 was more than the value of all bonds sold between 2003 to 2016.

African governments are issuing and listing their Eurobonds on established international debt markets – usually London and Irish Stock Exchanges. African governments would venture offshore a lot less if domestic bond markets were active and liquid.

But besides South Africa, African bond markets are largely underdeveloped with inactive and illiquid secondary markets. This makes it difficult to attract international investor participation locally. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) believes that African countries are on a Eurobond issuing spree and half of them are near or at distressed levels.

It argues that African governments are piling on debt without evaluating the exchange rate risks and the real costs of repaying the debts. But, in my view, the debt alarm being set off by international debt management organisations is exaggerated.

The problem is not that African countries are borrowing too much, but rather they are paying too much interest. There are several reasons for this, including badly informed ratings by rating agencies, as well as the behaviour of issuers. There are solutions. But these require African governments to stand up and take action.

There are two key elements that are taken into account in assessing a country’s debt burden. One is the level of debt based on the ratio of debt to gross domestic product (GDP). The other is the cost of servicing the debt – interest payments.

Debt levels on the continent, for example, are on average way below the 100 per cent debt-to-GDP ratio mark. But the impression created is that they are much higher. This exaggerated perception of African debt levels has resulted in countries paying higher interest rates on debt.

The premiums are much higher than those paid by other countries. In my view, these are not justified by the risk profile of African countries.

Save for four countries – Cape Verde, Djibouti, Congo and Mozambique - all the other African countries have a debt-to-GDP ratio averaging 60 per cent.

A debt-to-GDP ratio of 60 per cent is the IMF’s and African Monetary Co-operation Program’s threshold for prudent debt levels.

The scale of debt issuances in Africa amounts to only one per cent of the continent’s total GDP annually – whose average annual growth rate is four per cent.

In simple terms, this means the value of income generation is higher than the rate of government debt accumulation.

These ratios give a snapshot of the country’s fiscal sustainability. On the contrary, the amount of interest expenditure has been disproportionate to the debt-to-GDP ratio. Studies show that in developed economies, an increase of one per cent in the debt-to-GDP ratio is associated with an increase of between 0.02 per cent and 0.03 per cent in interest rates.

African governments are paying interest of five per cent to 16 per cent on 10-year government bonds, compared to near-zero to negative rates in Europe and America. On average, the interest repayment is the highest expenditure portion and remains the fastest growth expenditure in sub-Saharan Africa’s fiscal budgets. The rising interest rates on Africa’s debt should be of major concern. African countries are shortchanging themselves by accepting high yield curves in their Eurobond Initial Public Offerings. This unjustifiably cements the perception that they are high-risk issuers.

The high-interest rates are driven by several key factors. First, the mismatch between the short-term duration of the debt those African governments have taken on by issuing Eurobonds compared to the long-term nature of the infrastructure projects they propose to fund with the money raised through Eurobonds.

The excessive need to attract investors is forcing African governments to borrow short-term to finance long-term projects.

Second, fungibility of Eurobonds proceeds – flexibility to be utilised for purposes other than the ones they were raised for – exposes the funds to the downside vulnerabilities of misappropriation and nonproductive expenditures.

 Credit ratings

Third is poor credit ratings as the majority of countries are in junk status. Credit ratings are pivotal in the determination of both interest rates and the demand for bonds.

The weaknesses of rating agencies’ risk assessments have widely been criticised. According to sovereign credit methodologies of the big three rating agencies, economic growth is a decisive factor in past sovereign credit events.

There is a strong positive correlation between economic strength and creditworthiness. But in Africa, high economic growth has not translated into better sovereign ratings. Despite consistent positive economic growth averaging 3.6 per cent among 32 rated African states, data show that the number of downgrades and negative outlooks is almost double that of upgrades and positive outlooks.

This implies that African countries are now worse off than they previously were. This overlooks the continent’s significant progress in governance, economic growth and human development over the past years.

Take Ethiopia. It has a current economic growth of 8.5 per cent and has been hovering between eight to 11 per cent for over 10 years. But it has not had a single upgrade activity from any of the three global rating agencies.

Senegal, one of Africa’s most stable countries experiencing three peaceful political transitions since its independence in 1960, has maintained an economic growth averaging six per cent over the past 10 years.

But it remains in junk status rating. Some of what drives higher interest rates also rests with Africa governments. For example, a lack of sufficient information about the specific ‘use of proceeds’ in prospectuses during Eurobond Initial Public Offerings is magnifying the risk of fiscal indiscipline.

It means that funds have no conditionalities or any lines of accountability. It is also the case that governments use the money they raise on loss-making projects and nonproductive fiscal expenditure.

Two examples illustrate the point: the failing Kuraz mega sugar project in Ethiopia was funded from the 2014 Eurobond as was Kenya's Standard Gauge Railway, which is failing to stimulate any new economic activity.

African countries can act to address the rising interest burden, and to avert falling into a debt trap through the following mechanisms: Governments should use the money raised to fund profitable projects and use the profits from these projects to repay interest owed.

Governments must take control of the bond issuance process during the bond structuring stage. They must exercise their choice of accepting or rejecting investors’ bids. It is imperative for African countries to structure bonds with favourable yields and tenure.

This process should not be entirely renounced to syndicates of lead-managers, originators and investment banks. Eurobond issuances have been oversubscribed by three times on average – which simply shows that demand is outweighing supply.

Countries should manage lead issuance advisers to negotiate for low rates to be saved from unnecessary costs.  

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