News / Economy

Decade After Debt Relief, Africa's Rush to Borrow Stirs Concern

Reuters
Nearly a decade after Nelson Mandela and anti-poverty activists Bono and Bob Geldof persuaded the rich world to forgive Africa's crushing debts, many countries' debt levels are creeping up again, which could undermine the region's growth boom.
      
As African states line up to join the growing club of dollar bond issuers, economists and analysts warn of a slide back into indebtedness that could undo recent economic gains and create a “Eurobond curse” to match the distorting “resource curse.”
      
“Eurobonds have become like stock exchanges, private jets and presidential palaces. Every African leader wants to have one,” said one investor, asking not to be named.
      
In 2007, Ghana became the first African beneficiary of debt relief to tap international capital markets, issuing a $750 million 10-year Eurobond. Since then, previously debt-burdened countries, such as Senegal, Nigeria, Zambia and Rwanda, have also put their names on the list of bond issuers.
         
Governments seeking to replace declining foreign aid and pay for infrastructure are also taking concessional funds from multilateral institutions, more expensive commercial bank loans and bilateral financing from lenders like China and Brazil.
      
No sub-Saharan countries are in immediate danger of default and most are largely financing themselves domestically, but the debt build-up is stirring up troubling memories of the past.
      
“The financial sector loves to find people to prey on and their most recent prey are governments in developing countries,” Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz told Reuters in an interview during a conference in Johannesburg this month.
      
“They get overindebted, they get a bailout from the World Bank and IMF and they start over again. I think it's unconscionable, but their memory is short and their greed is large, so it's going to happen again,” said Stiglitz.
          
Up to 30 low-income sub-Saharan African countries had their debts reduced under the IMF and World Bank's Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, which was later supplemented by the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI).
      
An estimated $100 billion of debt was wiped out, easing countries' onerous debt burdens, often the result of loans taken on by corrupt regimes. These had meant more being spent on debt service payments than on health and education combined.
      
Risk of over-borrowing
          
Although debt sustainability in Africa has improved since the debt relief initiative, a forthcoming World Bank paper warns of a risk of over-borrowing, especially by countries expecting new revenues from resource discoveries. One of the co-authors of the study shared its findings with Reuters.
         
In Ghana, Uganda, Mozambique, Senegal, Niger, Malawi, Benin and Sao Tome and Principe, debt levels are creeping back up. If all continue to borrow and grow at current rates their debt indicators could be back to pre-relief levels within a decade.
      
Others with rapidly rising debt ratios include Ethiopia, Tanzania and Burkina Faso.
      
Nevertheless, the study finds that on average there has only been a modest rise in debt-to-GDP ratios in nearly a decade.
         
In the 26 African HIPC beneficiaries studied, nominal public debt fell from a GDP-weighted average of 104 percent of GDP before relief, to 27 percent by 2006 when most had received full debt relief. Half a decade later the ratio was at 34 percent.
      
The trend has been broadly the same for resource-rich and resource-poor, and high- and low-income economies, said Mark Roland Thomas, a World Bank manager and co-author of the paper, the first review of debt dynamics in Africa since debt relief.
      
Ghana, which sold a new $750 million Eurobond and bought back a portion of the 2017 issue last year, shows how growing debt levels can threaten countries' fiscal dynamics.
      
Ghana's stability and roaring economic growth, reaching 14.5 percent in 2011, have made it an investor favorite. But the government's inability to tame widening fiscal deficits has led to a deterioration in its debt ratios. Its debt now represents just over half of its GDP, from 32 percent in 2008.
      
An expanding current account gap has hit the cedi currency, which has weakened more than 9 percent against the dollar this year, after a 24 percent slide in 2013. Fitch downgraded the cocoa, gold and oil producer to B from B-plus last October.
      
In a sign of waning market confidence, yields on Ghana's sovereign debt are higher than for any other African country with an actively traded international bond, at around 9 percent for its 2023 Eurobond and over 20 percent for domestic debt.
      
Zambia's story is in some ways a slow-motion version of Ghana's. Africa's biggest copper producer, which sold a hugely oversubscribed debut $750 million Eurobond in 2012 and plans to return to the market, was also downgraded by Fitch last year.
      
Zambia's debt is around 30 percent of GDP, still quite low. The government needs to spend on roads and energy but economists worry its current pace of borrowing cannot be sustained.
         
‘Eurobond curse?’
          
For Michael Cirami, an emerging markets fund manager at Eaton Vance Corp, Ghana and Zambia challenge the notion that sustained growth is a given for African nations. While international bonds bring countries into the global financial market and scrutiny from investors can improve policymaking, there may also be a flipside of looser fiscal policy, he said.
      
“I wonder and sometimes fear about a Eurobond curse, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where all of a sudden you get what seems like a windfall of money and you end up with policymaking deteriorating,” he said.
      
Ghana's GDP will likely only grow by 4.8 percent in 2014, the IMF estimates, from 5.5 percent last year. The market has less faith than the government that future growth will be enough to repay debtors, said Antoon de Klerk, a fund manager at Investec.
      
“If Ghana's growth falls short of expectations, it will very quickly run into debt servicing problems,” de Klerk wrote in a note to clients.
          
Ghana's finance ministry declined to comment.
          
In Zambia, ministry of finance permanent secretary Felix Nkulukusa told Reuters that concessional financing from the IMF and World Bank was insufficient to fund big infrastructure projects, forcing the country to turn to private creditors.
      
“The pace of borrowing is sustainable because we are not going to be borrowing forever,” he said.
          
The World Bank and IMF say Ghana and Zambia's debt is sustainable at current levels but Ghana is vulnerable to shocks.
          
Tougher questions
      
Despite misgivings about certain countries, Africa is still in a fundamentally different place than it was 20 or 30 years ago when the old debts were taken on, thanks to robust growth and better public sector management, said Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Development.
      
Borrowing from private creditors also puts a higher burden on leaders to be responsible, Moss said, “whereas borrowing from the World Bank, there's clearly a dynamic of lend and forgive.”
      
The challenge for governments will be to ensure that borrowed funds are invested wisely and not mismanaged.
      
Eurobonds may also be a short-term funding solution for Africa as tapering of the U.S. Federal Reserve's bond-buying stimulus ends an era of low interest rates in the rich world that sent investors rushing to higher-yielding emerging markets.
      
Investors will do more homework on issuers' fundamentals than in the past and ask tougher questions about use of funds, bankers say. A key test will be if infrastructure investments generate returns that enable governments to service their debts.
      
Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement, said governments should use borrowed funds to reduce commodity dependency, which is still a widespread problem for Africa.
      
“Getting more minerals out of the ground may be very beneficial for Western nations... but if it's not developing African economies in a genuine way they're likely to be left with the debt and none of the resources they've invested in,” said Dearden.

You May Like

Ukraine: Mysterious 'Roaming Tank' Reportedly Takes Aim at Smugglers

Ukraine's TV, print media, Facebook abuzz with reports a 'roaming tank' is on the loose, destroying vehicles of those involved in smuggling More

US Wildlife Service Begins Probe of Killing of Cecil the Lion

Minnesota man accused of killing beast is in hiding, has been asked to contact US officials; White House to review extradition petition More

Video Kerry Five-Nation Tour to Cover Security, Iran Nuclear Deal

Secretary of state will visit Egypt, Qatar, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam to discuss security issues, Iran nuclear deal, Trans-Pacific Partnership More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Japhet
March 18, 2014 3:13 PM
What about Zimbabwe? please explain the state of their economy .

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.9066
JPY
USD
123.75
GBP
USD
0.6394
CAD
USD
1.2954
INR
USD
63.904

Rates may not be current.