Former HIPC countries are back in the red

The Journal reports:

Mozambique was one of the biggest benefactors of debt forgiveness, with its debt slashed from 86% of gross domestic product in 2005 to 9% the next year. The country has built it back up since then to 61% of GDP.

Ghana’s debt was 82% of GDP in 2005 just before the international community forgave about half of it. It’s now up to 73% of GDP and growing, according to the IMF.

The burgeoning debt burdens are putting more pressure on African budgets. The cost of servicing Ghana’s debt will consume nearly 40% of government revenue this year, according to an analysis by Fitch Ratings — twice what is considered sustainable under the rule of thumb used by the IMF and many analysts.

More on this here and here and here.

Oct 10, 1957: Eisenhower apologizes to Ghanaian Minister kicked out of a Howard Johnson’s restaurant

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Time Magazine quoted Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, the Ghanaian Finance Minister as saying:

“If the Vice President of the U.S. can have a meal in my house when he is in Ghana,” (he had entertained Vice President Nixon during his tour of Africa the previous spring), “then I cannot understand why I must receive this treatment at a roadside restaurant in America.”

Eisenhower was quick to diffuse tensions over the incident in order to get ahead of Soviet criticism over the ugly overt racism of 1950s America.

White House summits over racism are not a new thing, after all.

Africa’s looming debt crises

The 1980s are calling. According to Bloomberg:

Zambia’s kwacha fell the most on record after Moody’s Investors Service cut the credit rating of Africa’s second-biggest copper producer, a move the government rejected and told investors to ignore…..

Zambia’s economy faces “a perfect storm” of plunging prices for the copper it relies on for 70 percent of export earnings at the same time as its worst power shortage, Ronak Gopaldas, a credit risk analyst at Rand Merchant Bank in Johannesburg, said by phone. Growth will slow to 3.4 percent in 2015, missing the government’s revised target of 5 percent, Barclays Plc said in a note last week. That would be the most sluggish pace since 2001.

The looming debt crisis will hit Zambia and other commodity exporters hard. As I noted two years ago, the vast majority of the African countries that have floated dollar-denominated bonds are heavily dependent on commodity exports. Many of them are already experiencing fiscal blues on account of the global commodity slump (see for example Angola, Zambia and Ghana). This will probably get worse. And the double whammy of plummeting currencies and reduced commodity exports will increase the real cost of external debt (on top of fueling domestic inflation). I do not envy African central bankers.

Making sure that the looming debt crises do not result in a disastrous retrenchment of the state in Africa, like happened in the 1980s and 1990s, is perhaps the biggest development challenge of our time. Too bad all the attention within the development community is focused elsewhere.

A Commentary on Research Priorities in Development Economics

Over at the Bank’s Future Development blog, Princeton Economist Jeffrey Hammer writes:

The Chief Minister posed serious questions that have traditionally been the bread and butter of the economics profession. Unfortunately, we are not even trying to answer them any more. The specific question was “Should I put more money into transport? Infrastructure (power, roads, water)? Law and order? Social services? Or what? And where am I going to get the money?” What questions could be more solidly part of the core of economics than these? Unfortunately none of these were even remotely the focus of the “evidence-based” policy making discussed.

Almost all of the cases analyzed were  single, simple policy “tweaks” that were, first of all, isolated from the broader market context in which they occurred and, second, had no conception of opportunity cost – what we would have to give up to pursue these things? We had an answer to “how to improve a public food distribution system” but even with a precise answer (to whether a tweak would work) we had no idea whether the substantial amount of money funding such a system is a good idea. Maybe the Chief Minister would be better off improving education or road networks or police or rural electricity. Some of these alternative policies could have more impact on food consumption than food distribution if we thought about how the world worked. Getting food to market securely (roads, better cold storage, trustworthy police and safe roads – this is Pakistan, which no one seemed to notice) may increase food availability much more than any tunnel-visioned food program Or not – maybe the food distribution system is better. We just don’t know. And none of us “experts” are trying to find out.

When someone says “we should have more “X” because we have evidence that it works”, the response should be “compared to what?” What should we cut in order to promote your particular interest? My hobby horse these days is more sanitation in South Asia. I should have to defend it against (at least) a few alternatives.

What’s your justification for your latest hobby horse?

My take on the gap highlighted by Hammer is that what is good for reviewers is seldom useful to policymakers. The incentive for academics is to publish. And this will always be reflected in the design and implementation of interventions headed by academics. This is not necessarily a bad thing [For obvious reasons we should firewall academic research from the actual process of policymaking. The latter should be the political process that it is, albeit informed by the former]. I think the widespread acceptance of rigorous evidence-based policymaking has been a net benefit for the developing world. What it means though, is that the “public sector” development research community — i.e. the IMF, the World Bank, & host country research institutes — should do more to ensure that funding for hyper-targeted interventions do not detract from broader macro research (like, when and why did the rain start beating Ghana?)

However, in the long run, developing countries will be better served by having more and more of their own/country-based politically relevant macroeconomists.

This is because answering the types of questions posed by Hammer requires one to also take a political stand (on account of a lack of consensus among economists). Economists who can’t do this will invariably resort to “technical” solutions that can be perceived as “apolitical” by both host governments and the sponsoring foreign development agencies. Again not necessarily a bad thing, just a reflection of the politics of knowledge production.

H/T William Easterly.

The potential impact of a Chinese slowdown on Africa’s economies

The FT reports:

For Africa’s non-oil exporters, the collapse in crude prices has provided a cushion. But, with many African countries import-dependent, the depreciation of currencies affects inflation and the cost of imports. It will also put a strain on those nations that have taken advantage of investors’ search for yields to tap into international capital markets.

The likes of Zambia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal, and Ivory Coast have all issued foreign currency dominated sovereign bonds in recent years. “In the past, foreign exchange weakness in Africa was largely shrugged off. Economies adapted and found a way to cope with it, but the recent surge in eurobond issuance has been a game-changer,” says Razia Khan, chief economist for Africa at Standard Chartered.

“Now, when currencies depreciate, external risks are magnified, public debt ratios rise, and perceptions of sovereign creditworthiness alter quite dramatically.”

Prof. Deborah Brautigam of SAIS sees the following happening:

  • Prices for African commodities will worsen, then improve. In recent years, China’s slower growth has pushed down prices for gold, crude oil, copper, platinum and iron ore. South Africa’s mining sector was expected to lose over 10,000 jobs due to lower demand
  • Africa will import even more from China. Cheaper Chinese exports will please African consumers while putting Africa’s manufacturers at a further disadvantage. There will be more pressure for tariff protections
  • [L]ow wages in Ethiopia and elsewhere had been attracting significant factory investment from China. With costs now relatively lower in China, the push to relocate factories overseas will slow. This will save Chinese jobs, but postpones Africa’s own structural transformation.

And concludes that:

In the short term it is hard to see how this devaluation can help Africa, notably its productive and export sectors.

The thing to note is that different African countries have different kinds of exposure to China. The commodity exporters (both petroleum and metals) will be hit hard. The effects will be somewhat attenuated in countries exposed primarily through Chinese FDI and infrastructure loans. Domestic fiscal reorganization and resources from the AfDB and other partners should plug a fair bit of the hole left by declining Chinese investments (although certainly nowhere near all of it). And with regard to sovereign debt, a Chinese downturn might persuade the US Central Bank to delay its planned rate hike — which would be good for African currencies and keep the cost of borrowing low.

Lastly, for geopolitical reasons I don’t see China rapidly reducing its footprint on the Continent. In any case, as Howard French makes clear in his latest book, there is a fair bit of (unofficial) private Chinese investment in Africa. Turmoil back home may incentivize these entrepreneurs to plant even deeper roots in Africa and expatriate less of their profits. The net result will be slower growth in Africa. And like in China, slower growth will challenge prevailing political bargains in democracies and autocracies alike.

The Anatomy of Tax Evasion in Africa

Africa Confidential has a great piece analyzing leaked documents from PwC, the professional services firm, showing the various arrangements that enable multinational companies to evade taxes in Africa. You can read the whole piece here (gated).

  • One of the measures PwC advised multinationals to take was to create a wholly-owned Luxembourg-based subsidiary which would hold the rights to intellectual property used by the rest of the group. The rest of the group would then pay licensing fees to the Luxembourg-based subsidiary which, by agreement with the authorities, would be granted tax relief of up to 80%……
  • A second tax avoidance mechanism simply involved the companies becoming incorporated in Luxembourg. In 2010, Luxembourg concluded an agreement with several companies of the Socfin (Société financière) agribusiness group, which was founded during the reign of Belgian King Leopold II by the late Belgian businessman Adrien Hallet. The companies chose Luxembourg as their base and made an agreement under which their dividends were subject to a modest 15% withholding tax, a lower figure than those in force where their farms are located (20% in Congo-K and Indonesia, 18% in Côte d’Ivoire).

The art of hiding profits

Altogether, Socfin subsidiaries in Africa [in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Cameroon] and Indonesia produced 123,660t. of rubber and 380,770t. of palm oil in 2012. The combined turnover of its main African subsidiaries reached €271 mn. in 2013. The list also includes the 100%-owned Plantations Socfinaf Ghana Ltd. (PSG) and Socfin-Brabanta (Congo-Kinshasa). Socfin also holds 88% of Agripalma in São Tomé e Príncipe and 5% of Red Lands Roses (Kenya).

  • A third mechanism involves cross-border lending within a group of companies. Companies registered in Luxembourg are exempt from tax on income from interest.

According to the Thabo Mbeki High Level Panel report between 1980 and 2009 between 1.2tr and 1.4tr left Africa in illicit flows. These figures are most likely an understatement. Multinationals, like the ones highlighted by Africa Confidential, accounted for 60% of these flows.

Alex Cobhan, of the Tax Justice Network, has a neat summary of the various components of illicit financial flows (IFFs) and how to measure them. He also proposes measures that could help limit IFFs, including: (i) eliminating anonymous ownership of companies, trusts, and foundations; (ii) ensuring that all bilateral trade and investment flows occur between jurisdictions which exchange tax information on an automatic basis; and (iii) making all multinational corporations publish data about their economic activity and taxation on a country-by-country basis.

Alex Cobham blogs here.

Is Nigeria’s Economy Overrated?

Here is Izabella Kaminska of the FT:

Source: Financial Times

Source: Financial Times

On the surface, Nigeria’s oil sector has dropped in significance to a mere 13% of real GDP, while the services sector has climbed to 40% in real terms. Yet, the reality is that it is the country’s oil revenues that have supported growth and, to a large extent, maintained social order. Without oil, both would fall apart; government spending would be much smaller, interest rates much higher, and the currency’s valuation much lower.

….. the country’s domestic savings rate, at a measly 20 per cent of GDP, is extremely low for a developing economy at this stage. A key reason being the government’s inability to tame chronically high inflation, meaning bank deposits have earned negative real interest rates for most of the past decade.

More on this here (HT Tyler Cowen).

And by the way, on this score Nigeria is not alone.

In an instance of the triumph of hope over experience The Economist recently pronounced the end of the resource curse in Africa. I do not completely buy their argument. Yes, growth and investment across the Continent may no longer be tightly coupled with natural resource cycles. But from Ghana, to Zambia, macro-economic stability (and important aspects of social spending) are still very tightly tied to movements in the global commodity markets.

Furthermore, many of these countries have recently re-entered the global debt markets partly backed by primary commodities as surety. The same applies to debts owed to Beijing. Last year alone foreign debt issues in the region exceeded $6.5b. As I argued in June of 2013, we might be entering another pre-1980s debt bubble.

Tanking crude prices have put Angola on the ropes. The country recently slashed $14b of previously planned spending. The Cedi and Kwacha took a nosedive (26% and 13%, respectively) last year because of sagging commodity prices (gold and copper) and government deficits (fueled by the expectation of future commodity bonanzas, especially in the case of Ghana whose debt to GDP ratio is now a staggering 65%). Even well-balanced Kenya (also a recent eurobond issuer) has had to go to the IMF for a precautionary loan against currency-related shocks in the near future. The current situation has prompted ODI to warn that:

The exchange-rate risk of sovereign bonds sold by sub-Saharan African governments between 2013 and 2014 threatens losses of $10.8 billion, equivalent to 1.1 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, the ODI said. While Eurobonds are typically issued and repaid in dollars, the depreciation of local currencies in 2014 makes it harder for governments to repay them.

All this brings to the fore SSA’s biggest challenge over the next two decades: How to carry out massive investments in infrastructure and human capital, while at the same time maintaining a sustainably balanced macro environment that is conducive to long-term saving.

Are Power Pools the Answer to Chronic Power Shortages?

Auriol and Biancini have a nice theoretical take on the subject of regional power pools in the World Bank Economic Review:

Power market integration is analyzed in a two-country model with nationally regulated firms and costly public funds. If the generation costs between the two countries are too similar, negative business stealing outweighs efficiency gains so that, subsequent to integration, welfare decreases in both regions. Integration is welfare enhancing when the cost difference between two regions is large enough. The benefits from export profits increase the total welfare in the exporting country, whereas the importing country benefits from a lower price. In this case, market integration also improves incentives to invest compared to autarky. The investment levels remain inefficient, however, especially for transportation facilities. Free riding reduces incentives to invest in these public-good components of the network, whereas business stealing tends to decrease the capacity to finance new investment.


Existing and Planned Power Pools in Africa

There is a lot of excitement in the power sector in Africa these days. Eastern Africa will probably be the most power-rich in the next few years: Ethiopia’s 1870MW Gibe III will likely come online later this year (oh, and there is the ongoing Grand Renaissance Dam project that will produce 6000MW [or 2800MW?]); Kenya has had a massive push for geothermal, solar and wind generation; and Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania have commercially viable deposits of oil and gas that will also come online within the next six years. The region is also very well integrated, although there is need to upgrade power transmission infrastructure. The Bank has an ongoing project in this regard [that is way behind schedule].

For more on this subject see my commentary on energy sector integration in Africa over at the African Development Bank blog.

Working in Development

Sentences to ponder:

Field experience is one of the most important things you can have as an aspiring development professional. It demonstrates your understanding of what development is like on the ground, and shows your genuine commitment to working in the sector. Even a few months in the field scores you more CV points than a much longer period in an office in London or New York.

What’s more, you may be able to land a position with more responsibility than you would back home. For example, our intern Marcus has just returned after two years as a manager of an educational project in Ghana, a job he secured with little previous experience.

For more on what you really need to know before deciding to pursue a career in international development click here.

Working With the Grain in Development

I finally got to reading Brian Levy’s Working With the Grain. It is easily the most underestimated development book of 2014, and should be read alongside William Easterly’s Tyranny of Experts (which it both complements and pushes back against). Like Easterly, Levy worked at the Bank and has insightful case studies and anecdotes from South Korea, to Ethiopia, to Bangladesh, among other countries. The book’s main thrust is that approaches to interventionist development policy ought to internalize the fact that:

… Successful reforms need to be aligned with a country’s political and institutional realities. For any specific reform, an incentive compatible approach begins by asking, who might be the critical mass of actors who both have standing and a stake in the proposed arrangements – and so are in a position to support and protect them in the face of opposition? [p. 142-3]

From a policy perspective, Levy tackles the relationship between governance, regime types, and development head on. How do you deal with the Biyas, Kagames or Zenawis of this world if you deeply care about [both] the material aspects of human welfare – roads, hospitals, schools, electricity, etc., [and] political freedoms and inclusive institutions?

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Levy’s answer is that development experts should work with the grain, focusing on incrementally solidifying past gains in specific agencies and issue areas, instead of engaging in epic battles against ill-defined and equally poorly understood “bad institutions” and evils like “corruption.” He aptly points out that you do not need the full set of the “good governance” bundle in order to continue chugging along on the path to economic prosperity.

In other words, we don’t have to put everything else on pause until we get the institutions right (or topple the bad guys). It is not an all or nothing game. His argument is persuasive (“good governance” has failed as a prescriptive remedy for underdevelopment), albeit at the cost of casting the immense toll of living under autocratic regimes as somewhat ineluctable on the road to economic prosperity. But at least he dares to challenge conventional approaches to governance reform that have at best failed, and at worst distracted governing elites from initiatives that could have worked to improve human welfare in developing countries.

As I read the book I wondered what Levy might think of the current state of development research. We are lucky to live in an age of increasing appreciation for evidence-based policy development, implementation, and evaluation. However, the resulting aura of “objectivity” in development research often leaves little room for politics, and its inefficiencies and contextual nuances. Sometimes the quest for generalizability makes us get too much into the weeds and forget that what is good for journal reviewers seldom passes the politicians’ (or other influential actors’) incentive compatibility test, rendering our findings useless from their perspective.

It is obvious, but worth reiterating, that the outcomes we can quantify, and therefore study, do not always overlap with the most pressing issues in development or policies that are politically feasible.

Perhaps this is a call for greater investment in public policy schools (not two-day capacity building workshops) in the developing world that will train experts to bridge the gap between academic development research and actual policy formulation and implementation (talking to policymakers makes your realize that this gap is wider than you think). Linking research findings to actual policy may sound easy, but you only need to see a “policy recommendations” section of a report written by those of us in the academy to know that it is not.