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.

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