Is there such a thing as predatory sovereign lending?

The Wall Street Journal has a great story on Mozambique’s stolen hidden debt scandal:

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 8.03.37 PM.pngThe government picked Mr. Safa’s company, Privinvest, to supply ships, including patrol and surveillance vessels, and asked its help getting financing. The company disputes the characterization of the ships as military, saying they weren’t outfitted with weapons. Privinvest approached Credit Suisse about a loan for Mozambique, and a committee of senior executives, including then-CEO Gaël de Boissard, approved the deal.

Credit Suisse’s top brass signed off in part because the bank had pioneered a way to lend in developing countries without taking on much risk.

The bank found it could purchase sovereign-debt insurance through the Lloyd’s of London insurance market to hedge as much as 90% of the loans against default. Credit Suisse charged higher interest rates on the debt than its insurance premiums, pocketing the difference mostly risk free.

The insurance policies Credit Suisse used only covered governments. So when Mozambique wanted to borrow the money through state-owned companies instead, the bank came up with a twist: Mozambique would cosign.

FT notes that:

The debt was originally borrowed via a special purpose vehicle for Ematum [tuna fishing company], an arrangement that does not require the same level of disclosure as a sovereign bond issue.

Basically Credit Suisse, the Russian VTB Capital, and their Mozambican accomplices knew exactly what they were doing.

When the money got to Mozambique it mostly went into private pockets. The proposed tuna business the loans were intended to finance went bust (realizing a paltry 2.5% of projected sales). And the security purchases (ostensibly to secure Mozambique’s vast yet-to-be-developed gas fields) proved useless.

Meanwhile…

…….conditions in Mozambique are worsening. Its foreign-currency reserves fell to $1.8 billion in May from $2 billion in January, and it is seeking $180 million in food aid. Intensified fighting has sent more than 10,000 refugees to neighboring Malawi, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

Credit Suisse is a Swiss financial services company. According to the WSJ Privinvest’s struggling subsidiary Constructions Mécaniques de Normandie built the ships sold to Mozambique. The latter is, of course, based in France. Corruption knows no borders.

Mozambique may have squandered up to $2b of borrowed money

Public Finance is emerging to be one of the biggest development challenges of our age. Here’s Africa Confidential on Mozambique’s hidden loans, which may amount to more than $2b.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 1.38.32 PMSources close to Rosário Fernandes, ex-head of the revenue authority, the Autoridade Tributária de Moçambique, have told us of systematic diversions of taxes straight into the pockets of the Frelimo elite, especially in the later years of President Guebuza’s term of office, when he exercised enormous patronage. Massively inflated contracts were commonplace. The latest to emerge is the extravagant, nearly complete, Bank of Mozambique building in Maputo, which boasts a helicopter landing pad on the roof. Originally estimated to cost $90 mn., the final cost is reckoned at at least $300 mn., with kickbacks and ‘commissions’ accounting for the cost inflation, say Frelimo sources.

Guebuza engaged in an ultimately doomed attempt to extend his term of office, which ended in October 2014, and this partly explains the extraordinary scale of his liberality towards loyalists, sources formerly close to him told us (AC Vol 53 No 18, The Putin option). The schemes became increasingly brazen, and the creation in 2013 and 2014 of three companies – Empresa Moçambicana de Atum (Ematum), Proindicus and Mozambique Asset Management (MAM) – was the culmination of this programme. The companies, which received the totality of the $2 bn. now owed by the state, were mainly in the field of maritime security, even though it was the intelligence and security services that provided the management. They bypassed parliament, illegally, and defence procurement, effectively privatising, as one commentator put it, national security while lining the pockets of the elite into the bargain. Yet the ill-equipped companies could not cope and quickly collapsed. Ematum, which originally claimed to be focused on tuna fishing, is no longer operating its few licensed vessels because it cannot pay salaries (AC Vol 56 No 24, Nyusi’s nightmare).

Kenya, Zambia, among others, have also borrowed enormous amounts of money that have not been properly accounted for. Several of these countries have recently gotten cover from the IMF that all is well. But the IMF has strong incentives to save face and maintain confidence that it does its job.

If Mozambique could do it, what stops more sophisticated treasuries elsewhere on the Continent?

I am increasingly convinced that Africa’s newfound love with international creditors is a bond bubble waiting to happen. The 1980s and early 1990s sucked. And we might be headed for a repeat if the African states floating eurobonds continue on the same path.

How Kshs. 38.5 billion ($385m) of borrowed money “disappeared” from Kenya’s budget

… the June 2013/14 bond issues were moved to the 2014/15 opening balances carried forward from 2013/14 at that time, while the November bond issues were recorded as 2014/15 revenues. If so, we would have a balance of Ksh38.5 billion in the bank, and the full Ksh75 billion (what we had estimated at Ksh67.5 billion) coming onto the budget in 2014/15.

There are no further changes in these numbers in the final fourth quarter COB report for 2014/15, suggesting that by the end of that year, all but Ksh38.5 billion of the Eurobond had come onto the budget and been spent.

The Ksh38.5 billion balance was not brought onto the budget for 2015/16 at the beginning of the year. The August 31 Statement of Actual Revenues shows no budgeted carryover from 2014/15 and an actual balance carried forward of only Ksh204 million. There is a budgeted revenue of Ksh72 billion in further commercial loans for the year, and nothing collected as of August.

So… what happened to the Ksh38.5 billion balance? If it was not spent, it is hard to see why the government wouldn’t be using it now to smooth liquidity during an apparent cash crunch. If it was spent, when did it come onto the budget, for what purpose and why isn’t it visible in public reports? Cabinet Secretary for the Treasury Henry Rotich recently claimed that all of the Eurobond money was spent, but I have not found any official documents showing when the final balance came on budget.

Why should basic facts about billions of shillings require us to sift through vague reports and still come up short?

Lakin’s excellent accounting narrative of budget figures from FY2013/14-FY2015/16 is available here. 

So where did the money really go? Only Treasury Secretary Henry Rotich can tell us what happened, with certainty. In the meantime Kenyans can only speculate. Which is why it is very odd that CS Rotich so far has barely bothered to explain himself.

How tragic would it be if it emerged that someone (or a group of people) stole Kshs. 38.5b ($385m) of borrowed money?

The confusion over the Eurobond cash has elevated public uproar over corruption in the public sector to new levels. The only problem is that blame has been spread thin, with everyone in government being blamed (and no single officer really feeling the pressure, with the possible exception of CS Waiguru).

In my view the two people that should be forced to explain themselves (regardless of whether they are individually corrupt or not) are CS Henry Rotich at Treasury; and the Chairman of the Parliamentary Budget Committee, Hon. Mutava Musyimi. These two men should shoulder any blame arising from any emergent violations of the Public Finance Management Act.

A focus on specific officers and their specific failures will perhaps give the president political cover to get rid of offending public officials. The fundamental challenge of the anti-corruption drive in Kenya at the moment is that it continues to be blind and deaf to political realities. The president is a politician, with an eye on reelection in 2017. The challenge for reformers is therefore to come up with incentive-compatible means (for the president) of dealing with corruption and incompetence in the public sector before then. (The president himself admitted on record that a significant number of public officials are corrupt). Mere calls for public officials, including the president, to act nice will not work. That is the tragedy of politics.

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.

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.

Africa’s newfound love with creditors: Bond bubble in the making?

I know it is increasingly becoming not kosher to put a damper on the Africa Rising narrative (these guys missed the memo, H/T Vanessa) but here is a much needed caution from Joe Stiglitz and Hamid Rashid, over at Project Syndicate, on SSA’s emerging appetite for private market debt (Africa needs US $90b for infrastructure; it can only raise $60 through taxes, FDI and concessional loans):

To the extent that this new lending is based on Africa’s strengthening economic fundamentals, the recent spate of sovereign-bond issues is a welcome sign. But here, as elsewhere, the record of private-sector credit assessments should leave one wary. So, are shortsighted financial markets, working with shortsighted governments, laying the groundwork for the world’s next debt crisis?

…….Evidence of either irrational exuberance or market expectations of a bailout is already mounting. How else can one explain Zambia’s ability to lock in a rate that was lower than the yield on a Spanish bond issue, even though Spain’s [which is not Uganda…] credit rating is four grades higher? Indeed, except for Namibia, all of these Sub-Saharan sovereign-bond issuers have “speculative” credit ratings, putting their issues in the “junk bond” category and signaling significant default risk.

The risks are real, especially when you consider the exposure to global commodity prices among the ten African countries that have floated bonds so far – Ghana, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Angola, Nigeria, Namibia, Zambia, and Tanzania.

In order to justify the exposure to the relatively higher risk and lending rates on the bond market (average debt period 11.2 years at 6.2% compared to 28.7 years at 1.6% for concessional loans) African governments must ensure prudent investment in sectors that will yield the biggest bang for the buck. And that also means having elaborate plans for specific projects with adequate consideration of the risks involved.

Here in Zambia (which is heavily dependent on Copper prices), the Finance Minister recently had to come out to defend how the country is using the $750 million it raised last year on the bond market (2013-14 budget here). Apparently there was no comprehensive plan for the cash so some of the money is still in the bank awaiting allocation to projects (It better be earning net positive real interest).

“They are fighting each other. By the time they have projects to finance, they will have earned quite a lot of interest from the Eurobond money they deposited. So, all the money is being used properly,” he [Finance Minister] said.

Following the initial success the country’s public sector plans to absorb another $4.5b in debt that will raise debt/GDP ratio from current ~25% to 30%. One hopes that there will be better (prior) planning this time round.

Indeed, last month FT had a story on growing fears over an Emerging (and Frontier) Markets bond bubble which had the following opening paragraph:

As far as financial follies go, tulip mania takes some beating. But future economic historians may look back at the time when investors financed a convention centre in Rwanda as the moment that the rush into emerging market bonds became frothy.

The piece also highlights the fact that the new rush to lend to African governments is not entirely driven by fundamentals – It is also a result of excess liquidity occasioned by ongoing quantitative easing in the wake of the Great Recession.

I remain optimistic about the incentive system that private borrowing will create for African governments (profit motive of creditors demands for sound macro management) and the potential for this to result in a nice virtuous cycle (if there is one thing I learned in Prof. Shiller’s class, it is the power of positive feedback in the markets).

But I also hope that when the big three “global” central banks start mopping up the cash they have been throwing around we won’t have a repeat of the 1980s, or worse, a cross between the 1980s (largely sovereign defaults) and the 1990s (largely private sector defaults) if the African private sector manages to get in on the action.

African governments, please proceed with caution.