Just How Bad is Public Debt in Africa?

Well, public debt in African states is much higher if you take into account their revenue mobilization capacities. The bigger the informal sector, the lower the debt/revenues ratio.

Consider the case of Nigeria (from the FT):

Nigeria’s accumulated government debt is just 18.6 per cent of its annual economic output, one of the lowest levels in the world, implying that its debt burden is more than manageable. But is this a fair reflection of reality?

Using a different metric, the Nigerian government’s gross debt is 320 per cent of its annual revenues, according to figures from Fitch Ratings, one of the highest figures in the world and comfortably above the median of 196 per cent for countries in Africa and the Middle East that are rated by Fitch.

More on this here.

 

Nigeria has a shockingly tiny government

These are figures from an IMF Article IV country report in April of this year:

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The one thing that jumped at me from this table was how little(as a share of total national output) the Nigerian public sector spends. The government barely takes in 10% of GDP in revenues; and spends between 11-12%. Also, for a country at its level of development (and with an economy of its size), Nigeria is weirdly debt free (relatively speaking).

You may be thinking that these figures must exclude state government expenditures — and you are wrong. The 11-12% figure is inclusive of state government expenditures.

In my view, this is a PFM smoking gun on the distortionary effects of oil dependence. Nigerian policymakers appear to be sated with the little revenue they are consuming (as a share of GDP) from the oil sector.

For a comparative perspective, take a look at Kenya’s numbers:

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The Kenyan government gobbles up about a fifth of GDP in revenues, and spends about a quarter. The Nigerian government only takes in a tenth of GPD and spends just a little over a tenth. In addition, the Kenyan government’s debt/GDP ratio is twice Nigeria’s.

General government spending as a share of GDP within the OECD ranges from 33.7% in Switzerland to 58.1 in Finland. The OCED debt/GDP ratio average is 90%.

Back in grad school I took Avner Greif’s economic history class in which he emphasized the importance of organizations for economic development. Societies, big and small, organize out of poverty — by building and maintaining socially-attuned institutions that lower transaction costs. The scope and intensity of organizational capacity therefore matters for economic development (For more see here). It takes a well ordered state.

And from these two tables, it is fair to say that the Nigerian state is underperforming relative to its organizational potential. Perhaps it’s time more people in Abuja started reading Alexander Gerschenkron (however dated this might be).

 

 

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.