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Vol 61 No 15

Published 23rd July 2020

A state of disconnect

African treasuries are putting a positive spin on their own finances, but the message from the markets is grim. Something has to give

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2020

The message from African finance ministers is that while the overall picture facing the continent is bleak in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many economies are resilient enough to ride out the storm. The expansive optimism of East African finance ministers as they unveiled their budgets for 2020/21 has been repeated across much of the continent (AC Vol 61 No 13, Rose-tinted budgets).

That is hard to square with the warnings from markets, grim economic forecasts and the lack of urgency at international level to provide adequate debt relief or emergency funding. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank forecast recessions of minus 2.8% and 3.2% respectively in sub-Saharan Africa (AC Vol 61 No 14, Doubts over post-slump bounce). Yet few in government, business or the international system show signs of preparing for an  approaching tsunami.

While the African Union's expert group and African finance ministers are seeking debt relief worth US$44 billion as part of $110bn of financing, few international organisations want to expand on the Group of Twenty's (G20) April offer to suspend bilateral debt repayments until the end of 2020 as part of a Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). Forty-two countries have applied for the programme, amounting to an estimated $5.3bn of 2020 debt service to be deferred (AC Vol 61 No 9, AU pushes Africa bonds).

On 18 July, G20 Finance Ministers postponed a decision on extending the scope of the DSSI until October. They requested new aid and financing options from the IMF, which are likely to include easier access to Special Drawing Rights.

In their communique on 18 July, G20 ministers, whose countries about for about 80% of the world's gross domestic product, said they would 'consider a possible extension of the DSSI in the second half of 2020, taking into account the development of the Covid-19 pandemic situation and the findings of a report from the IMF and the World Bank Group on the liquidity needs of eligible countries, which will be submitted to the G20 in advance of our meeting in October 2020'. That means no new initiatives until the autumn meetings of the Fund and World Bank.

Meanwhile, the AU's plan to set up a continent-wide special purpose vehicle to convert debt into longer-term instruments, has obtained little support. Although some have detected more G20 support for commercial lenders to offer concessions.

'The G20 Finance Ministers offered stronger language on private sector participation in debt-relief initiatives for poor countries,' said Jubilee USA executive chairman Eric LeCompte, one of few NGO leaders to sound a positive note on the meeting.

Yet discussions on private-sector debt restructuring have scarcely moved. The Africa Private Creditor Working Group (AfricaPCWG), which brings together 25 private creditors with more than $9 trillion in assets under management, including Farallon Capital Europe, Aberdeen Asset Management, Amia Capital, Greylock Capital Management and Pharo Management, has suggested that any debt deal will be made on a case-by-case basis.

More sobering messages come from credit rating agencies, which are warning that negotiating and restructuring sovereign debt will be classified as a default. They reckon that at least a handful of African states are likely to default within the next 12 months.

Fitch expects average budget deficits in Africa to reach 7.4% in 2020, from 4.9% in 2019. The result, combined with currency depreciation, will mean a 14% average increase in debt-to-GDP ratios this year which will, in turn, undermine creditworthiness in the absence of special arrangements. Debt-to-GDP ratios of 70% are likely to become 'the new normal' among African countries, say analysts, and sub-Saharan African government debt burdens are escalating at a faster pace than anywhere else in emerging markets.

Fitch has downgraded seven of the 19 rated SSA sovereigns since March, and adds that four sovereigns in the region have 'Negative Outlooks' on their rating, which is unusually high.

Rival ratings agency Moody's, meanwhile, has put Ethiopia, Cameroon, Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire on review after the countries opted into the DSSI, prompting a frustrated reaction from the United Nations' Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which said that the DSSI scheme 'should improve countries' debt sustainability, and therefore should not be a basis for credit downgrades'.

'Borrowing countries should come out of the programme with stronger credit than if they had not participated,' DESA added.

Fitch has taken a less hawkish view and says that since its Issuer Default Ratings (IDRs) only refer to defaults on commercial debt, participation would not constitute a default. While a broader private-sector moratorium could qualify as a default, says Fitch, this does not seem sufficiently likely to affect credit ratings.

However, this inconsistency is certain to encourage further concern among African finance ministers about the implications of the DSSI and other potential debt-relief measures.

Kenyan finance minister Ukur Yatani has already said his country would not seek a suspension of debt payments because the terms of the deal were too restrictive, and that debt relief could hurt his country's credit rating. Nigeria and Togo have also indicated that they will not use the DSSI.

This feeds into a lively debate about the risks and rewards of African borrowers restructuring debt. Bankers argue that longer-term arrangements could undermine market access for African governments and companies and will hold back the development of capital markets there.

Kenya and Côte d'Ivoire are still planning to issue Eurobonds before the end of 2020.

The IMF's emergency funding mechanism will not come close to plugging the gap. However, the funds required by African countries are, in relative terms, small. Compared to other regions, the stimulus measures made by sub-Saharan African governments are, at 3.4% of GDP on average, easily the lowest in the world. In comparison, Latin American states have spent just under 6% of GDP on stimulus budgets to counter the pandemic.

Without debt relief, or budgetary austerity (and the latter appears to have been ruled out partly because of the damage it will do to private businesses), bankers warn that countries such as Zambia, Zimbabwe and Sudan will face deeper debt repayment problems.

Adam Wolfe of Absolute Strategy Research, reckons that Egypt, Zambia and Ghana are most vulnerable to debt distress, while large economies such as South Africa and Nigeria also face elevated levels of risk.

While Nigeria is among several sovereigns to have shied away from issuing new Eurobonds this year after seeing a spike in interest rates, those that do go to market later this year might be timing it well. With budget deficits set to widen dramatically, and little sign from African treasuries that tax rises and spending cuts will be made to rein them in, the bond market is unlikely to be any more generous in a year or 18 months.

More likely is that without a 'V-shaped' recovery – which looks increasingly unlikely – many countries' public finances will be looking over the edge of the precipice in a year's time. In the meantime, the disconnect between hard economic data and ministerial rhetoric is getting wider.



Little room to manoeuvre

International efforts to alleviate Africa's debt burden, whether assisted by the Group of Twenty, International Monetary Fund, targeted bilateral negotiations or otherwise, continue to fall short of requirements.  The almost US$10.6 billion in IMF emergency financing approved to date for sub-Saharan African countries is accompanied by approximately $200 million in IMF 'catastrophe containment and relief trust' debt service relief, over $9bn IMF emergency financing for Egypt, Tunisia and other non-SSA economies, additional financing from the World Bank, African Development Bank and other sources, and the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI).

Yet this still leaves SSA with an estimated $44bn financing shortfall this year, out of an overall $110bn estimated financing need. Some countries, including South Africa and Nigeria, in theory have access to substantial domestic financing, albeit at high cost compared to concessional borrowing, yet others will have no such recourse.

Despite recent reductions in credit spreads on African Eurobond debt since March and April spikes, capital outflows remain a problem and risk. Facing a possible default on its outstanding Eurobonds, Zambia's negotiations with commercial creditors are likely to be complicated and protracted, much like negotiations with major lender China, though Beijing's recent announcement of its participation in the G20 DSSI, and suggestion it will write-off the modest interest-free portion of Africa's China debts, could indicate some willingness to make future concessions even if at a price. Eurobond and commercial debt negotiations, whether by Zambia or other African debtors, will continue to be watched carefully by sceptical ratings agencies.

Although Africa's debts and fiscal deficits are set to rise significantly this year, these increases are likely – on average – to be modest as a proportion of GDP in comparison with debt and deficit hikes in advanced economies, which are on schedule to register significantly greater increases than during the global financial crisis. This comparison partly reflects the modest fiscal space most African economies have at their disposal, which is significantly more limited than during the 2007-08 financial crisis.

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