Over the past few years, Russian companies have shown an increasing interest towards investment and preparedness to compete with other foreign players in Africa, but they have also complained bitterly of lack of state financial support and investment credit guarantees from policy banks and money-lending institutions.
China, India and Japan, and more recently the United States have provided funds to support companies ready to carry out projects in various sectors in African countries.
This situation has sparked discussions among policy experts. For instance, Dr Martyn Davies, Chief Executive Officer of the South African based Frontier Advisory (Pty) Ltd, does not think that the Chinese model of financing various infrastructure and construction projects in Africa is replicable considering the current structure/nature of the Chinese policy banking system, adding that Russia’s banking sector operates quite differently.
There are now approximately 50 leading Chinese state-owned enterprises that are all Fortune 500 firms that are present in Africa, with the majority of these active in infrastructure and construction in Africa, he explained to Buziness Africa.
Explaining further, he said although the rapidity of and pervasiveness of their market entry into Africa has taken many by surprise, and the main factor that has assisted this speedy market engagement was that the projects were largely “de-risked” from a financial perspective.
Arguably the single greatest risk of contracting (with governments) in Africa is ultimately getting paid. In the case of the Chinese contracted projects, the Chinese state’s so-called policy banks have provided finance and have underwritten the infrastructure roll-out very often supported by sovereign guarantees from the recipient African state. No other (even development) banks have been willing to absorb such financial risks on infrastructure projects in Africa. This accounts for China’s “success” in building infrastructure in Africa in recent years, according to the academic professor.
“It is almost impossible for the model to be replicated in a true commercial sense. The only likelihood of similar financial structures arising is in the case of tied-aid for commercial purposes. I would argue that the strategy of China Inc. is resulting in a rethinking of how aid/developmental capital is being allocated or spent in Africa by other partners. This is especially the case with Japanese aid to Africa, with the Fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) meeting and the commercial outcomes from it evidence of this,” Davies concluded assertively.
When the former Chinese President Hu Jintao delivered a speech at the opening ceremony of the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), he indicated explicitly that “China will expand cooperation in investment and financing to support sustainable development in Africa. China provided $20 billion dollars of credit line to African countries to assist them in developing infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing and small and medium-sized enterprises.”
Japan made a five-year commitment of $32 billion dollars in public and private funding to Africa, and the money to be used in areas prioritized as necessary for growth by the Fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD).
Japan’s new pledge is nearly four times larger than its last commitment to the group. The plan of action is ambitious. Japanese funds will help in a number of areas, including trade, infrastructure, private sector development, health and education, good governance and food production
Suffice to say that the United States, Britain, Brazil and India have followed concretely Chinese footsteps with financial commitment towards sustainable development projects in Africa. These steps have, indeed, made competition keen for bidding for available infrastructural projects on the continent.
During the official working meeting with Barack Obama, South African President Jacob Zuma told his colleague: “The United States’ strategy towards sub-Saharan Africa that you launched is well-timed to take advantage of this growing market. We look forward to strengthening the US-Africa partnership and we are pleased with the growing bilateral trade and investment.”
For example, there are 600 US companies operating in South Africa which have created in excess 150,000 jobs for local people. Many experts still believe that Russian authorities have to provide incentives.
Charles Robertson, Global Chief Economist at Renaissance Capital, thinks that the major problem is incentives. China has two major incentives to invest in Africa. First, China needs to buy resources, while Russia does not. Second, Chinese exports are suitable for Africa – whether it is textiles or iPads, goods made in China can be sold in Africa. Russia exports little except oil and has (roughly 2/3 of exports), steel and metals (which is either not cost effective to sell in Africa, or again is the same as Africa is selling) and military weapons.
“Most importantly, Chinese firms see African growth as benefiting China, while Russia has less to gain from this. There is little incentive for Russian firms to operate in Africa…though Renaissance Capital sees opportunities, as does Rusal, and a few others. The problem is not investment credits or guarantees,” Robertson pointed out.
In his objective views, Russia has a northern hemisphere focus. And that explains why Russia has shown low financial commitment in its foregn policy implementation in Africa as compared to countries such as Japan, India and China.
According to Jimmy Saruchera, a Director at Schmooze Frontier Markets, an investment fund that works to support small-and-medium sized businesses in new emerging markets, suggested that both Russia and Africa needed work on a good trade policy, stable and transparent institutions are the fundamental ingredients, then tools such as credits and export guarantees can be more effective.
Dr Scott Firsing, a visiting Bradlow fellow at the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA) and a senior lecturer in international studies at Monash University in Johannesburg, said “the absence of export credit guarantees can be a real obstacle to some in countries such as Russia because there are businesses and policy holders that look for these guarantees to help alleviate the fear of doing business in high risk markets like Africa.”
Export credit guarantees show the exporter protection against the main risks, which include political and commercial risks, in places such as Africa. This has been very successful for countries like South Africa, which even manage to stockpile cash over time due to the premiums being more than the payouts. Moreover, one can deduce that without such cover or this ‘safety net’, South African companies might have never taken such risks or would have been unable to bid or win contracts in developing economics, according to his explanation to Buziness Africa.
“I would suggest such a move that Russia has to design a policy strategy. One of China’s policy banks, the Chinese Development Bank (CDB) is the country’s largest lender for funding acquisitions and investments overseas, totaling more than its four main commericial banks. This has helped expand the overseas presence of Chinese companies like ZTE Corp and Huawei that wouldn’t have been previously unlikely without the assistance from such a policy bank,” he added.
According to Dr Firsing: a similar statement can be made of the importance of American institutions like their Export-Import Bank that supports American companies and their expansion into African markets. Obama’s latest African Power Initiative sees the Export-Import Bank granting up to US$5 billion in support of U.S. exports for the development of power projects across sub-Saharan Africa. Russia can learn a lot from the approach of these countries.
Professor David H. Shinn, an Adjunct Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs George, Washington University, suspects that Russia’s problem goes well beyond investment credits and export credit guarantees. Just look at Russian trade with Africa. It is embarrassingly low. Turkey has twice as much trade with Africa as Russia. Most Russian investment in Africa goes into large energy and mineral projects. China is investing in just about everything.
Professor Shinn, who was a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia (1996-99) and Burkina Faso (1987-90), wrote in an email interview to Buziness Africa, that lack of or weakness of Russian government incentives for investing outside Russia seems to be the significant part of its African policy problem, that compared, China does a lot of project financing in Africa.
He argued that western countries are also at a disadvantage because there is much more separation between the government and the private sector and there is no equivalent government state-owned sector, at least, not in the United States. Most Chinese investment in Africa occurs with the large state-owned companies, which work closely with the government. President Barack Obama recently tried to energize the US private sector in Africa during his recent visit, especially with the Power Africa initiative.
Interestingly, Russian policy experts have repeatedly called for state support for corporate investment initiatives as well as helping systematically private entrepreneurs to make strong strategic inroads into mutually viable investment sectors and to raise economic presence in Africa.
“Until recently, Africa was poorly represented in macro-economic forecasting and research, especially in terms of Russian-African relations,” wrote Professor Aleksei Vasiliev and Evgeny Korendiasov both from the Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of African Studies (IAS). Vasiliev is the current Director of the IAS and former Special Presidential Envoy to African Countries while Korendiasov retired Russian Ambassador and now the Head of the Department for Russian-African Research at the IAS.
They both authored an article published in June that Russia has officially declared promoting relations with Africa a priority goal. Assurances made by Russian officials in their statements that Africa is “in the mainstream of Russia’s foreign policy” have not been substantiated by systematic practical activities, and the development of relations between Russia and Africa has so far nothing to boast about.
According to the academic researchers, currently the scope for Russian-African partnership is significantly expanding and of the 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Western experts consider 24 to be democratic countries.They both argued that “through large-scale and purposeful participation in the international development assistance, Russia strives to advance its foreign policy priorities and strengthen the positions of Russian business in the African economic space.”
But, they pointed out unreservedly that the situation in Russian-African foreign trade will change for the better, if Russian industry undergoes technological modernization, the state provides Russian businessmen systematic and meaningful support, and small and medium businesses receive wider access to foreign economic cooperation with Africa.
Among other policy recommendations, they stressed “defining clear guidelines and priorities of Russian policy towards Africa, creating conditions for the promotion of Russian goods and investments in African markets, setting up mechanisms of financial support by the state of export and investment projects which is a compulsory condition for successful Russian business activity on the African continent and introducing tariff preferences for trade with African partners.”
The Monetary Policy of Pakistan: SBP Maintains the Policy Rate
The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) announced its bi-monthly monetary policy yesterday, 27th July 2021. Pakistan’s Central bank retained the benchmark interest rate at 7% after reviewing the national economy in midst of a fourth wave of the coronavirus surging throughout the country. The policy rate is a huge factor that relents the growth and inflationary pressures in an economy. The rate was majorly retained due to the growing consumer and business confidence as the global economy rebounds from the coronavirus. The State Bank had slashed the interest rate by 625 basis points to 7% back in the March-June 2020 in the wake of the covid pandemic wreaking havoc on the struggling industries of Pakistan. In a poll conducted earlier, about 89% of the participants expected this outcome of the session. It was a leap of confidence from the last poll conducted in May when 73% of the participants expected the State Bank to hold the discount rate at this level.
The State Bank Governor, Dr. Raza Baqir, emphasized that the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has resorted to holding the 7% discount rate to allow the economy to recover properly. He added that the central bank would not hike the interest rate until the demand shows noticeable growth and becomes sustainable. He echoed the sage economists by reminding them that the State Bank wants to relay a breather to Pakistan’s economy before pushing the brakes. The MPC further asserted that the Real Discount Rate (adjusted for inflation) currently stands at -3% which has significantly cushioned the economy and encouraged smaller industries to grow despite the throes of the pandemic.
Dr. Raza Baqir further went on to discuss the current account deficit staged last month. He added that the 11-month streak of the current account surplus was cut short largely due to the loan payments made in June. The MPC further explained that multiple factors including an impending expiration of the federal budget, concurrent payments due to lenders, and import of vaccines, weighed heavily down on the national exchequer. He further iterated that the State Bank expects a rise in exports along with a sustained recovery in the remittance flow till the end of 2021 to once again upend the current account into surplus. Dr. Raza Baqir assured that the current level of the current account deficit (standing at 3% of the GDP) is stable. The MPC reminded that majority of the developing countries stand with a current account deficit due to growth prospects and import dependency. The claims were backed as Dr. Raza Baqir voiced his optimism regarding the GDP growth extending from 3.9% to 5% by the end of FY21-22.
Regarding currency depreciation, Dr. Baqir added that the downfall is largely associated with the strengthening greenback in the global market coupled with high volatility in the oil market which disgruntled almost every oil-importing country, including Pakistan. He further remarked, however, that as the global economy is vying stability, the situation would brighten up in the forthcoming months. Mr. Baqir emphasized that the current account deficit stands at the lowest level in the last decade while the remittances have grown by 25% relative to yesteryear. Combined with proceeds from the recently floated Eurobonds and financial assistance from international lenders including the IMF and the World Bank, both the currency and the deficit would eventually recover as the global market corrects in the following months.
Lastly, the Governor State Bank addressed the rampant inflation in the economy. He stated that despite a hyperinflation scenario that clocked 8.9% inflation last month, the discount rates are deliberately kept below. Mr. Baqir added that the inflation rate was largely within the limits of 7-9% inflation gauged by the State Bank earlier this year. However, he further added that the State Bank is making efforts to curb the unrelenting inflation. He remarked that as the peak summer demand is closing with July, the one-way pressure on the rupee would subsequently plummet and would allow relief in prices.
The MPC has retained the discount rate at 7% for the fifth consecutive time. The policy shows that despite a rebound in growth and prosperity, the threat of the delta variant still looms. Karachi, Pakistan’s busiest metropolis and commercial hub, has recently witnessed a considerable surge in infections. The positivity ratio clocked 26% in Karachi as the national figure inched towards 7% positivity. The worrisome situation warrants the decision of the State Bank of Pakistan. Dr. Raza Baqir concluded the session by assuring that despite raging inflation, the State Bank would not resort to a rate hike until the economy fully returns to the pre-pandemic levels of employment and production. He further assuaged the concerns by signifying the future hike in the policy rate would be gradual in nature, contrast to the 2019 hike that shuffled the markets beyond expectation.
Reforms Key to Romania’s Resilient Recovery
Over the past decade, Romania has achieved a remarkable track record of high economic growth, sustained poverty reduction, and rising household incomes. An EU member since 2007, the country’s economic growth was one of the highest in the EU during the period 2010-2020.
Like the rest of the world, however, Romania has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the economy contracted by 3.9 percent and the unemployment rate reached 5.5 percent in July before dropping slightly to 5.3 percent in December. Trade and services decreased by 4.7 percent, while sectors such as tourism and hospitality were severely affected. Hard won gains in poverty reduction were temporarily reversed and social and economic inequality increased.
The Romanian government acted swiftly in response to the crisis, providing a fiscal stimulus of 4.4 percent of GDP in 2020 to help keep the economy moving. Economic activity was also supported by a resilient private sector. Today, Romania’s economy is showing good signs of recovery and is projected to grow at around 7 percent in 2021, making it one of the few EU economies expected to reach pre-pandemic growth levels this year. This is very promising.
Yet the road ahead remains highly uncertain, and Romania faces several important challenges.
The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of Romania’s institutions to adverse shocks, exacerbated existing fiscal pressures, and widened gaps in healthcare, education, employment, and social protection.
Poverty increased significantly among the population in 2020, especially among vulnerable communities such as the Roma, and remains elevated in 2021 due to the triple-hit of the ongoing pandemic, poor agricultural yields, and declining remittance incomes.
Frontline workers, low-skilled and temporary workers, the self-employed, women, youth, and small businesses have all been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, including through lost salaries, jobs, and opportunities.
The pandemic has also highlighted deep-rooted inequalities. Jobs in the informal sector and critical income via remittances from abroad have been severely limited for communities that depend on them most, especially the Roma, the country’s most vulnerable group.
How can Romania address these challenges and ensure a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery for all?
Reforms in several key areas can pave the way forward.
First, tax policy and administration require further progress. If Romania is to spend more on pensions, education, or health, it must boost revenue collection. Currently, Romania collects less than 27 percent of GDP in budget revenue, which is the second lowest share in the EU. Measures to increase revenues and efficiency could include improving tax revenue collection, including through digitalization of tax administration and removal of tax exemptions, for example.
Second, public expenditure priorities require adjustment. With the third lowest public spending per GDP among EU countries, Romania already has limited space to cut expenditures, but could focus on making them more efficient, while addressing pressures stemming from its large public sector wage bill. Public employment and wages, for instance, would benefit from a review of wage structures and linking pay with performance.
Third, ensuring sustainability of the country’s pension fund is a high priority. The deficit of the pension fund is currently around 2 percent of GDP, which is subsidized from the state budget. The fund would therefore benefit from closer examination of the pension indexation formula, the number of years of contribution, and the role of special pensions.
Fourth is reform and restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises, which play a significant role in Romania’s economy. SOEs account for about 4.5 percent of employment and are dominant in vital sectors such as transport and energy. Immediate steps could include improving corporate governance of SOEs and careful analysis of the selection and reward of SOE executives and non-executive bodies, which must be done objectively to ensure that management acts in the best interest of companies.
Finally, enhancing social protection must be central to the government’s efforts to boost effectiveness of the public sector and deliver better services for citizens. Better targeted social assistance will be more effective in reaching and supporting vulnerable households and individuals. Strategic investments in infrastructure, people’s skills development, and public services can also help close the large gaps that exist across regions.
None of this will be possible without sustained commitment and dedicated resources. Fortunately, Romania will be able to access significant EU funds through its National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which will enable greater investment in large and important sectors such as transportation, infrastructure to support greater deployment of renewable energy, education, and healthcare.
Achieving a resilient post-pandemic recovery will also mean advancing in critical areas like green transition and digital transformation – major new opportunities to generate substantial returns on investment for Romania’s economy.
I recently returned from my first official trip to Romania where I met with country and government leaders, civil society representatives, academia, and members of the local community. We discussed a wide range of topics including reforms, fiscal consolidation, social inclusion, renewably energy, and disaster risk management. I was highly impressed by their determination to see Romania emerge even stronger from the pandemic. I believe it is possible. To this end, I reiterated the World Bank’s continued support to all Romanians for a safe, bright, and prosperous future.
First appeared in Romanian language in Digi24.ro, via World Bank
US Economic Turmoil: The Paradox of Recovery and Inflation
The US economy has been a rollercoaster since the pandemic cinched the world last year. As lockdowns turned into routine and the buzz of a bustling life came to a sudden halt, a problem manifested itself to the US regime. The problem of sustaining economic activity while simultaneously fighting the virus. It was the intent of ‘The American Rescue Plan’ to provide aid to the US citizens, expand healthcare, and help buoy the population as the recession was all but imminent. Now as the global economy starts to rebound in apparent post-pandemic reality, the US regime faces a dilemma. Either tighten the screws on the overheating economy and risk putting an early break on recovery or let the economy expand and face a prospect of unrelenting inflation for years to follow.
The Consumer Price Index, the core measure of inflation, has been off the radar over the past few months. The CPI remained largely over the 4% mark in the second quarter, clocking a colossal figure of 5.4% last month. While the inflation is deemed transitionary, heated by supply bottlenecks coinciding with swelling demand, the pandemic-related causes only explain a partial reality of the blooming clout of prices. Bloomberg data shows that transitory factors pushing the prices haywire account for hotel fares, airline costs, and rentals. Industries facing an offshoot surge in prices include the automobile industry and the Real estate market. However, the main factors driving the prices are shortages of core raw materials like computer chips and timber (essential to the efficient supply functions of the respective industries). Despite accounting for the temporal effect of certain factors, however, the inflation seems hardly controlled; perverse to the position opined by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.
The Fed already insinuated earlier that the economy recovered sooner than originally expected, making it worthwhile to ponder over pulling the plug on the doveish leverage that allowed the economy to persevere through the pandemic. The main cause was the rampant inflation – way off the 2% targetted inflation level. However, the alluded remarks were deftly handled to avoid a panic in an already fragile road to recovery. The economic figures shed some light on the true nature of the US economy which baffled the Fed. The consumer expectations, as per Bloomberg’s data, show that prices are to inflate further by 4.8% over the course of the following 12 months. Moreover, the data shows that the investor sentiment gauged from the bond market rally is also up to 2.5% expected inflation over the corresponding period. Furthermore, a survey from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) suggested that net 47 companies have raised their average prices since May by seven percentage points; the largest surge in four decades. It is all too much to overwhelm any reader that the data shows the economy is reeling with inflation – and the Fed is not clear whether it is transitionary or would outlast the pandemic itself.
Economists, however, have shown faith in the tools and nerves of the Federal Reserve. Even the IMF commended the Fed’s response and tactical strategies implemented to trestle the battered economy. However, much averse to the celebration of a win over the pandemic, the fight is still not through the trough. As the Delta variant continues to amass cases in the United States, the championed vaccinations are being questioned. While it is explicable that the surge is almost distinctly in the unvaccinated or low-vaccinated states, the threat is all that is enough to drive fear and speculation throughout the country. The effects are showing as, despite a lucrative economic rebound, over 9 million positions lay vacant for employment. The prices are billowing yet the growth is stagnating as supply is still lukewarm and people are still wary of returning to work. The job market casts a recession-like scenario while the demand is strong which in turn is driving the wages into the competitive territory. This wage-price spiral would fuel inflation, presumably for years as embedded expectations of employees would be hard to nudge lower. Remember prices and wages are always sticky downwards!
Now the paradox stands. As Congress is allegedly embarking on signing a $4 trillion economic plan, presented by president Joe Bidden, the matters are to turn all the more complex and difficult to follow. While the infrastructure bill would not be a hard press on short-term inflation, the iteration of tax credits and social spending programs would most likely fuel the inflation further. It is true that if the virus resurges, there won’t be any other option to keep the economy afloat. However, a bustling inflationary environment would eventually push the Fed to put the brakes on by either raising the interest rates or by gradually ceasing its Asset Purchase Program. Both the tools, however, would risk a premature contraction which could pull the United States into an economic spiral quite similar to that of the deflating Japanese economy. It is, therefore, a tough stance to take whether a whiff of stagflation today is merely provisional or are these some insidious early signs to be heeded in a deliberate fashion and rectified immediately.
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