Ethiopia gets credit ratings from S&P and Fitch, plans Eurobond

Ethiopia, Africa’s fifth biggest economy, is thinking of a debut Eurobond, after it received its first international credit ratings on 9 May. With a population of some 90 million it is second-most populous country in Africa, after Nigeria. Growth has been some 10% a year, making it the fastest-growing economy and this growth has been sustained through infrastructure investment rather than resources.

Fitch rating agency assigned a long-term foreign and local currency Issuer Default Debt Rating (IDR) of “B” with stable outlook. This matches Fitch’s ratings for Kenya and Uganda, according to Reuters. Standard & Poor’s (S&P) assigned “B/B” foreign and local currency ratings and also said the outlook was stable, reflecting the view that strong growth will be maintained over the next year and the current account deficit will not rise.

According to a press release from Fitch: “With an average real GDP growth of 10.9% over the past five years, Ethiopia has outperformed regional peers due to significant public investments in infrastructure as well as growth in the large agricultural and services sectors. Despite a track record of high and volatile inflation, it declined significantly in 2013, reflecting lower food prices and the authorities’ commitment to moderate central bank financing of the government.

“Fitch expects real GDP growth of 9% in 2014 and 8% in 2015. Ethiopia’s growth over the medium-term can be sustained by large, untapped resources, including large hydro-electric potential. However, the private sector’s weakness, reflecting the country’s fairly recent transition to a market economy, and its inadequate access to domestic credit, could limit growth potential over the medium-term as public investment slows.”

According to S&P press release: “The ratings are constrained by Ethiopia’s low GDP per capita, our estimate of large public-sector contingent liabilities, and a lack of monetary policy flexibility. The ratings are supported by strong government effectiveness, which has halved poverty rates over the past decade or so, moderate fiscal debt after debt relief, and moderate external deficits. Ethiopia’s brisk economic growth–far exceeding that of peers–also underpins the ratings.” S&P forecasts GDP growth at 9.1% in 2014, 9.2% in 2015 and 2016 and 9.3% in 2017. IMF estimates in the World Economic Outlook database are lower, at a still very creditable 7.5% for 2014 and 2015 and 7.0% for 2016 and 2017.

“Ethiopia’s economic growth has consistently well outpaced the average for peers in Sub-Saharan Africa, averaging at least 9% real GDP growth over the past decade, partly due to significant government spending in public sector infrastructure. We estimate that real GDP per capita growth will average 6.5% over 2014-2017. The government has primarily invested in transport infrastructure (roads and rail) and energy (power generation through hydro). Agriculture has also been a key growth driver.

“We estimate GDP per capita at a low $630 in 2014. However, strong economic growth has translated into significant poverty reduction and fairly homogeneous wealth levels. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) data, poverty declined to about 30% in 2011 from 60% in 1995.

According to S&P: “We expect current account deficits to average 6% of GDP over 2014-2017, driven by rising imports of capital goods and fuel. Ethiopia has a services account surplus, predominantly due to Ethiopian Airlines’ revenues, and large current account transfers mostly made up of remittances that we estimate at about 10% of GDP. Over 2014-2017, we project that gross external financing needs should average 118% of current account receipts and reserves.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had told Reuters in October (see also below) that it planned a debut Eurobond once it had secured a credit rating, though he gave no time frame.

The state and state-owned companies continue to dominate the economy and key sectors such as banking, telecoms and retail are closed to foreign ownership, with state monopolies still dominating telecoms, power and other services and state-owned banks still predominant in banking despite many private banks existing. S&P says there could be room for an upgrade “if we saw more transparency on the financial accounts of Ethiopia’s public sector contingent liabilities and their links with the central government. We might also consider a positive rating action if we observed that monetary policy credibility was improving, either through better transmission mechanisms or relaxed foreign exchange restrictions on the current account.”

In December Reuters reported that Ethiopia had hired French investment bank and asset manager Lazard Ltd in a bid to select rating companies and secure its first credit rating

IMF director warns of risks to sustaining growth

In a presentation last November by Jan Mikkelsen, IMF Resident Representative for Ethiopia titled “Regional Economic Outlook for Sub-Saharan Africa & Macroeconomic Issues for Ethiopia” he praises solid growth and price stabilization but warns about a large fiscal deficit, an appreciating real exchange rate, declining competitiveness and increasing trade deficit. In his powerpoint presentation, he says there is a “Large fiscal deficit without appropriate financing options. This leads to: large domestic borrowing; crowding out of credit to private sector; risk of debt distress; large exposure of banking system to public enterprises; and inflation concerns. He is concerned about the “Non-functioning FX market, FX shortage, and competitiveness,” as well as “Failure to develop financial sector and markets”. (NOTE: The Ethiopian Government has resisted setting up an organized and regulated securities exchange, even for locals only, and this has led to a plethora of unregulated IPOs and problems for investors). Mikkelsen adds that Ethiopia is “Missing out on private sector dynamics – opening up! Tap into FDI flows!”

He warns that the Growth and Transformation Plan (2009/10-2014/15) had estimated to invest $36 billion in public-sector financing and had achieved $11.2bn of investment in the first 3 years, leaving $22bn to be invested in identified projects in the last two years, which would be 19.7% of GDP, of which 9.9% could be domestic financing and 9.8% external. He pointed out that this meant less credit to the private sector, with banks cutting back their credit growth to non-government and giving 83% of this “non-government” share to state-owned enterprises and only 17% to the private sector.

His policy recommendations included enhancing competitiveness via exchange-rate flexibility and cutting logistic costs for trade, phasing out the forced 27% bill holding restriction on banks by the National Bank of Ethiopia, developing a securities market and making interest rates flexible and that putting the private sector in the driving seat is the only way to create sustainable employment opportunities.

Bloomberg cited Finance Minister Sufian Ahmed in December saying: “The main challenge is investment financing needs. We know it’s huge.” He said funding targets would be met by increased domestic financing and borrowing as much as $1bn a year on non-concessional terms from China, India and Turkey and key projects will also be prioritized, he said. According to that report, the Government planned to spend ETB 105.2bn ($5.5bn) on infrastructure and industry including hydropower dams and sugar plants in the 12 months ended 7 Jul 2014 and ETB 70.7bn in the year to July 2015, according to the GTP that ends in mid-2015.

Ethiopia’s PM explains economic policy

The Reuters interview with Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn gives good insight into the Government’s rationale for maintaining control. It is worth reading. He said other bonds could come from the rating.

The Government aims to move from a largely agrarian economy into manufacturing, including textiles. Hailemariam said this was no time for a change of tack, either by selling monopoly Ethio Telecom or opening up the banking industry – now dominated by 3 state banks – to foreigners. “Why does the government engage in infrastructure development? It is simply to make the private sector competitive because in Africa the lack of infrastructure is the main bottleneck. From where do we get this financing? We get this from government banks,” he said. “We engage ourselves in railway construction simply because we get revenues from telecoms.”

He said neighbouring countries which have opened up their banking industry to foreigners had lost a source of funds. “They have handed over their banks to the private sector and the private sector is not giving them loans for infrastructure development.”

He added that the Government was channelling loans to business, while income for the state from selling licences or taxes could not match Ethio Telecom’s annual revenue of ETB 6bn ($318m).

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