Why Ethiopia needs a stock exchange as it liberalizes

One of Africa’s biggest economies. Ethiopia, is launching a giant privatization campaign that could be lead to transformation, growth and liberalization. But there is no Ethiopian securities exchange, meaning citizens and domestic savings institutions may not be able to participate and the economy will continue to suffer inefficiencies and lack of transparency.

On 5 June Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the ruling party EPRDF set headlines alight by announcing a decision to sell stakes in the telecoms monopoly, long a cash cow for the Government. Investors will also be invited to buy stakes in Ethiopian Airlines, one of Africa’s fastest-growing and best-run airlines.

Zemenedeh Negatu, chairman of Fairfax Africa Fund LLC, a U.S.-based investment firm, and a former Managing Partner of EY in Ethiopia, commented in the Wall Street Journal newspaper: “The new leadership in Addis is smartly modifying and adopting policies and strategies that will sustain Ethiopia’s growth. I also strongly believe that these enterprises should be privatized by listing their shares in a local stock market, which should be established as soon as possible.”

Ethiopia was the world’s 2nd fastest growing economy in 2017 with 10.9% growth, according to the International Monetary Fund, which forecasts 8.5% growth in 2018, after a decade of growing at nearly 10% a year.

According to a Reuters report by Aaron Maasho: “It is unclear whether the Government would consider licensing foreign mobile operators. Interest might be limited if the only option is a minority stake in the monopoly.

“Analysts have said the government’s move falls far short of enabling full competition by multinationals. They note that by selling minority stakes the EPRDF is underscoring its view that the state should be a key player in the economy.” However, he notes “the step is still radical for the EPRDF.. and could indicate how 41-year-old Abiy plans to steer the country.”

Abiy Ahmed took office in April. The announcement also included a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea in line with a decision in year 2000 that would cede disputed territory.

Both Africa’s telecom giants MTN and Vodacom told Reuters they are interested. MTN says Ethiopia “would be a natural fit for MTN’s existing pan-African footprint.” And Vodacom said “Ethiopia is an attractive market so it follows that there would be interest”.

A statement after a day-long meeting of the EPRDF’s executive committee said economic reforms are needed to sustain economic growth. It referred to foreign exchange shortages that mean there are too few goods in shops. Economists estimate that foreign reserves cover less than 2 months of imports.

Much of Ethiopia’s growth and successes at rolling back poverty are linked to the ambitious road, rail and electricity infrastructure investment and building projects run by the Government, which pours revenues from its telecoms, airlines and other monopolies to this. There is an ambitious strategy to transform a nation, which on farming, into an industrialized nation where manufacturing provides expert earnings.

On 6 June, Abiy warned of the risks: “”It is progressive. This new economic decision will afford us the opportunity to resolve widespread unemployment, ease foreign currency shortages, and reduce weaknesses in market connectivity. However, unless implemented with skill, knowledge and focus, it can lead to a repeat of the pervasive theft seen in many African countries and a destruction of Ethiopia’s wealth.”

Charlie Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital, told Reuters: “”The Government is still deeply sceptical about capitalism and speculative investors.”

OPINION – A well run stock exchange is vital in Ethiopia’s successful privatization and transformation

The capital market will bring many benefits to Ethiopians and the economy. A stock exchange enables enterprises to raise capital to create growth, jobs and fight poverty through issuing shares (equity) to long-term investors who are ready to share the business risks. It provides a transparent and efficient market for raising hundreds of millions of long-term debt, including bonds for housing and infrastructure, as in neighbouring Kenya. It would amplify efforts by Ethiopia’s Government and banks to finance the ongoing giant growth potential.

A regulated stock exchange encourages savings and help investors channel these into the most productive enterprises, boosting market size and efficiency. It boosts transparency by requiring companies to publish audited trading information promptly and widely, sharing similar information benefits with smaller investors as the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) brings to farmers – any by encouraging professional analysts.

Individual Ethiopians are very keen for additional places to grow their savings, some of which are held in cash or low yielding bank deposits. Like other African countries, Ethiopia has fast growing domestic investment funds at pension and insurance institutions, and these need a much wider choice of productive assets to invest into, offering diversification and growth while seeking to maintain the overall safety of the members’ funds.

There are many Ethiopians both at home and abroad with the skills and character to ensure that any Ethiopian exchange will be one of the best and biggest in Africa. Although speculative trading is expected, it is also a key contributor to market liquidity and efficiency, and ensuring a large and active enough domestic base will counter much of the overall market volatility. Regulation is also needed to protect investors by ensuring that only well run businesses with a good track record and management can offer shares to the public, contrary to many unregulated initial public offers that have happened.

A well run stock exchange is what Ethiopia needs to transform its economy, boost participation, investment and the private sector, and to encourage efficiency and jobs.

DISCLOSURE – The author has worked on proposals on a stock exchange in Ethiopia, including when he worked at EY, and has studied the background and potential of the capital market there.

Addis Ababa (photo credit Horn Affairs)

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