Africa: Increased growth rates, innovative banking sector, investment vs. development aid

The above topics were among those discussed at this year’s #AfricaFinanceForum, hosted by the Corporate Council on Africa.  The annual event featured high-level speakers, such as Rhoda Weeks-Brown, IMF General Counsel, who pointed to increased expected economic growth rates of 3.5% in 2019 (half a point higher than in 2018) and a faster per-capita income rise in Africa  than in rest of the world.  “Also up for debate was the dichotomy of investment vs. development assistance as the key driver of economic development on the continent,” notes Andreas Stargard, who attended on behalf of Primerio Ltd.

Ms. Weeks-Brown noted the rise of pan-African (vs. purely domestic) banks, observing the added benefit of improved competition, as well as the steady rise of fintech on the continent. The latter is especially important as the continent is still under-banked and relies heavily on the informal sector (less than 20% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population has a bank account).  Yet Africa leads the world in mobile money.  Mr. Stargard noted that “[s]he and many other speakers on subsequent panels agreed that there was a delicate balance to be struck by regulators and legislators of weighing innovation against the proper level of FinTech regulation and its integration benefits against anti-competitive effects thereof.  The IMF attorney was careful to point out that banking & financial integration must grow in conjunction with, and to support, economic and trade integration, as financial stability is a public good.  Africa requires strong sector regulators that must remain free from undue political or industry interference.”

Kalidou Gadio, a lawyer at Manatt, provided a sanguine assessment of the state of banking in Africa, noting that it is not up to par globally, but better than it was a decade ago, before and during the financial crisis. He also pointed to the net positive effect of banks facing increasing competition from newcomers to the space, such as Orange, M-Pesa and other telecom firms.

Dr. Maxwell Opoku-Afari, First Deputy Governor of the national Bank of Ghana observed the difficulties in setting proper licensing rules for fintech companies by central banks, and commented on the concentration risk in banking.

Phumzile Langeni, special investment envoy of the RSA, gave an objective speech on the investment opportunities in South Africa, including the President’s FDI incentive programme.  She answered difficult questions with aplomb — for example those about the country’s land reforms, infrastructure troubles, and unemployment — and spoke of the enormous growth potential and the “youth dividend” in South Africa and the continent in general.

The half-day event was rounded out by a panel focussed on central banks’ handling of the unique foreign-exchange problems faced by certain African nations, notably Mozambique and Angola, whose central banks had representatives on the panel, including the issues of ForEx reserve allocation and pegged rates.

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Antitrust in the Digital Economy: Fighting Inequality?

AAT the big picture

HOW CAN COMPETITION LAW ENFORCEMENT IN THE DIGITAL ECONOMY HELP IN THE FIGHT AGAINST POVERTY?

By DWA co-founder and visiting AAT author, Amine Mansour* (re-published courtesy of Developing World Antitrust’s editors)

When talking about competition law and poverty alleviation, we may intuitively think about markets involving essential needs. The rise of new sectors may however prompt competition authorities to turn their attention away from these markets. One of those emerging sectors is the digital economy sector. This triggers the question of whether the latter should be a top priority in competition authorities’ agenda. The answer remains unclear and depends mainly on the potential value added to consumers in general and the poor in particular[1].

Should competition authorities in developing countries focus on digital markets?

Obviously, access to computer and technology is not a source of poverty stricto sensu. In the absence of basic needs, strategies focusing on digital sectors may prove meaningless. In practice, the last thing people living in extreme poverty will think about is gaining digital skills. Their immediate needs are embodied in markets offering goods and services which are basic necessities. The approach put forward by several Competition authorities in developing countries corroborates this view. For instance, in South Africa, digital markets are not seen as a top priority. Instead, the South African competition authority focuses on food and agro-processing, infrastructure and construction, banking and intermediate industrial products.

There are however compelling arguments to be made against such position. Most importantly, although access to technology and computers is not a source of poverty, such an access can be a solution to the poverty problem. In fact, closing the digital gap by providing digital skills and making access to technology and Internet easier can help the low income population when acting either as entrepreneurs or consumers. In both cases competition law can play a decisive role.

The low income population acting as consumers

First, when acting as consumers, people with low income can enjoy the benefits of new technology-based entrant. Thanks to lower costs of operation, lower barriers to entry and (almost) infinite buyers, these new operators have changed the competitive landscape by aggressively competing against traditional companies. These features have helped them not only extending existing products and services to low-income consumers but also making new ones available for them. Better yet, in some cases increased competition coming from technology-based companies motivates traditional business forms to adapt their offer to low-income consumers so as to face this new competition and remedy shrinking revenues. Perhaps, the most noteworthy aspect of all these evolutions, is that these new entrants have, in some instances, been able to challenge incumbents’ position by driving prices downward to levels unattainable by traditional companies without scarifying their profitability.

A shining example of all this dynamic is the possibility for low-income consumers to engage, thanks to some mobile companies, in financial transaction without the need to pass through the traditional stationary banking infrastructure. For instance, in Kenya, M-PESA a mobile money transfer service that has over 22 million subscribers[2] and around 40,000 agents (around 2600 Commercial bank branches)[3] changed the life of million of citizens. The service enables clients to deposit cash into their M-PESA accounts, send or transfer money to any other mobile phone user, withdraw cash and complete other financial transactions. A farmer in a remote area in Kenya can send or receive money by simply using his mobile phone. In this way, M-PESA can act as a substitute to personal bank accounts. This experience shows how the digital economy helps overcoming the prohibitive costs of reaching low-income customers and thus raising living standards.

On that basis, we can easily imagine the counter-argument incumbent companies might put forward. In this regard, unfair competition and the need for regulation to preserve policy objectives are often in the forefront. However, there is a great risk that these arguments are simply used to restrict market entry and impede competition from those new players.

In fact, this kind of arguments do not always reflect market reality. For example, in some remote geographic areas, traditional companies and the new ones based on the digital/internet space do not even compete directly against each other. Accordingly, regulation intended to protect policy goals has no role to play given that the affected consumers are out of the reach of the traditional business. In the M-PESA example, it may be possible to argue that any operator engaging in financial transactions should observe the regulatory restrictions that apply to the banking sector in order to ensure that policy objectives such as the stability of the banking system or the protection of consumer savings are preserved. However, applying such a reasoning will leave a large part of consumers with no alternative given the absence of a banking infrastructure in remote areas. The unfair competition and regulation arguments may only hold in cases where consumers are offered alternatives capable of providing an equivalent service.

This shows the need to proceed cautiously by favoring an evidence-based approach to the ex-post use of the regulation argument by incumbent operators. This is however only one of different facets of the interaction between the competitive impact of companies based on the internet-space, the regulatory framework and the repercussions for people with low income[4].

The low income population acting as entrepreneurs

Second, the focus on digital markets as way to alleviate poverty is further justified when low-income people act as entrepreneurs. In fact, digital markets are distinguished from basic good markets in that they may act as an empowering instrument that encourages entrepreneurship.

More precisely, the digitalization of the economy results in an improved access to market information which in turn may benefit entrepreneurs especially the poor whether they intervene in the same market or in a different one. Practice is replete with cases where, for instance, a downstream firm heavily relies for its production/operation on services or products offered by an upstream company operating in a digital market. Similarly, in a traditional and somewhat caricatural way, a small-scale farmer may use VOIP calls to obtain market information or directly contact buyers suppressing the need for a middleman.

However, we can well imagine the disastrous consequences for these small-scale farmers or the downstream firm if mobile operators decide to block access to internet telephony services such as Skype or WhatsApp based on cheap phone calls using VOIP (this is what actually happened in Morocco). In such a case, the digitalization of the economy has clearly contributed to greatly lowering the costs of communication and distribution. However, low income entrepreneurs are prevented from benefiting of these low costs, which are a key input to be able to compete in the market.

The major difficulty here lies in the fact that, when low income people act as entrepreneurs, it is likely that they organize their activities in small structures. This result in relationships and structures favorable to the emergence of exploitative abuses. Keeping digital markets clear from obstructing anticompetitive practices is thus indispensable to ensure that small existing or potential competitors are not prevented from competing. This might not be easily achieved given that competition authorities’ focus is sometimes more on high profile cases.

*Co-editor, Developing World Antitrust

[1] Intervention may also be justified by the institutional significance argument. This significance lies in the fact that those markets are growing ones and challenging the common ways of both doing business and applying competition rules which in turn make it crucial for authorities to intervene by drawing the lines that ensure the right conditions for those market to grow and develop.

[2] http://www.safaricom.co.ke/about-us/about-safaricom

[3] http://www.safaricom.co.ke/personal/m-pesa/get-started-with-m-pesa/m-pesa-agents

[4] For instance, it possible to think of the same problem from an ex-ante point of view highlighting incumbent firms’ efforts to block any re-examination of the regulatory standards that apply to the concerned sector (no relaxation of the quantitative and qualitative restrictions). This aspect has more to do with the advocacy function of competition authorities.

Trade & Competition in Africa: Opportunity Beckons

Trade & Competition in Africa: Opportunity Beckons

By Peter O’Brien

Continuing the original AAT series, ECONAfrica, Peter O’Brien addresses the WTO’s upcoming MC10 conference.

From 15-18 December Nairobi will host the 10th Ministerial Conference (MC10) of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This will be a meeting of many firsts. Till now, no sub-Saharan African country had hosted a Ministerial Conference organised by the WTO. Nairobi will bring into force the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), the first occasion in the now 21 year history of WTO that a new agreement has been signed (all others were established at the inception of WTO). This is the first MC to take place against the backdrop of an agreement in Africa, concluded this year, to work for a continent wide area of free trade. Today more than one quarter (43 countries in total) of all WTO Members (more than 160) are African. Moreover, the  Accession Package for Liberia was agreed in Geneva on 6 October, and it can be expected that it too will join in the course of 2016.

Apart from celebrating the firsts, are there any reasons for business in Africa to pay attention to events in Nairobi? The answer is an emphatic yes:

  • The TFA is the one WTO agreement that promises real advantages on the logistics of trade. Detailed studies have shown that, on average, the sheer movement of goods within Africa accounts for roughly one fifth of all costs. Serious steps to cut those costs, which is what TFA is about, represent a win/win for producers, traders, consumers and indeed the public authorities. Since Africa is the region of the world where intra-trade (transactions among African countries themselves) is by far the lowest, and where most national markets are small, the gains from logistics savings are potentially huge.
  • The TFA will commit WTO Members to help the least developed countries, a group of over 30 States of whom the majority are African. For the first time, there are straight advantages to be obtained without a condition of reciprocity. Funding, technical assistance, streamlining of trade administration, are just some of the things that can be expected. The TFA allows governments and business together to formulate their requests, so this is the chance to utilize an organized offer of support.
  • MC10 will seek to reinforce the whole network of disciplines concerned with non-discrimination and competition that constitute the core of WTO agreements. That progress is very positive for the growth of competitive markets on the continent.
  • The meeting will be attended by numerous international and regional observer organizations from the private sector, as well as by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) whose normal activities are overwhelmingly directed towards improving trade and welfare in African countries. Their presence serves to strengthen the lobby for growth and welfare improvement.

In the world of yesterday, tariffs and quantitative limitations dominated trade negotiations. In tomorrow’s world, the critical subjects are technical barriers to trade (meaning formal legal resolutions that control trade for purposes of national security, public health and so on), voluntary norms and standards (which in practice frequently acquire a market force equivalent to a legal provision), and a host of other regulatory issues that determine who will be best placed in the market.

More or less all African countries, with the partial exception of South Africa, have always been on the receiving end of these instruments. Africa has thus far played a very minor role in shaping “the rules of the international competitive game.” But with the continent now the fastest-growing region in the world economy, with the race for its natural resources continuing (despite the current lows in resource prices), with the ongoing investments (from within the continent and without), and the steady improvements in governance observable in the majority of countries, Africa is well placed to make its voice heard.

Nairobi and the MC10 offer the ideal stage on which the continent can begin its future path as one of the designers of competitive change.

ECONAfrica: African Corporate Debt — Reality, Regulation and Risks

By Peter O’Brien

In our new AAT series, ECONAfrica, Pr1merio economist Peter O’Brien discusses corporate debt issues on the continent.

Debt debates on Africa nearly always talk about sovereign debt. But in economies which are growing, even if with plenty of ups and downs, firms need to finance expansion. Banks can help, yet this is often not so easy to organize. Another option is to issue corporate bonds (‘CB’). Since rating agencies generally assess clients on a three letter basis (sometimes with a + or – at the end), we will make our 3R assessment of African CB. What’s the reality, what’s the regulatory situation, and what are the risks and rewards?

Overview

First, a thumbnail sketch (admittedly based on limited evidence) of the stylized facts:

  • So far, all African countries (including the Middle East) account for less than 5% of the value of all CB issued by Emerging Market Economies (EME).
  • Within that, South Africa, Mauritius and Egypt add up to around two thirds, with South Africa alone as one third.
  • Most CB in Africa have maturities no more than 10 years
  • Over half of the bonds are fixed interest
  • Roughly 30% of the CB are considered high yield (another way of saying that investors reckon the risks are substantial)
  • It seems as if there is more or less an even split between CB issued in local currency (hence with local currency coupon rates) and those in foreign currency (nearly all $ or euro)
  • The investors are in the main a group of 50-60 funds
  • In South Africa, as of October 2015, foreign holdings of local CB were 35% of the total
  • In a number of African countries, the leading corporate borrowers are parastatal firms
  • Corporate debt, measured as a percentage of GDP, is far lower in African countries than in most others. While many other places, especially some of the big EME, are vulnerable to macroeconomic damage stemming from corporate debt, Africa (including South Africa, where this percentage has remained remarkably stable) should be fairly safe
Economist corporate debt in South Africa has remained the same as percentage of GDP

Corporate debt in South Africa has remained the same as percentage of GDP (Source: The Economist)

Lessons Learned?

What does this picture tell us? Its principal message is surely that this is an area certain to experience major changes, and quite possibly major expansion (not only in volume but also in the players involved).

Now to regulation, both internal and external. The country that seems to have explicitly made provision for corporate debt, and its restructuring, is South Africa. In Companies Act 71 of 2008, enacted in 2011, there are clauses that set out possibilities for Corporate Debt restructuring.  Since enactment, over 400 companies have applied for these methods of handling the problems, and there are upwards of 80 entities offering specialized advice in the field. This prudent approach no doubt stems in part from the size and significance of corporate borrowing in that country. Elsewhere, legal and regulatory issues seem, on balance, to hold back greater reliance on CB. In part there are accounting and corporate governance standards which local companies may not yet meet. In part, it appears that the disclosure requirements that must be met before recourse to CB can be made may constrain the actions of companies (bank borrowing generally requires less disclosure). On the external side, the Basel 111 stipulations matter, in particular because they limit the possibilities for underpricing of CB (a practice that has been fairly frequent till now).

What is missing in the regulatory environment, however, is any overall examination of what might be done to stimulate the prudent use of CB. If this were to be done, such regulation would need to assess financial, economic and anti-trust issues.

The risks and rewards of the CB approach to corporate funding, and indeed the opportunities to use it, are very different across Africa. From economies such as Kenya and Botswana, where the phenomenon is on the rise, to those of the Maghreb, where political uncertainties in very recent years seem to have stunted what was a promising growth, to many parts of West Africa, where to date there is seemingly little activity in this area, each country has its own environment. However, the ever greater integration in the various regions means that there may well be prospects for making better use of private regional funds and of sovereign funds. Either way, African companies should look forward with optimism to utilizing more local capital. It is the job of regulators to ensure this is done in a sound way financially, and that these markets operate competitively.