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.

 

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Infrastructure projects, competition & regulation: Tafotie on regional oversight

Africa-infrastructure

The necessity of strong regional regulatory oversight on infrastructure projects in Africa

RogerBy Roger Tafotie

Dr. Tafotie is a Pr1merio advisor with a legal & business focus on both African and European markets.  A member of the Luxembourg Bar, he is also a lecturer in law at the University of Luxembourg. His focus areas include project finance/public private partnerships, banking & finance, and corporate law.

In his latest paper on essential infrastructure development on the African continent, Roger not only embarks on a mission to clarify the valuable role of public-private partnerships (“PPPs”) — he also reminds us that, beyond “well-drafted projects contracts,” there must also be an “effective and efficient African regional regulatory oversight system, with clear roles and lines of command, that is able to protect against ills such as self-dealings and anti-competitive alliances or monopolies,” including “the monitoring of the tendering process against corruption.”

Enhanced competition and an effective oversight system to weed out corruption in the bidding (and execution) process not only protects the local, national or regional governmental issuer of the infrastructure PPP.  In order to keep all stakeholders, including global financing institutions or other private lenders, in a position of “acceptable risk,” a well-supervised competitive process is essential to tender selection and project execution.

You can find the full paper here, exclusively on AAT and on AAF.

Tech antitrust news: disrupting M-Pesa mobile payment monopoly? cashless NFC mandatory? Dominance of 3 tech cos

Disruption & entry — mandatory cashlessness — and collective dominance

Perhaps they don’t realise it themselves, but the journalists at ITWeb Africa have written antitrust/competition law strories in three of their recent reports, covering the rapidly growing and lucrative tech world in Africa: their stories range (in antitrust terms) from collective dominance in Africa’s tech sphere, to a challenger’s new entry in mobile payments, to a mandatory government-backed mobile NFC system for Kenyan transit commuters that allegedly causes more consumer harm than benefit by going cashless and giving the spoils all to one monopolist.

We take each in turn.

Disruption to M-Pesa’s mobile payment crown?

It looks as though the M-Pesa crown of dominance may be taken through the competitive process (and without active intervention by the competition authority) after all:

Equity Bank is about to join Airtel’s challenge to the dominant position of Safaricom Limited’s M-Pesa service (on which AAT has written extensively before).  The magazine reports that an ultra-thin SIM card technology and the Kenyan bank have reached a pact that will allow them to compete with M-Pesa’s service, on top of existing user SIM cards.

Equity Bank is “determined to challenge” Safaricom’s M-Pesa mobile money service withe help of Taiwanese headquartered Taisys, which claims that the Communications Authority of Kenya “last month tentatively gave Equity Bank the go-ahead to use thin SIMs for one year.”  Equity is reported to be the “largest bank in East Africa with almost 9 million bank accounts.”

The new technology of a “stick-on” slim-SIM card allows the user “to execute mobile banking transactions, releasing the bank from the limitations of a telco-issued banking SIM.”  Safaricom had previously complained to the authority, arguing that PIN theft and denial of service are real risks that counsel against use of new SIMs.

In other related news, second M-Pesa challenger Airtel has secured a contract with the Kenyan Revenue Service that allows Kenyan citizens to pay their taxes using Airtel’s mobile money service.
The cashless economy: is the imminent Kenyan My1963 NFC payment system anti-competitive?

In this story about Nairobi’s public transport system’s much-derided effort to go entirely cashless – dubbed “My1963” -, the magazine reports that the Consumer Federation of Kenya (Cofek) claims that the digital payment system benefits “all except the consumer”.  In Cofek’s statement (“7 reasons why Cofek will fight to stop the #My1963 PSV’s cashless payment fraud“), the federation makes seven distinct arguments against the legality of the scheme.  Two relevant criticisms from the competition-law perspective are the following:

  1. no competitive bidding process: the body alleges that, due to politicians’ ties to banking and other interests, the correct process for entertaining competitive bids was not followed in accordance with proper public procurement rules.
  2. supra-competitive (monopolistic) pricing: an “exorbitant” 3% commission is being charged by the service provider of the system, as agreed between the Kenyan National Transport Safety Authority and the banks.

Cofek also urges the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) to “investigate the #My1963 and entire cashless payment system with a view to finding it uncompetitive, predatory and anti-consumer and market interest” [sic].

Viber, WhatsApp, YouTube: dominant in Africa?

In its report on alleged dominance by three tech companies, the paper begins by pointing out the (some more and some less) startling statistics:

WhatsApp is the leading third-party messaging application, Viber has overtaken Skype as the leading VoIP service on several networks and YouTube is the top video streaming app. … on Africa’s mobile networks WhatsApp accounts for 7% of total traffic, while Viber has overtaken Skype as a VoIP service. Streaming video accounts for just over 6% of downstream traffic – significantly lower than North America and Europe where it accounts for more than 30%.

WAP Browsing has seen a significant decline in traffic share thanks to increased adoption of smartphones throughout the region [–Ed.: on the latter point, the journal also has an interesting separate piece, discussing the new era of WiFi connectivity in Africa].

Being called “dominant” may be a badge of honor to the sales staff, but it is a dangerous moniker when viewed by the competition-law enforcers through their monopolisation lens.  WhatsApp, Viber and YouTube (whose parent is, of course, the already dominant Google) may therefore have to begin thinking about treading more lightly in terms of their dealings with competitors on the African continent, lest they wish to prompt governmental scrutiny from the likes of the South African Competition Commission, the Kenyan Competition Authority, or COMESA’s CCC.

Antitrust enforcer subjects mobile payment operator to central bank oversight

kenya

CAK settles with Safaricom, requires non-exclusivity of outlets and forces Central Bank oversight of payment operator

The mobile payments sphere, particularly growing in African countries as we reported previously, is abuzz with news that a competition regulator has now expressly subjected Safaricom (a prominent Kenyan operator) to oversight by the country’s Central Banking authority.  It also cements the (already preemptively and unilaterally undertaken) commitment by M-Pesa to remove the exclusivity provision that previously requred its 85 thousand network members to operate exclusively on the Safaricom mobile-payment network.

The official Kenyan Gazette notice 6856 contains the full, if short, language of the agreement:

IT IS notified for public information that in exercise of the powers conferred by section 38 of the Competition Act, the Competition Authority of Kenya, after an investigation into an alleged infringement of Part III of the prohibitions set out in the Act by Safaricom Limited and its Mobile Money transfer agents, entered into a settlement with Safaricom Limited on the following terms-

(a) that all restrictive clauses in the agreements between Safaricom Limited and its Mobile Money Transfer Agents be expunged immediately, but in any event not later than 18th July, 2014;

(b) that the Mobile Money Agents be at liberty to transact the Mobile Money Transfer Businesses of any other mobile money transfer service providers;

(c) that oversight by Safaricom Limited be thereafter limited to its business with the Agentsl and

(d) that each Mobile Money Service Provider be responsible for ensuring compliance with Central Bank of Kenya Regulations.
Dated the 22nd September, 2014.
WANG’OMBE KARIUKI. Director-General.

MobileWorld Live has reported the following on the settlement between the recently rather active CAK and Safaricom:

A settlement between the Competition Authority of Kenya and Safaricom leaves M-Pesa agents free to work with rival mobile money providers.

An announcement, made in the Kenya Gazette, follows a CAK investigation into an alleged infringement by the operator under the country’s Competition Act.

Back in July, the watchdog said all restrictive clauses in agreements between Safaricom and its agents must be expunged no later than 18 July (actually the operator pre-emptively removed exclusivity ahead of the CAK’s decision).

As we noted in our prior reporting on Safaricom’s troubles with the Kenyan Competition Authority (CAK):

Safaricom offers a product named “M-Pesa” to its customers in Kenya and Tanzania.  M-Pesa is a mobile-phone based money transfer and micro-financing service, launched in 2007 for Safaricom and Vodacom, the two largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania. The service enables its users to deposit and withdraw money, transfer money to other users and non-users, pay bills, purchase airtime and transfer money between the service and, in Kenya, a bank account.  Users of M-Pesa are charged a service fee for sending and withdrawing money.

By 2010, M-Pesa became the most successful mobile-phone-based financial service in the developing world.

In light of the imminent launch of the Airtel product, Airtel has lodged a complaint with the Competition Authority of Kenya on the basis that Safaricom currently holds 78% of the voice market in Kenya, 96% of the short message service market and 74% of the mobile data market.  In addition, Airtel is of the view that these market shares make it impossible for Kenyan consumers to have a choice in operators. By 2012, 17 million M-Pesa accounts were registered in Kenya alone, which has a population of over 40 million.

There are a total of approximately 31 million mobile-phone subscriptions in Kenya in 2013, of which Safaricom accounted for 68%, Airtel 17%, Essar Group’s “yuMobile” 9% and Telkom Kenya Limited 7%.

 

Financial Times: Africa “most exciting”; FT hosts inaugural investment summit

First-ever FT African Investment Summit to be held in London

In October, the Financial Times will be hosting a timely “FT-Live” London symposium on investment in Africa.  The Oct. 6th FT Africa Summit (agenda) is expected to draw a global audience from various industry sectors, limited to 150 attendees.

Whether or not the conference will spark a wave of M&A activity (and hence antitrust scrutiny) on the continent remains to be seen.  For now, the paper’s event PR proclaims optimistically:

The continent’s economic growth is the second fastest in the world, underpinned by a virtuous cycle of improved governance, Chinese-led investments in infrastructure, high commodities prices, and the growth of a nascent, even if fragile, middle class. Yet, risks abound, from rising inequality to the potential of setbacks in governance.

The inaugural FT Africa Summit will provide a global platform to hear and discuss the views of finance ministers, investors and businesses leaders from around the region. Altogether the first Summit and the special report will be a unique opportunity to gain insights into one of the world’s most exciting markets.

Today’s edition also reports, fittingly, that large-scale investors (such as Atlas Mara’s head and  former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond) are looking increasingly to the African continent for high-growth financial investment opportunities.  Diamond is reported to have raised $1/3 billion for his “African war chest” of Atlas Mara to invest in African bank acquisitions, and is said to plan another $400m round of fund-raising later this year.

Bob Diamond

As the FT points out, the growth potential for financial services in sub-Saharan Africa is theoretically immense, as the majority of the region’s 1-billion-plus population does not yet have bank accounts.  However — and the FT omits this crucial fact — as we reported elsewhere, the dearth of access to brick-and-mortar banks in Africa has led to the pioneering use of GSM mobile technology, such as M-Pesa, for retail financial transactions at a record-setting adoption rate in Africa; see our M-Pesa reporting and other stories.