Why African countries are reluctant to take up COVID-19 debt relief

Why African countries are reluctant to take up COVID-19 debt relief

By Misheck Mutize

Adebt service relief package has been approved by some of the world’s biggest lenders for more than 25 African countries. The arrangement includes the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the G20, the African Development Bank, and all Paris Club creditors. The goal was to free up more than $20 billion governments could use to buttress their health services. Some have called for outright debt cancellation to lessen the debt burden on African countries as they emerge from the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most African states will have high public debt as they use all available lines of credit to secure resources to fight the pandemic.

But private creditors that hold commercial debt have not been willing to participate in debt relief. They have criticised the G20’s call for freezing all debt repayments. Countries have also been priced out of the Eurobond market by high interest rates. Bond yields have spiked to over double the cost for most countries intending to issue Eurobonds.

Of the 25 countries eligible for the debt relief, only four have requested assistance – Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Senegal. The majority have either refused to apply, or have not yet requested a debt moratorium. The reasons for this are understandable. Poor countries know that the debt markets are not largely favourable to them. And they acknowledge the risk of being punished by existing creditors, prospective investors and rating agencies if they seek a debt moratorium.

A number of countries haven’t openly rejected the offer to participate in the debt moratorium. For its part Kenya has openly indicated its lack of interest. Here are the reasons most countries are opting against participating in the multilateral debt suspension.

First, there is an implication that countries that are requesting debt suspension have borrowed irresponsibly. They will be viewed as high-risk and irresponsible borrowers in the future.

Second, countries will be in breach of the terms of Eurobond contracts that they currently hold. Eurobond default clauses indicate that non-payment of external debt, including seeking a moratorium, would be considered as defaulting. This would automatically trigger an immediate demand for countries to pay the entire value of outstanding Eurobonds.

Third, governments fear that the debt moratorium would lead to credit rating downgrades because of the Eurobond terms of defaulting. Moody’s placed Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal under rating review for downgrade and have downgraded Ethiopia precisely because of their participation in the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative.

Lastly, there are concerns that the terms of the multilateral debt relief and loan packages will restrict future policy direction. The debt moratorium is being granted on condition that the funds are spent only on critical public services. Countries under the debt relief programme are not allowed to incur debt from any other creditors during this time and they should use savings only to address shocks from the pandemic.

This is what African countries should do.First, countries that have the capacity to forgo debt relief should do so to avoid losing investor confidence in the future. The net benefit of a low borrowing cost will accrue in the long term. Second, countries facing challenges to fund their repayments should approach negotiations with their commercial creditors with caution. Specifically, they should ensure they safeguard their credit ratings and avoid defaulting.

Lastly, this episode should provide lessons for African governments to bargain for competitive interest rates and accept only favourable bids during Eurobond issuing. The oversubscription of African Eurobonds is not an absolute sign of attractiveness.

Governments should take control of the bond issuance process to structure bonds with favourable terms. This process should not be entirely entrusted to syndicates of investment bankers who have a profit motive and get huge bonuses for oversubscriptions. This will lessen the policy restrictive terms and high interest burden in the future.

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