The MENA region, like much of the undeveloped world, is characterised by an omnipresent Informal Economy with however differing specifics. This label dates back to most countries Planned Economy. So why is now the Fintech industry poised for significant growth in the MENA region? And how? All world economies have an informal economy, and the duties of all business and governments alike leaders are to sustain, help and assist in its good maintenance and eventual development. Informal Economy is not Black Market and can easily be formalised to become the locomotive of any nation’s economic life. Could Fintech be of serious help here?
Any way, the reasons are tied to those specifics at this conjecture as well summarised by Ayad Nahas below.
The Financial Technology (Fintech) industry in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) looks well placed to enjoy a period of substantial growth.
As many as 69% of adults remain totally unbanked in the region
Internet penetration in Saudi Arabia stood at 95.7% in January 2021
Fintech is going to be the “game-changer”
Fintech industry poised for significant growth in the MENA region
By Ayad Nahas, Communication Strategist
The Financial Technology (fintech) industry in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) looks well placed to enjoy a period of substantial growth.
Part of this growth could come from a large unbanked population.
GCC expatriates with low and middle-income salaries constitute a large proportion of the unbanked such as in the UAE, where around 80% of the population is outside the current financial system.
Yet, regional smartphone and internet penetration is very high, reaching 2 mobile-cellular subscriptions per UAE inhabitant in 2019, while Internet penetration in Saudi Arabia stood at 95.7% in January 2021.
Regional governments spotted this opportunity and introduced regulation to substantially attract investments into the sector.
Fintech is a term that describes new technology which seeks to improve and automate the delivery and usage of financial services. At its core, fintech helps companies, business owners, and consumers better manage their financial operations, processes, and lives by applying specialized software and algorithms on computers and, increasingly, smartphones.
Fintech’s adaptability across a slew of consumer sectors is propelling its widespread acceptability. Managing finances, trading shares, furnishing payments, and shopping online (often on your smartphone) has never been more convenient.
At the forefront of the fintech disruption are agile innovations such as peer-to-peer (P2P) lending and crowdfunding, providing alternative lending platforms, and widening access to fundraising.
While they may currently still need some centralized form of finance, at the minimum, P2P lending and crowdfunding can use fintech and blockchain to quicken the process, avoid paying high banking fees, and garner the interest of digitally-minded Millennials and future Z-generations.
A recent report by consultancy firm Deloitte also states that the UAE houses over 50% of the region’s fintech companies, with nearly 39% of the population using fintech for P2P money transfer.
According to a report by Crowd Funder, a leading online source for the fintech industry, the number of financial technology companies in the Middle East increased from around 105 companies in 2015 to 250 firms in the year 2021.
Hanna Sarraf, a senior banking executive from the MENA region, said fintech is going to be the “game-changer” that will decide the winners and losers within the financial services industry, globally and in the Middle East, in the short and long terms.
He points out that new technologies and advanced data analytics are transforming the traditional banking business models from the way banks interact with customers to the way banks manage their middle and back-office operations.
The global fintech market is expected to reach $309.98 billion at a CAGR of 24.8% by the year 2022 according to many key sources from the banking industry. In the MENA, the fintech industry is expected to hit a record valuation of $3.45 bn by 2026.
The growth of this sector is currently being propelled by the rapid rise in fintech startups as a result of the very high internet penetration in the region. Another major factor is that several traditional banks are undergoing digital transformations or even becoming neo-banks, a trend especially evident in the UAE.
In a survey by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) last October, 70% of respondents said they are actively searching for a new bank, and 87% said they would be willing to open an account with a branchless digital-only lender.
Today, the UAE is leading the pack in financial technology and developing itself as a digital-first nation when it comes to banking, payments, and fintech, as evidenced by the UAE’s first digital bank to provide both retail and corporate banking services and which will soon be launched and led by Former Emaar Chairman, Mohamed Alabbar.
According to many experts, the fintech market in the MENA region is set to account for 8% of the Middle East financial services revenue by 2022. COVID-19 turned out to be a wakeup call to switch from traditionally deployed financial services to more sustainable finance and technology platforms
The fintech revolution is set to continue to disrupt, and traditional banks must keep up with the pace of technology in order to stay relevant and competitive. In this rapidly evolving, ever-changing market, it’s time to innovate, integrate and accelerate into the future.
ARAB NEWS‘ article on the MENA countries weighed down by pandemic debts as these have already registered the advent of this pandemic inadvertently hit some declines in real GDP growth from their oil exports reduction. Since the beginning, these had difficulty coping with COVID 19 pandemic prevention for many reasons that are of a logistics nature but structural.
MENA countries weighed down by pandemic debts will struggle to grow – World Bank
Average MENA debt to GDP rose 9 points since 2019 to 55% in 2021
Countries with low external debt can still borrow cheaply
WASHINGTON, D.C.: The outlook for the Middle East and North Africa has worsened considerably over the past year as countries accumulated debt to pay for pandemic relief measures, leaving them with less to invest in post-pandemic economic recovery, according to the World Bank.
Average debt to GDP in the MENA region rose by 9 percentage points since the end of 2019 to 55 percent in 2021, the World Bank said in a report Living with Debt: How Institutions Can Chart a Path to Recovery in the Middle East and North Africa released on Friday. Debt among the region’s oil importers is expected to average about 93 percent of GDP this year, it said.
MENA economic growth will rebound by 2.2 percent in 2021 after contracting 3.8 percent in 2020, but will be 7.2 percentage points, or $227 billion, lower by the end of this year than it would have been had the pandemic not happened, the World Bank estimates. Real GDP per capita will be 4.7 percent lower in 2021 than in 2019.
“The MENA region remains in crisis, but we can see hopeful signs of light through the tunnel, especially with the deployment of vaccines,” said Ferid BelHajj, World Bank vice president for the Middle East and North Africa. “We have seen the extent to which MENA governments borrowed to finance critical health care and social protection measures, which saved lives and livelihoods, but also boosted debt.”
As of the first week of March, the UAE had the highest percentage of its population vaccinated, at 63.5%, followed by Bahrain at 30% and Morocco at 12.2%, then Qatar at 11.4%, World Bank data shows. Saudi Arabia had a 2.2% vaccination rate.
MENA countries will need to keep on borrowing this year to prop up their citizens’ finances but will face high borrowing costs, particularly those with high debt and low growth, the bank said. However, those with low levels of public external debt, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Morocco, could issue debt at lower rates, it said.
The remedy for the increasingly precarious situation of many of the region’s economies is faster growth that makes it easier to roll over existing debt, the World Bank said. Those that cannot roll over debt face potentially painful restructurings and should enter into negotiations before they hit crisis point, the report advised.
Of benefit to the whole region would be enhanced debt reporting transparency and financial market vulnerability monitoring, it said. MENA countries should reveal all their borrowing, including those from China, as should debt become exposed during periods of distress it will be added to the public tally just as they are negotiating with lenders, the report said.
“Economic growth remains the most sustainable way to reduce debt,” the report said. “Boosting economic growth requires deep structural reforms to raise the productivity of the existing workforce and to put idle working-age people in jobs. Many MENA countries that have characteristics associated with ineffective fiscal stimulus, such as high public debt and poor governance, could consider fiscal reforms early in the recovery from the pandemic.”
Michael Young in an interview, with David Linfield who argues that international donors are benefiting existing power structures in the Middle East. It is all about Colluding With the Corrupters.
Corruption spread deep and for some time in the MENA region with social, political, and economic implications, but with differing penetrations rates. All because the area can divide into two types of governance. The autocratic monarchies live with side by side with the so-called republics. Few of these latter countries know a higher degree of corruption than the first-mentioned countries. In any case, all have made the fight against corruption a priority by passing laws and adopting strategies to combat crime. But in vain. Colluding with the Corrupters could quickly summarise a situation where such deviant behavioural attitudes originators can be traced back out of the region.
January 29, 2021
David Linfield is a visiting scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is on sabbatical from the U.S. Department of State, where he is a career foreign service officer. Linfield recently wrote a commentary for Carnegie, titled “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game.” In mid-January, Diwan interviewed him to discuss his article, and more generally to examine the anti-elite feeling that has permeated protests throughout the Middle East in the past year, notably in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The views expressed by Linfield are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.
Michael Young (MY): You’ve just written a commentary for Carnegie, titled “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game.” What is your argument in the piece?
David Linfield (DL): My argument is that the United States and other international donors have put significant clout and resources behind promoting economic liberalization in the Middle East, while they have been hesitant to put similar emphasis on political reforms. By political reforms I mean boosting transparency, combating corruption, and empowering elected officials. International actors have partly justified this approach by suggesting that economic reforms are a better way of promoting stability and less risky than political changes. But I contend that recent events in the region suggest that these policies are making violent, sudden change in the region more likely, not less so.
When adopted in the context of authoritarian political systems, economic reforms such as privatization have tended to benefit existing power structures, exacerbating economic inequality and citizen-state tensions. The World Inequality Database now ranks the Middle East as the most unequal region in the world. While economic inequality has decreased worldwide since the 1990s, it has remained constant in the Middle East.
By supporting policies that have inadvertently led to such entrenched inequality, while neglecting political reforms, international donors have contributed to citizens’ frustrations with their relative economic status while leaving them without peaceful institutional means of expressing their grievances. This is all a recipe for instability, which is the opposite of what donors want.
MY: You write that “[e]merging solidarity among previously competing groups, grounded in [economic inequality]” is a feature of the growing resentment of elites in the Middle East. Are you suggesting, to borrow from Marxist jargon, that we are seeing the emergence of a sort of class consciousness in certain countries that may have revolutionary potential?
DL: Most of the protests in the Middle East since 2018 have focused on economic inequality and corruption. Whereas previous demonstrations in the region tended to consist of a homogeneous ethnic group—whether from a particular religious sect, region, or group of tribes—these recent protests have been more diverse.
Common frustrations with inequality appear to have led people from lower-income communities to demonstrate in common cause—albeit sporadically and tentatively—against what they see as a corrupt and multisectarian elite that has failed them. We have seen this happen most explicitly in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Some of the slogans used in recent protests in these countries do indicate the emergence of class consciousness. When the Jordanian Teachers Union threatened to strike in summer 2020, they framed their plight as a class struggle against those who had “looted the country.” The 2019 Lebanese protests included slogans like “down with the rule of the thieves.” Iraqi protestors in 2019 and 2020 told media outlets that their struggle was about taking the country back from “thieves.”
MY: In light of your assessment, how have the traditional fault lines among Middle Eastern populations that regimes have manipulated to retain power—things such as sectarian, tribal, or regional divisions—fared in what you describe as a changing environment?
DL: The traditional fault lines in Middle Eastern societies are still very much present. Emerging class-based tensions have not fully supplanted preexisting divisions based on ethnicity, religion, and tribalism, but rather now coexist alongside them more than before. That said, the trendlines I described earlier suggest that class-based divisions will continue to grow in relative importance and have the potential to reshape existing political alliances and divisions.
In addition to the demonstrations I mentioned earlier, another indicator of the power of class solidarity is a 2019 experiment by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. The study, which assigned hundreds of Lebanese people into different conversation groups having varying compositions based on sect and class, found that when Lebanese people gathered with other members of the same class, they exhibited markedly less support for sectarian politics.
It’s too early to craft a comprehensive assessment of how emerging class-based tensions will interact with longer-standing societal divisions in the Middle East. One reason that we’ll have to observe for a longer period is that Covid-19 shifted the focus dramatically from political and economic challenges to the health crisis. But given that the pandemic exacerbated economic inequality, with lower-income communities bearing the brunt of related economic disruptions, we probably won’t have to wait long before class discussions reemerge.
MY: If the problem is that economic liberalization has reinforced elites, what are you recommending as an alternative approach by Western donors? And what makes you think that such an approach would have any chance of working?
DL: The alternative approach I’m recommending is for international donors to incorporate measures to promote transparency and combat corruption into existing economic liberalization efforts. These political reforms are also good for business and economic growth—as noted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank reports I cite in my article. The IMF’s recent insistence that Lebanon address corruption before receiving additional loans is a positive step to putting teeth behind their analysis.
Other helpful steps would include pushing to empower the many weak legislatures across the region beyond their current rubber-stamp roles, which would provide an alternative to protests for frustrated publics. If international donors put the same clout behind good governance that they have behind economic liberalization, they’ll make peaceful and durable progress more likely in the Middle East.
MY: Are you not reading too much into anti-elite solidarity? Ultimately, states in the region have shown that they will resort to violence in order to survive and societies have often gone back to being silent. Why will this change?
DL: Ruling elites in the region have demonstrated that they are willing to go to extreme measures to maintain their benefits. I am not suggesting that elites will somehow decide that they should altruistically begin to share resources with the rest of society. Rather, as your question implies, I am arguing that the elite behavior of concentrating power and resources is an unsustainable strategy that will ultimately foment violence and harm everyone’s interests, including those of the elite.
Autocratic regimes tend to resort to violence when they feel they have run out of other options, but rely more often on nonviolent coercion and intimidation to maintain daily control. By the time regimes turn to violence, it tends to be a prelude to their loss of control—or a stage where they are nearing that.
The strategy of international donors focusing their influence and resources on economic liberalization instead of good governance has not succeeded in bolstering stability and strengthening citizen-state relations. Instead, the policy has exacerbated class-based tensions and increased the prospects of unrest.
These trends are not linear: demonstrations in the region against economic inequality and corruption have ebbed and flowed. Ruling elites remain intent on doing everything they can to outmaneuver these latest challenges to their vested interests. Longer-standing societal tensions based on sect, region, and tribe also continue to simmer and remain exploitable by elites. But the overall direction of the region is still toward economic liberalization in the midst of authoritarian entrenchment. As long as that remains the case anti-elite solidarity is likely to build. International donors are inadvertently contributing to these increasing citizen-state tensions. Instead, they could be fostering more durable change that would make the region more stable and prosperous for everyone.
Conditions for boosting the privatisation process via the Algiers Stock Exchange are reviewed by University professor and international expert, Dr Abderrahmane MEBTOUL.
The aims of the privatisation, whether partial or total of the Algerian economy do not come to be questioned. The process is a must, however, it needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Proposals of strategies are made, notably through my experience as Chairman of the National Council of Privatizations between 1996/1999 complemented by numerous tours in the USA, helping to formulate the conditions for the success of the privatisation process via the Algiers Stock Exchange, to imply clarity in the objectives and means of implementation.
The urgency of a strategic vision
At a time of the coronavirus pandemic and the world going through new socio-economic changes in technological and organisational models including shock waves that according to the IMF, the World Bank, and the OECD, global growth will not be felt before the end of 2021. Furthermore, subject to the control of the epidemic, all domestic companies using the State’s handouts for their survival and all of the state-owned enterprises suffer from a structural deficit. Indebted to banks, some whose production techniques, are obsolete and do not meet new technologies and international standards, it is mentioned in this particular context to address the large budget deficit. The observation is the lack of dynamism of the public sector, the consolidation supported by the public treasury having far exceeded 100 billion dollars at constant prices between 2000/2020. The cost of the numerous restructurings between 1980/1999 and the ensuing remediation period of 2000/2020, resulted in more than 95% of the domestic companies returned to their inception status. Whereas with this, capital-money, it would have been more sensible to create a whole new and performing economic fabric. These are only announcements because, being an eminently political process, any decision on such a sensitive and complicated subject must first have the approval of the Council of Ministers certainly after consultation with the Security Council because it commits national security. Privatisation should not be confused with complementary de-monopolisation, both eminently political, moving towards the disengagement of the State from the economic sphere so that it devotes itself to its role as a strategic regulator in a market economy. Privatisation is a transfer of ownership from existing units to the private sector, and de-monopolisation is about fostering new private investment. The objective of de-monopolisation and privatisation must reinforce the systemic transformation of the transition from an administered economy to a competitive market economy. A legal text is not enough (this is only a means) and becomes a decoy if there are no coherent objectives clearly defined with pragmatism and a return to trust.
Privatisation can only be successful if it is part of a coherent and visible global socio-economic policy and if it is accompanied by a competitive universal and sustained dialogue between the social partners. It should be aimed at putting an end to perpetual legal instability. The renovation of the Ministry of Finance through digitisation of all systems of taxation, banks, land and customs duties would surely put an end to the central and local bureaucracy that as a significant constraint of an administered economy would be best be accompanied by the overhaul of the socio-political system. Also, the decentralisation around large four to five regional poles, not deconcentration would help.
Moreover, the impacts of all trade agreements between Algeria and the European Union, Africa and the Arab world, as well as all international ones would be of a win-win type only if Algeria has public or private companies that are competitive in terms of cost/quality. In any case, all of these agreements have domestically economic, social and political implications.
The four conditions for boosting the privatisation process
Are our managers aware that there is a global privatisation market where competition is perennial, and the determining factor is a demand for goodwill and not just supply? The success of this process to prevent certain predators from being interested only in the real estate of these companies and not in the production tool involving five conditions?
The first condition, its impact on the reduction of the budget deficit where according to the Finance Law of 2021 more than $21.75 billion in 2021, against the 2020 close of $18.60 billion and an overall projected treasury deficit of $28.26 billion, artificially, which is in principle filled by higher production and domestic productivity; to boost non-hydrocarbon exports and contribute to the establishment of a competitive market economy far from any monopoly, whether public or private.
The State, as a regulator and guarantor of social cohesion, especially at a time of budgetary and tensions domestic and at our borders should enforce the contract between employers and employees so that the logic of profit does not undermine the dignity of workers. Nevertheless, never forget that the most incredible moral devaluation in any society is being unemployed or assisted. The important thing is not to work in the national, international or state-private sector, the critical thing for our children is to find a sustainable job within the framework of social protection.
The second condition was a good preparation of a company X for privatisation, assuming transparent communication, as some executives and workers had heard the news in the press, which increased social tensions. Transparency is a fundamental condition for the acceptance of both the population and workers in the spirit of reforms linked to profound democratisation of society. The takeover of companies for executives and workers requires the creation of a risk bank to accompany them because they possess the technological, organisational and commercial know-how a hardcore of skills must constitute the basis of any reliable unit.
The third condition will be to avoid filialisations that were not operating in the past—sticking with bureaucratic power, being the basis for the success of both the partial opening of capital and total privatisation, the wealth in the accounts being often undefining. Lack of an updated land registry poses the problem of the non-existence of reliable title deeds without which no transfer of ownership can be carried out. As there is an urgent need to have transparent real-time accountings of public, private companies, that meet international standards, all measures will be ineffective especially for stock market valuation the actual sale price varies from time to time.
The fourth condition, time overlap of different institutions between selection, evaluations, tender notices, transfer to the stakeholders, then to the Government for the issuance of the final title of ownership would best be not arduous. It may discourage any takeover because mobile capital is invested only where economic and political obstacles are minimal. In this context, it is imperative that long bureaucratic circuits avoid a clearly defined synchronisation and that the current conflicting legal texts should be reviewed, which can lead to endless conflicts, hence the urgent need for their harmonisation with international law. Empowerment will need to be specified where it is necessary to determine who has it to request the undertaking of a privatisation operation. It is vital to prepare the transaction, to organise the selection of the purchaser, to authorise the conclusion of the transaction, to sign the relevant agreements and finally, to ensure that they are carried out correctly.
The four conditions for boosting the Algiers Stock Exchange
In lethargy since its inception, the ASE was built up like a stadium without players through administrative injunctions, like all the loss-making state-owned enterprises.
However, the revitalisation of the stock market implies three conditions.
First, the lifting of environmental constraints gives bureaucratic obstacles that cannot be a reliable purse without competition, avoiding legal instability referring to the rule of law.
Second, a stock exchange must be based on a renovated banking system. However, the Algerian financial system for decades has been the place par excellence for the distribution of the hydrocarbon rent and therefore a considerable challenge of power, and therefore the revitalisation of the stock market necessarily requires the overhaul of the financial system. Indeed, despite the number of private operators, we have a public economy with managed management, all activities whatever their nature feeding on budget flows, i.e. the very essence of financing is linked to the actual or supposed capacity of treasure. It can be considered that the banks in Algeria operate not from local market savings but by the recurrent advances from the Central Bank of Algeria that is refinanced by the public treasury in the form of reorganisation not only for the recent period but having to count the costs of restructuring between 1980/1990. This transformation is not in the scope of the company. However, it moves into the institutional field (distribution of the annuity hydrocarbons), and in this relationship, the Algerian financial system is passive. Bread 90% of these companies its returned to the starting box showing that it is not a question of capital money, real wealth can only assume the transformation of currency stock into capital stock, and there is the whole development problem.
Thirdly, there can be no stock exchange without the resolution of all deeds circulating shares or bonds. The urgency of the integration of the informal sphere cannot be underestimated. Issuing title deeds is vital as there can be no reliable stock exchange without clear and transparent accounting modelled on international standards by generalising audits and analytical accounting in order to determine the cost centres for shareholders. This raises the problem of adapting a socio-educational system, which does not exist as financial engineering. The balance-of-payments services item with foreign exchange outflows between 2010/2019 is between $9/11 billion per year, in addition to foreign exchange outflows from import goods. There are a few rare exceptions; it turns out that accounts Algerian public and private companies from the most important to the simplest in the State that would not pass the most basic audits due diligence. For example, SONATRACH needs new strategic management like the majority of Algerian companies, with clear accounts in order to determine costs by sections, where we are witnessing the opacity of its management which is limited to delivering consolidated global accounts covering the essentials without distinguishing whether the surplus accumulated is due to exogenous factors, international prices or good internal management. As a primer, we propose partial privatisation of a few profitable national champions to initiate the movement to enable the establishment of a stock market index consisting of volume and quality, acting as incubators of companies eligible for the stock exchange and attracting investors looking for financing and know-how.
The fourth condition is monetary stability and legal and monetary stability and the resolution of bad debts and debts, with state-owned banks crumbling under the weight of bad debts and the majority of state-owned enterprises in structural deficits, especially for the currency-denominated part involving transparent mechanisms in the event of exchange rate fluctuations. The simultaneous depreciation of the dinar against the Dollar, the main currency of exchange, does not respond to real values because their quotations are inversely proportional, has the essential aim of artificially filling the budget deficit, akin to an indirect tax. Indeed, on October 15, 2020, on the Stock Exchange, the Dollar is quoted at 1.2144 Euro, against 1.16 in June 2020, a depreciation of 5%, allowing a rise in the price of Brent by 5%. In reference to the June 2020 quote, the price of Brent quoted on December 15 at $50 would be $47.5 at constant prices, thus not having experienced a real increase in terms of purchasing power parity against the Euro and thus an increase in the import bill in euros in the same proportions. Thus, the current Government projecting for 2023 about 185 Dinar one Euro and 156 Dinars per Dollar and taking a 50% deviation from the parallel market we will have about 300 Dinars a minimum Euro in 2023 subject to the control of inflation otherwise the gap would be larger. They were compared to more than 200 Dinars in mid-December 2020 with a projection of 240/250 Euros at the end of 2021 in as to open borders and the inevitable increase in interest rates of the banks’ priorities to avoid their bankruptcies. In this case, it is illusory both to attract the savings of emigration via the banks that one wants to install with foreign exchange costs, as to capture the money capital via the informal sphere via Islamic finance. How do you want a trader with this monetary instability to appear on the stock exchange knowing that the value of the dinar will fall by at least 30% if not more in two to three years, depreciating its assets?.
The partial or total privatisation can be the process, with economic, social and political recompositions of power for a controlled liberalisation in order to avoid the squandering of public assets for the benefit of speculators interested mainly in real estate assets. It involves the transparency of specific objectives, the removal of bureaucratic obstacles, land, banks, the informal sphere, taxation, legal and monetary stability, essential criteria for any national investor.
How countries are raising debt to fight COVID and . . . why developing nations face tougher choices by Shamel Azmeh, Lecturer in International Development, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester is about the pandemic that is affecting all countries as described by the World Bank’s article as a heat-seeking missile speeding toward the most vulnerable in society. That metaphor applies not just to the vulnerable in the rich world; the vulnerable in the rest of the world is not more immune.
How countries are raising debt to fight COVID and why developing nations face tougher choices
COVID continues to ravage societies around the world, and a key issue is how governments can afford to fight it. As economies are disrupted, governments are stepping in to increase their spending to bail out companies, pay the cost of health measures, and subsidise workers’ wages.
Before COVID, when people argued that the state should be able to offer free healthcare and free education, among other services, and welfare measures, a standard political response was that state resources were limited. Asked by a nurse in 2017 why her wages hadn’t increased from 2009 levels, then British prime minister, Theresa May, said: “There is no magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want.”
Except, a few years later, the government has not only been able to pay the wages of millions, it has also created rescue packages for thousands of firms and offered people vouchers to eat out in restaurants. A number of European countries have also taken the unprecedented step of underwriting the wages of millions of workers in response to the pandemic.
How is the British state and others capable of this radical increase in spending at a time when revenues from taxes are collapsing?
‘Magic money tree’
The answer to this lies in the debt market. Over the past few months, world governments have drastically increased their borrowing to cover the costs of the pandemic. It might appear logical that the cost of credit will go up during uncertain economic times. The reality, however, is that capital often goes to safer sovereign debt during economic downturns, particularly as the equity markets become unstable and volatile.
Over recent months, rather than struggling to find lenders or having to pay more for debt, the governments of the major economies have been awash with credit at historically low rates. In October, the EU, until now a small player in the debt market (as borrowing mostly is by national governments of member states), began a major borrowing campaign as part of the efforts to fight COVID through the SURE programme (Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency) which was created in May.
The first sale of bonds worth €17 billion was met with what some described as “outrageous demand”, with investors bidding a total of €233 billion to buy them. This intense competition was for bonds that offered a return of -0.26% over ten years, meaning that an investor who holds the bond to maturity will receive less than they paid today.
The EU is not the only borrower that is effectively being paid to borrow money. Many of the advanced economies have been in recent years and months selling debt at negative rates. For some countries, the shift has been dramatic. Even countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece that were previously seen as relatively risky borrowers, with Greece going through a major debt crisis, are now enjoying borrowing money at very low rates.
The reason for this phenomenon is that while these bonds are initially bought by “traditional” market actors, central banks are buying huge quantities of these bonds once they are circulated in the market. For a few years now, the European Central Bank (ECB) has been an active buyer of European government bonds – not directly from governments but from the secondary market (from investors who bought these bonds earlier). This ECB asset purchase programme was expanded to help weather the COVID crisis, with the ECB spending €676 billion on government bonds from the start of 2020 until September.
Other central banks in the major advanced economies are following the same strategy. Through these programmes, those central banks encourage investors to keep buying government bonds with the knowledge that the demand for those bonds in the secondary market will remain strong.
Not everybody, however, enjoys a similar position in the debt market. While the rich economies are being chased by investors to take their money, the situation is radically different for poorer countries. Many poor countries have limited access to the credit market and rely instead on public lenders, such as the World Bank.
In recent years, this pattern began to change with a growing number of developing countries increasing their foreign borrowing from private lenders. Developing countries, however, are in a structurally weaker position than richer peers. The smaller scale of their capital markets mean that they are more reliant on external financing. This reliance means that developing countries rely on raising money in foreign currency, which increases the risk to their economies.
As many developing countries have less diversified exports with a higher percentage of commodities, the price decline in commodities in recent months has increased those risks. As a result, developing countries face a significantly higher cost of borrowing compared to the richer economies.
A few large developing countries, such as Indonesia, Colombia, India and the Philippines, have begun to follow the policy adopted by the advanced economies of buying government bonds to fund an expanding deficit. The risks of doing this, however, are higher than the richer economies, including a decline in capital inflows, capital flight and currency crises. A report by the rating agency S&P Global Ratings illustrated the differences between those two economies:
Advanced countries typically have deep domestic capital markets, strong public institutions (including independent central banks), low and stable inflation, and transparency and predictability in economic policies. These attributes allow their central banks to maintain large government bond holdings without losing investor confidence, creating fear of higher inflation, or triggering capital outflow. Conversely, sovereigns with less credible public institutions and less monetary, exchange rate and fiscal flexibility have less capacity to monetise fiscal deficits without running the risk of higher inflation. This may trigger large capital outflows, devaluing the currency and prompting domestic interest rates to rise, as seen in Argentina over parts of the past decade.
While the reaction of the market to this approach by developing countries has been muted so far, the report argued, this situation might change. Developing countries who do this could “weaken monetary flexibility and economic stability, which could increase the likelihood of sovereign rating downgrades”.
In July, following the participation of Ethiopia, Pakistan, Cameroon, Senegal and the Ivory Coast in a World Bank-endorsed G20 debt suspension initiative, the rating agency Moody’s took action against those countries arguing that participation in this scheme increased the risk for investors in bonds issued by these countries, leading to some developing economies avoiding the initiative in order not to send a “negative signal to the market”. Zambia is on the verge of being the first “COVID default” and other developing countries could face a similar situation in coming months.
As a result of these dynamics, many developing countries are facing the tough choice of giving up any economically costly health measures or facing serious fiscal and economic crises. Access to credit has become a defining factor in the ability of governments to respond to the pandemic. As a result of access to cheap credit, developed economies are so far able to take such health measures while limiting the social and economic impact of the pandemic. Many developing countries do not have this luxury. Not everyone gets to shake the branches of the magical money tree.
Originally posted on looking beyond borders: As a key player in the recent Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire and with its diplomats more active than they have been in years, Egypt is back as a major influencer in Middle Eastern affairs. From Gaza to Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean to the Horn of Africa, Cairo is now key in…
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Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.