Africa: Transcript of African Department April 2024 Press Briefing

PARTICIPANTS: ABEBE AEMRO SELASSIE – Director, African Department; TATIANA MOSSOT – Senior Communications Officer

MS. MOSSOT: Good morning and good afternoon and good evening for our viewers around the world. I am Tatiana Mossot with the IMF Communication department. I am your host for the press briefing on the Regional Economic Outlook for Sub-Saharan Africa. I am pleased to introduce to you the Director of the IMF African Department, Abebe Aemro Selassie. This Spring Meetings, the Sub-Saharan Africa report is named a ‘Tepid and Pricey Recovery.’ Please, could you tell us more about this report?

MR. SELASSIE: Thank you, Tatiana. Good morning and good afternoon to those joining us online. Thank you for joining us today for the launch of the IMF’s Regional economic Outlook for Sub-Saharan Africa. Let me start with a bit of good news, which is that after four challenging years and multiple shocks, Sub-Saharan Africa’s economy appears to be on the mend. We expect growth to accelerate to 3.8 percent from 3.4 percent last year, after peaking at almost 10 percent in late 2022. We are also seeing inflation having been halved in the early months of this year, thanks to decisive actions by central banks. This includes slower food price increases, a positive development in a region where the cost-of-living crisis has been acute in recent years. Further, fiscal consolidation efforts are starting to pay off. With the median public debt stabilizing at around 60 percent of GDP, halting a 10 year upward trend. And with global financial conditions easing, a few countries have been able to return to international markets, ending a two-year hiatus.

These are encouraging signs, but the region is not out of the woods. Far too many countries still face a funding squeeze. Their borrowing costs are high and funding sources curtailed. Government interest payments now account for about 12 percent of revenues, more than double the level a decade ago, and official development assistance concessional financing has become much more scarce.

What does this mean for countries? It means much needed funds are being diverted from spending on investment development to interest payments, with consequences for the region’s growth potential and its ability to withstand future shocks. Sustaining reforms will be important for macroeconomic conditions to continue to improve. This will ensure that countries in the region can build their resilience to shocks, generate jobs, diversify their economies, and improve living standards.

In particular, we see three policy priorities for governments in the region.

First, to continue to improve public finances, with an emphasis on domestic revenue mobilization. This will help meet the region’s vast development spending needs in the context of scarce concessional financing and high borrowing costs.

Second, to sustain the focus on reducing inflation wherever inflation remains well above target.

And third, to implement reforms that enhance skills development, spur innovation, improve the business environment, and promote trade integration to secure more affordable and stable financing.

But the burden should not just be on countries alone. Support from the international community will remain essential. The IMF stands ready to support, having already provided $58 billion in financing to the region since the start of the Pandemic. Let me conclude by stressing that the region is at a turning point. With the right policy choices, I am very confident that the region will ensure that this will be the African century. Thank you, Tatiana.

MS. MOSSOT: We will start with questions from the audience and then we will also be online with WebEx. Please introduce yourself and your media.

QUESTIONER: In the report, you highlighted two priorities, education, and population dynamic. Just after your report in October 2019, the Pandemic was declared in 2020 Africa has also experience the Ebola crisis. Given your assessment, how critical is it to invest in universal health for a country to achieve their macroeconomic and fiscal stability?

MR. SELASSIE: Thank you. We have been, of course, for many years making the case for investment in health education alongside investment in public infrastructure. And I would say that the needed emphasis on spending on health and education now is even more important, given all the scarring, all the adverse effects that the Pandemic has had. It interrupted of course; education of children that were in school schools had to be closed down for a while. There were a lot of learning losses. And of course, the health effects of the Pandemic have also been significant in the region. So, we have been making the case for perhaps a bit more emphasis, particularly at a juncture like this, to make sure that we reverse some of the scarring .

Over and above the short-term need to spend on health education at the moment, of course, is the longer-term and pressing need that there has always been to increase spending on education. We have this chapter that you noted exactly to flag the need, which is incredible in our region, to keep pace with population growth. And many of these kids that need to attend school are of course going to be the people that are going to be the font of innovation, the font of labor supply to the global economy in a decade or so. IT really is something of importance not just to African countries, but to anybody interested in a global economy that does well a decade or so out.

MS. MOSSOT: Thank you. We will go with the mister right here, and then we will go online after.

QUESTIONER: Thank you so much. When the IMF met in Marrakech a few months ago, the Managing Director was welcoming progress on Zambian debt relief under the G20 Common Framework. Fast forward six months and it looks like Zambia is running into trouble, Ghana is running into trouble with debt relief. I was wondering if you could talk about where we stand with the Common Framework. Does it still work? What are the issues with it? Is it still the thing that you are looking at to resolve these issues? Give us a sense of the negotiations that have been happening this week with Zambia, with Ghana in particular. And also, related to that, I see that these proposed reforms that would allow you to continue lending to countries even when there is no debt agreement with bilateral creditors, this seems to be very much targeted at China as a known, kind of a runaround. Could you talk a little bit about the outlook for that, what you hope to accomplish with this new lending policy? Thank you so much.

MR. SELASSIE: Thanks. Debt restructurings are always a very painful exercise first and foremost, of course, for the debtor country. But also, creditors have to take loss and almost always, sovereign debt restructurings take a lot of time, a lot of time.I would say that without the Common Framework, we would not have made the progress that we have made in helping countries like Zambia, Ghana’s move towards debt sustainability. So that is a really very important thing. Has it worked as efficiently as would be desirable? Perhaps not. But without it, I can tell you that we would be in a much, much more difficult situation. Having the Common Framework has meant that official creditors can come around the table and agree to provide debt relief and ask other creditors to follow suit. And I mean, there has been really very, very good progress in the case of Zambia, of course, as you noted, official creditors signed off and the government also just announced a deal with their Eurobond creditors. I am not sure where this idea that there has not been progress on Zambia over the last six months comes from.

With respect to Ghana, again, discussions are ongoing just a few months after official creditors provided financing assurances and, the government is in good faith discussions with their creditors, and we hope that there will be an outcome. I should add here that the fact that they have not reached agreement with their Eurobond holders will not prevent us from being able to provide more financing, although reaching that agreement is of course important.

Lastly, on recent reforms, we have always fine tuning our policies to make sure that we have the ability to support countries as in a timely and efficient manner as possible. These reforms are consistent with that. I have to tell you that we see China as a very important development partner for African countries. It was before and it will continue to be, so this is not at all aimed at China. Thank you.

MS. MOSSOT: Thank you. We will go online. I think we have several questions from Malawi. you —

QUESTIONER: The IMF has maintained Malawi’s growth focus for 2024 at 3.3 percent this year. This is despite the shocks that the economy is experiencing, like the El Nino, which has drastically reduced the crop output by somewhere around 20 or 30 percent and then we have flooding along the rickshaw areas and the Shire valley. I just wanted to understand, find out, what are you projecting this growth from? What do you think will drive growth in 2024 for Malawi in the face of these economic shocks?

MR. SELASSIE: Thank you. You know, this projection that we had was before the full effects of El Nino were understood. And my heart goes out to the people of Southern Africa, Malawi of course, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, parts of Mozambique also, and even further south. We really are very worried about this shock just as the region was recovering from all of the effects of the Pandemic and other shocks. This latest shock is a reminder of just the damage that climate change is bringing to the region.

We are sending a team very shortly to Malawi to do a full assessment and see how we can provide support for Malawi and other countries, I should add, that are being impacted. I think another concern that we have in Malawi, of course, is that the debt situation of the country has remained unaddressed so far. Official creditors recently provided financing assurances, but the country’s other creditors have not yet. And that is, I think, one of the most pressing impediments that we see in our ability to continue to provide financing.

Over the last couple of years, the Fund, the World Bank, have provided a lot of financing to the country, but this financing cannot be effective, of course, without debt relief for the country. And as you noted in the context of this drought, this debt relief is extremely pressing, extremely pressing, I should say. And we hope that there will be progress on that front so that any resources we provide can go to help the people of Malawi.

QUESTIONER: So, my question has to do with the report in which you talk about uneasing of international financial conditions, which has allowed countries like Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya to raise significant financing on international markets. Do you think Cameroon and the Cote d’Ivoire can also try their luck? And what will be the impact on political institutions? How will the political uncertainty in some African countries affect IMF support?

MR. SELASSIE: On recent market access we were happy that a few countries have been able to return to markets to roll over maturities that are pending or to do other liability management operations. Given the fact that countries had been shut out of markets, this return to markets was welcome. That said, and as we note in our report, the cost of this financing has been on the high side. In the advice that we give to countries, of course, we point out that it is really important to keep the weighted average cost of financing as low as possible. Full recourse to such financing is not going to be ideal now, certainly not at these prices.

In terms of Cameroon, we have a program through which we support the country. And I think the emphasis in recent years by the government has been to do a lot more concessional financing rather than market financing. But as I said, as in other country cases, if market conditions permit, if it is consistent with debt sustainability and liability management operations, I think that is something that Cameroon can explore. On political uncertainty and stability in countries. First and foremost, this is something that is most problematic for the people in those countries going through these difficult transitions. On our side, we try to pay heed to circumstances on the ground as much as possible. And of course, once conditions permit to move forward with providing the support that countries ask for us. And we take things in as balanced a manner as possible.

MS. MOSSOT: We have a question from the press center. :in February 2024, Africa’s multilateral financial institutions have collaborated and launched the alliance of African Multilateral Financial Institutions. Would financial institutions in the alliance gain preferred creditor status?

MR. SELASSIE: Preferred creditor status is something that depends on recognition by other official bilateral creditors in particular. And it is not something that entities can declare as having preferred creditor status. I think it is important. Point to note, one cannot declare that one has preferred creditor status unilaterally. Second, I think at the Fund in terms of our non-tolerance of arrears policy, we have said that for us and for, I think the official sector more broadly, this policy will apply to entities which have two or more sovereign members and no private sector shareholders. I do not know these entities that have created this institution, whether they abide by that category. And then last but not least , the official sector, at least in the context of ongoing restructuring, has made it clear that they do not recognize PCS status for non-IFI’s. IFI’s being entities, as I said, that have no shareholders.

QUESTIONER: You just talked about the $58 billion that the IMF and its partners have loaned African nations since COVID. And I remember that in 2020, 2021, the IMF was encouraging African countries to come to the U.S. and sign all those loans, and now they cannot pay them back, and now many African countries are in debt distress. Was there a mistake to encourage people to get so many loans in such a short period of time? And what would you say to those who say that the IMF is almost engaged in what appears to be a scam, encouraging, taking money from the rich, lending that money to the poor, and you keep them in poverty forever ?

And can you talk a little bit about the situation in Nigeria? We know that the naira has been in free fall. What is happening in Nigeria? And how can you — what would you recommend for the Nigerian economy?

MR. SELASSIE: I do not know where to begin. I think you have perhaps a misunderstanding of what the role of the IMF is. We are the entity that countries turn to when they are unable to get financing from markets or even domestically, because conditions have become difficult. So, in 2020, in 2021, when countries had zero access to financing externally, even internally, tax revenues had collapsed, also domestically. Governments did not have enough resources to continue providing health and education services and that is when they turn to us. And we are very consistent with our mandate of having stepped forward to provide the financing that our countries and our regions need.

First and foremost, we do this exactly because governments want us to do that. Second, I think without that kind of financing, that countercyclical financing institutions like the IMF would provide, our countries would be in even more dire straits. Second, the financing we provide is on concessional terms, highly concessional terms, back then and now also. Countries often have the choice to borrow 10-12 percent these days versus through our PRGT facility, the one that we have for low-income countries, 0 percent interest borrowing. Third, the amount of financing we provide and our exposure to the region on average is about 3 percent of GDP, 4 percent of GDP at most. Our median exposure in the region. So, debt-to-GDP in a region is about 60 percent. We provide by far the most concessional financing to countries. Our contribution to indebting the region is not something that you can even speak about. In the absence of this financing, countries would be either cutting spending more or borrowing at even higher terms. We help reduce financing needs; we help provide resources when governments face the risk of being shut down.

On the question of Nigeria, I think the government has outlined very clearly the direction that they want to move in. This government came in last year, inherited very difficult macroeconomic conditions, huge imbalances that were being masked by a lot of controls which were not effective either. And they have been pursuing policies that we think are broadly in the right direction. First and foremost, this is for the people of Nigeria, the government of Nigeria, to choose. We have provided advice in terms of what the ideal mix of policies would be. And just to be clear, we have many reports on this. I think Nigeria first and foremost needs to diversify its economy. Second, this also applies to the resources that the government relies on, which is, too much excessively on oil and not enough on non-oil revenue. For a country like Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with all of those development spending needs, we think it is problematic that tax revenue to GDP is only 8-9 percent when it should be a lot higher so that more resources can be spent on building universities, on building infrastructure. And then lastly, on the monetary and exchange rate area, it is also, we think, important to have a system that is broadly reflective of supply and demand conditions, and I think that is the direction in which the government has moved.

QUESTIONER: Last time the MD was in Ghana she talked about the fact that Ghana is close to signing an MoU with the bilateral creditors in terms of the debt restructuring as we speak right now. What is the status of Ghana getting an MoU? There have been reports that there is an MOU that has been reached and what would this mean in terms of the impact of the next round of financing, the $360 million being disbursed to Ghana? On the commercial creditors, there are concerns that it appears the Fund is tilted towards the bilateral creditors in terms of the negotiations and being fast track, but the same cannot be said for the commercial creditors. What do you say about that? And even at a time that we hear that you also rejected the terms that Ghana reached with these private creditors. Thank you.

MR. SELASSIE: As of now there is no MOU with bilateral creditors, but we know that there have been intensive discussions in recent weeks and those are continuing, and we are very hopeful that there will be agreement with bilateral official creditors. To be clear, they have provided financing assurances though, and that remains in effect. And so, we are not envisaging that it will be an issue for our ability to conclude the next review and provide the disbursement that is pending. As we noted, we have reached staff level agreement and that is by far the most important component for the review.

With respect to commercial creditors. I think we are grateful that the government shared with us some of the terms that are under consideration. Staff has provided an input on whether these terms were consistent with program parameters and the government has decided that they would not pursue this deal just yet. Again, I think we are very hopeful that there will be movement and that they can reach agreement consistent with the program parameters, helping lower Ghana’s debt burden at the right level and avoiding, of course, people of Ghana having to make too much sacrifice.

MS. MOSSOT: The gentleman on the third row I think, please.

QUESTIONER: Just following on your comments on Ghana, I was hoping you could give us a sense of how far outside the DSA parameters the deal that the government had reached with bondholders was and perhaps also any timelines you could provide as to by when Ghana might reach a deal with both the bondholders and sign an MOU with the official bilateral creditors. And then just the last one on that too. What lessons Ghana can take from Zambia’s example, especially when it comes to issues around comparability of treatment and perceptions of comparability of treatment from the official creditor committee with regards to any deal with the bondholders?

MR. SELASSIE: Thanks. I am afraid I do not have the numbers to be able to tell you how close or how far the offer that had been made by Ghana’s private creditors was relative to the program parameters. With respect to the discussions, I mean, first and foremost why debt relief is important or sorry, reaching an agreement is important is that it can bring about a bit more certainty in terms of the outlook for public finances also engender some confidence in economies and that is what we have seen happening in other cases where debt restructurings, when they’re completed. So, I think Ghana’s authorities are very much interested in, of course, bringing that to conclusion. And I am hopeful also that the private sector creditors are also approaching it with that view. But negotiations take time, and I am not sure I can give a timeline. This is something that is between Ghana and its creditors, so I will leave it at that.

QUESTIONER: So, you are making the case here for widening the tax base in economies across the region. But this is something that we have heard from policymakers in Sub-Saharan Africa for the better part of the last decade. Kenyan Finance Ministers have repeatedly said it every time they have budgets, but this is a country of 50 million people that still has a relatively narrow employment base of around 3 million. So, is the problem here that there is a large-scale informality that makes it that much harder for economies to be able to expand the tax base effectively or are there other structural issues that come into play? And secondly, very quickly, is there any update on the ongoing talks with Ethiopia? The team was — from the Fund, was in the country to negotiate a new credit line. The figure that we had was around $3.5 billion. Is there any update on those talks and if so, what are the main sticking points in discussions between the Fund and Ethiopia? Thank you.

MR. SELASSIE: On widening the tax base, I mean, I have to say, yes, it has been a pressing issue in our countries doing more domestic revenue mobilization for years and it remains one at the moment, all the more so because of the hit that our countries have faced in recent years on account of the very difficult global economic circumstances, including alternative means of financing being very, very scarce. So, what are the factors here? I think there are multiple. I think there are some technical factors and that countries need to do that can help improve tax administration and digitize tax payment systems, offer better payment services to taxpayers. So, there is technical work that has to be done. The informality you mentioned is absolutely a factor also, and it is something that can hinder tax collections. And so, it is a bit of an uphill battle too, for tax authorities. But I think I have to say that there are also more political type constraints.And I would say that there are twofold.

I mean, one is the general political constraint of taxation always being a very difficult endeavor for any government, so it requires some political capital.And then, second, I think also we do see in many countries, a lot of extensive tax expenditures, that is, companies, entities benefiting from tax exemptions. And we advocate for governments to also make a better effort to minimize these. Reduce these favors that are being done for some companies and not others. So, I think that also would have the added beneficiary effect of showing that there is a lot of equity in the tax system, enticing other people to pay. So, a combination of all of these factors that are impeding more revenue mobilization in our countries. On Ethiopia, I mean, as you know, I have to recuse myself. And so, I have a colleague, the mission chief, Alvaro Piris, here and will send you some answers later.

QUESTIONER: I have two questions which are region, but one is more specific to South Africa. Question number one. I think increasingly there are concerns that the US Federal Reserve may not cut policy rates at all this year, or certainly will cut much more slowly than I think had earlier been expected.How do you see these impacting countries in the region, and specifically South Africa, which have very high public borrowing needs. So that is my first question on global conditions and the impact. The second, a bit more specific to South Africa. You say in your Sub-Saharan Africa report you want to see countries push hard for fiscal consolidation, excuse the background noise, but also pursue development. Now, in South Africa’s case, I know your fiscal report really calls for quite aggressive fiscal consolidation to stabilize a debt level which is quite a lot higher than the regional median of 60 percent. I mean, how does one reconcile those objectives of aggressive consolidation and maintaining the focus on development? Thanks very much.

MR. SELASSIE: Thanks, Hillary. On this possibility of the Fed needing to delay the rate cut, two points, perhaps. I think one [thing it] really points to the incredible uncertainty that policymakers are facing, that our countries are facing. I think that is the first thing I want to note that these last couple of years, we have seen tremendous uncertainty in terms of the direction of economic variables. And that is one of the things that policymakers increasingly have to contend with.That policymaking under uncertainty is difficult and requires a lot of deliberative thinking. The second point, of course, is the practical effect of this, which is that it will mean that in all likelihood the cost of financing will remain higher for a bit longer for our countries. That said, I would note that South Africa, I think, still benefits from having very deep and liquid domestic market, which I think is the envy of emerging markets countries, not just in Africa, but really elsewhere.

The government has always had this tremendous ability to borrow in rand to do the lion’s share of its financial operations. So that will help shield the cost of financing from going up simply because the Fed is going to delay. Of course, there is an effect that comes from that this could have on domestic interest rates. But I think, as I said, that it is dominated by the depth and liquidity of financial markets. On this balancing act between doing fiscal consolidation and still spending on development. Indeed, I fully acknowledge that this is a really, really difficult balancing act. Second, the extent to which you need to do more consolidation versus more sustaining spending on development depends from country to country. Whenever you are closer to debt vulnerabilities getting high and orange or red-light flashing, then you want to err on the side of consolidation and do spending prioritization to maintain spending on the right areas to support economies. But absolutely, it is a very difficult balancing act. And of course, this is also why exactly, because our countries continue to have a lot of spending needs. We push for domestic revenue mobilization-based consolidation so that they can sustain spending in the right areas and even expand in new pressing areas.

QUESTIONER: Rwanda’s debt has been growing very, very big. It is continuously increasing by $8 billion between 2023 and 2028. And while this is happening, the government has prioritized tourism and has spent substantial amounts on funding its airline, RwandAir, which has not made a profit in over 20 years. While it is also prioritizing sponsoring already rich clubs like Arsenal, PSG, and Bayern Munich, while also constructing massive stadiums and arenas in the country. I would like to know whether IMF supports this and what policy advice would you have for Rwanda.