Following the recent visit by President Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi and other senior officials to China, it is reported that the government intends to borrow a significant sum from China, possibly as much as USD1.1 billion, or P12 billion. The loan(s) would be applied to infrastructure development, notably the rebuilding of major trunk roads in the north and east of the country, as well to construct a new northern railway link from Mosete (north of Francistown) to Kazungula and across the new Zambezi bridge into Zambia.
Assuming that the money is indeed on offer from China – part of a reported USD60 billion offered to various African countries at the recent Forum on China – Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) – how should the government evaluate whether this is good offer to accept? As a starting point, it is important to note that the Government of Botswana has many more choices with regard to the financing of infrastructure development than most African governments.
It is not obliged to borrow from China if it deems the designated projects to be worthwhile, as it could also borrow domestically (by issuing bonds) or finance the investments from its accumulated savings in the Government Investment Account (GIA) at the Bank of Botswana. With these available choices, it is important to evaluate the various options and determine, on the basis of the costs and benefits of each, which financing option(s) to use for infrastructure financing.
Legal and Policy Framework for Project Financing
Government’s financing decisions are taken within the context of relevant laws and policies. The key law is the Stocks, Bonds and Treasury Bills Act, which specifies that the total of government debt and guarantees is limited to 40% of GDP (in two tranches, 20% of GDP each for domestic and foreign debt). The key policy is the Medium-Term Debt Management Strategy (MTDMS), 2016-2018, which lays out the principles to be followed in managing debt.
According to the MTDMS, “the primary objective of Botswana’s debt management will be to ensure that the financing needs and payment obligations of Government are met at the lowest possible cost consistent with a prudent degree of risk, and in coordination with fiscal and monetary policies… [while] the secondary objective of the debt management will be to support the development of the domestic capital market”.
As of March 2018, total government debt and guarantees totalled 21% of GDP, of which 13% was external and 8% domestic (Figure 2). The MTDMS notes that while the overall level of debt is well within statutory limits, the structure is far from ideal. In particular, there is too much foreign debt and too much debt with variable interest rates, both factors that raise the level of risk (due to fluctuations in exchange rates and interest rates). It therefore sets an objective of reversing the current composition of total debt from 30% domestic/70% foreign to 70% domestic/30% foreign.
“To achieve the goal of having a higher proportion of domestic debt in total debt portfolio would involve restricting foreign borrowing to the bare minimum in the medium term, and prepaying some of the external loans, while continuing and/or increasing with the Government Bond Issuance Programme” [para 38].
A second objective is to minimise the cost of debt issuance. The MTDMS notes that in order to make an appropriate comparison between the cost of foreign debt (mostly contracted in US dollars) and domestic debt (in Pula), it is necessary to take into account changes in the Pula/US dollar exchange rate.
Over the ten years from the end of 2007 to the end of 2017, the average annual change in the BWP/USD exchange rate was 5%; on the assumption that this trend will continue, this has to be added to the interest rate dollars) and domestic debt (in Pula), it is necessary to take into account changes in the Pula/US dollar exchange rate. Over the ten years from the end of 2007 to the end of 2017, the average annual change in the BWP/USD exchange rate was 5%; on the assumption that this trend will continue, this has to be added to the interest rate charged on a US dollar loan to determine its true cost.
Assessing the Options
So how does the proposed loan from China stack up in terms of the legal and policy parameters regarding borrowing? First, the legal limit of 20% of GDP for foreign debt and guarantees translates to around P40 billion in 2018/19; with around P23 billion currently outstanding, an additional P12 billion can be accommodated with the legal limit.
Where does it stand in terms of the Government’s debt management strategy? Clearly it conflicts with the stated objective of “restricting foreign borrowing to the bare minimum” and reversing the 70%/30% foreign/domestic mix – as it increases the foreign debt share, rather than reducing it.
How about the cost? Nothing has been said publicly about the interest rate that would be paid on Chinese loans, but we understand that the average rate would be around 2%. This may sound low, but once we add on the exchange rate impact, the total cost becomes 7% (i.e., 2% + 5%). We can compare this with the cost of domestic borrowing. At the most recent government bond auction, the benchmark 10-year bond yield was just under 5%, and even the 25-year bond had a yield of only 5.2%.
While the cost of domestic debt might increase if bond issuance jumped sharply, it is evident that domestic borrowing is significantly cheaper than borrowing from China. It is also cheaper to issue domestic bonds than to use the savings in the GIA, which we estimate to have earned an average annual return of 8.1% over the past decade (and hence have an opportunity cost higher than the bond interest rate).
Finally, how does foreign borrowing contribute to the secondary objective of developing the domestic capital market? Not at all, as capital market development depends on the issuance of debt instruments (such as bonds) in Pula. Indeed, domestic institutions such as pension funds and life insurance companies have long been requesting greater government bond issuance in order to meet their investment needs.
Estimates prepared recently by Econsult for the pension sector conclude that the industry requires P1.5 – P2.5 billion of additional bonds each year over the next five years, with a total demand of P11 – 12 billion over the borrowing from China. This is without factoring in potential demand from foreign investors in Pula bonds over the next five years – exactly the same amount as the envisaged.
So borrowing from China doesn’t appear to be a very good deal, in terms of the government’s own strategy. It does not support the stated objective of reducing foreign borrowing and increasing domestic borrowing, and does not minimise financing risks. It is probably more expensive than borrowing domestically, and so does not meet the cost minimisation objective. Thirdly, it does not meet the objective of domestic capital market development. More generally, it raises the question of what is the point of having an official debt management strategy if it is going to be ignored on implementation.
There are also other issues associated with borrowing from China, which is normally tied to procurement from Chinese firms, which may not always offer the best value. AsThe Economist wrote in September this year, when discussing the decision by the new Malaysian Prime Minister to cancel loans from China, one reason was that “we know how inflated the costs are, and how skewed the deals are in China’s favour”.
Finally, it is important to realise that the financing decision is independent of the investment decision. The infrastructure projects should be evaluated in their own right, and if they pass the economic viability tests that are (or should be) central to the development planning process, they should proceed. Once this decision is taken, the financing question can be addressed.
If they are good projects, they do not depend on loans from China, but can be financed from domestic capital markets. Indeed, financing the projects from other sources enables a much more rigorous and procurement process to be undertaken, based on competitive, open international tendering. Chinese firms would be welcome to participate in such tenders, as could firms from other countries. The pricing of projects in these circumstances is likely to be much more attractive than when procurement and project implementation is tied to specific sources of finance.
Government has made some adjustments0 in fiscal policy, as some taxes and levies are to be imposed from the beginning of March this year. It is expected that effective 1st March 2021, government will announce an increase on fuel levy followed by increases in tax items including VAT and tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
FILL UP AND PAY CAESAR TOO AMID FUEL CRISIS
Ministry of Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security in 2017 approved 17.5 thebe per litre which will be in addition to the already existing fuel levy of 13.5 thebe per litre. Apparently Botswana consumes 1.2 billion litres of petroleum products and the levy could raise P210 million per annum which could be used to; purchase of stocks for Botswana Oil Limited, meet insurance premiums for government oil storage facilities and construction of other strategic storage facilities around the country.
According to investment manager Kgori Capital, the new tax might not immediately lead to an increase in fuel pump prices as the National Petroleum Fund (NPF) might be able to cushion the effect of the tax in the short term. Kgori Capital said this however could see increased outflows from the fund which could be unsustainable over the long term.
Recently government released a ‘National Fuel Supply Update’ announcing that the shutdown of three refineries in South Africa, making Botswana look elsewhere to increase sourcing from alternative suppliers. As assurance government stated that it is currently able to meet fuel demand, that back-up is available, it would only be deployed if the situation deteriorates.
Other determinants of fuel price dynamics could be the Rand vs US Dollar. This week on Thursday the Rand rallied for another day, retaining gains from the previous day, as risk appetite stayed high on hints that the new US administration would be in support of a huge stimulus to uplift the economy.
On Thursday commodity news oil prices were supported for yet another day on Wednesday, climbing above US$56 per barrel in mid-afternoon trading, supported by expectations that the incoming US administration would approve a large stimulus package to boost the economy and in turn support oil demand.
According to stockbroker Motswedi Securities, also supporting the commodity’s pricing were ongoing supply cuts by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries as well as expectations that US crude inventories are forecast to decline for the week ended 15 January 2021.
Last week the FNBB researchers said they expect a possibility of a rebound in oil prices as economic activity recovers this year. FNBB said it is probable that fuel prices will be increased to mimic international oil price movements.
First National Bank of Botswana Quantitative Analyst, Gomolemo Basele, in his recent analysis of December inflation, said over the course of this year inflation should receive some upward pressure from volatile items, particularly the transport group index as the fuel levy is anticipated to increase from P0.12 to P1.12, effective 1st March 2021.“We also expect further pressures on the administered prices of water and electricity, as well as increases in tax items,” said Basele on behalf of his FNBB economy research team.
VAT TO GO UP SOONER THAN EXPECTED, JOB LOSSES
Amid being met with a lot of opposition, FNBB expect an increase in VAT from 12 percent to 14 percent, effective 1st April 2021. Last year permanent secretary in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, Wilfred Mandlebe told Parliamentary Committee on Government Assurances (PCGA) that as part of economic recovery from Covid-19 shocks, VAT will be increased from 12 percent to 14 percent in the next financial year.
This is despite Basele in his December inflation report warning that the demand side will remain muted this year as the bulk of Botswana’s labour force will be faced with unemployment challenges as well as pressures on disposable income levels due to diminished economic activity.
State of Emergency which bars employers to lay off employees might end the same time when government imposes an increase in VAT, this is why FNBB expects inflation to average 2.8 percent in 2021 and anticipate that the Bank of Botswana will remain accommodative this year and cut the bank rate by 25 basis point.
INTRODUCTION OF SUGAR LEVY
The beginning of the next financial year will see tax on sugar-sweetened beverages be 2 thebe per gram over and above 4 grams per 100 millilitres. This tax will be implemented by a Statutory Instrument to be issued by Ministry of Trade and Investment.
According to World Bank last year September, sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are non-alcoholic beverages that contain caloric sweeteners, such as sucrose (sugar) or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). SSBs include carbonated soft drinks (carbonates), energy drinks, concentrates or syrups, sports drinks, less than 100 percent fruit or vegetable juices such as juice drinks or nectars, ready-to-drink teas and coffees, sweetened waters, and milk-based drinks.
SSBs are said to be the main factors of overweight and obesity which leads to a number of chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, diabetes, and at least 12 cancers (cancer of the mouth, pharynx and larynx, oesophagus, stomach, pancreas, gallbladder, liver, kidney, prostate, colorectal, endometrium, ovaries, and post-menopausal breast).
In his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2018, President Mokgweetsi Masisi blamed the increasing incidence of people who are overweight and obese amongst the Botswana population on the increased consumption of sugar sweetened products, especially beverages.
HOUSING INFLATION TO SOAR INTO THE NEXT FINANCIAL YEAR
Botswana Housing Corporation is expected to rise to the occasion this year by taking more from Batswana pockets in the coming financial year. The housing utility will adjust rentals by more than 100 percent margin effective 1st April 2021.
This could further spike future inflation into the housing and utilities group index which in December registered a rise of 0.3% m/m owing to higher costs associated with materials for the maintenance and repair of dwellings (0.9% m/m).
INFLATION TO REMAIN SUBDUED AND UNDER THE OBJECTIVE RANGE
The December 2020 inflation remained unchanged at 2.2%, bringing the 2020 inflation average to 1.9%. While Basele believes the 2021 inflation should receive some upward pressure from volatile items, particularly the transport group index as the fuel levy is anticipated to increase from, he said the demand side will remain muted this year as the bulk of Botswana’s labour force will be faced with unemployment challenges as well as pressures on disposable income levels due to diminished economic activity.
This moves FNBB to expect inflation to be just below the 3-6 objective range and be lower at 2.8 percent, the bank’s researchers further anticipate that the Bank of Botswana will remain accommodative this year and cut the bank rate by 25bp.
Botswana Government through Ministry of Mineral Resources, Green Technology & Energy Security (MMGE) has underscored its intention to support power generation through Coal-Bed- Methane (CBM).
This week Tlou Energy, one of the publicly listed companies exploring CBM power generation revealed in a circular to shareholders that the Ministry’s commitment to support the industry was a significant push to its ambitions.
Tlou Energy is focused on delivering power solutions to Botswana and southern Africa to alleviate some of the chronic power shortage in the region. The company is currently developing projects using gas and plans to add solar power projects to provide a cleaner power source. Botswana has a significant energy shortage and generally relies on imported power and diesel generation to fulfill its power requirements.
Last year Tlou Energy and state owned Botswana Power Corporation (BPC) singed a Pilot Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) for the first 2 Mega Watts of power from the Lesedi project. A grid connection agreement was also signed which enables the injection of power into the BPC grid.
These according to Tlou are key agreements that will facilitate development of the power project and the sale of first power. The company says things are promising for a larger power purchase agreement. The BSE listed energy outfit revealed that, “Botswana’s Ministry of Mineral Resources Green Technology and Energy Security (MMGE) has provided confirmation that negotiations on a larger PPA are due to commence in February.”
Tlou’s Managing Director, Mr Tony Gilby commented, “It is great to see that Botswana is open for business and the Government is motivated to get the gas industry up and running.” Gilby revealed that his company plans to start development of the Lesedi project as soon as possible noting that “confirmation of the Government’s enthusiasm to provide the necessary support to ensure commercial development of CBM is very well received.”
“In addition, we have also recommenced negotiations with Botswana based project financiers this month as we aim to close a deal for funding as soon as possible. After what was an extremely challenging year the Company is already making progress in 2021 and anticipate further advancement on all fronts in the coming term. We look forward to updating the market with further developments in due course,” he said.
Tlou said it has received written confirmation from MMGE of the “intention of MMGE to fast track the development of Coal Bed Methane (CBM) in Botswana.” MMGE also stated that it is “happy to provide the necessary support to ensure commercial development of CBM.”
In relation to the current tender to implement up to 100MW of CBM fired power plants MMGE has stated that negotiations with preferred bidders are due to commence in February 2021. The letter also acknowledged that the “Government is fully committed to seeing this project coming to fruition, as it will promote the gas industry, contribute toward import substitution, as well as to improve the livelihood of Batswana.”
“We welcome this update and look forward to negotiation and finalization of the tender process in the near term,” Tlou Energy Directors said.In 2018, MMGE issued a Request for Proposal for Development of up to 100 Mega Watts of CBM fueled power plants in Botswana.
Tlou submitted a comprehensive response to the tender including a plan to develop the project in stages, as well as outlining project feasibility, proposed field development, installation of power generation facilities and supply of power into the grid in Botswana.
Kgalagadi Breweries Limited (KBL) has suspended its operations indefinitely owing to the tough trading conditions occasioned Government decision to ban the sale of alcohol at the beginning of this month.
The brewer announced the decision today (Wednesday). KBL Corporate Affairs Manager Madisa said from the 25th January 2021 only a minimal number of critical roles will continue to be staffed and all other operational activity will stop.
KBL also acknowledged the impact this will have on the overall supply chain and those whose livelihoods depend on the beer industry and requests their understanding.
The current ban is expected to end on 31st January 2021, KBL said should the ban be extended past this date, suspension of its operations will continue.
KBL explained that its Tuesday meeting with suppliers was to align with them that due to the current situation, the brewer will suspend payments as of 6th February 2021, up for review pending the outcome of the current alcohol ban.
“However, it is regrettable that this latest total ban on alcohol sales has resulted in the suspension of KBL’s operations, which will remain in place for as long as the alcohol ban persists. KBL continues its efforts to engage government on this critical issue, which is having an enormous impact on the industry and its extensive value chain,” said Madisa.
On Tuesday afternoon, KBL conducted an ‘emergency meeting’ with its suppliers addressing some business decisions the company has made amid the current alcohol ban. Botswana has several alcohol bans since the first lockdown of March.
Mostly alcohol has been banned as a measure of curtailing the spread of Covid-19 and government then lived with putting stringiest operating hours for alcohol sales and distribution for a long time. Next week Monday KBL will be shutting down its operations, after a two weeks ban on liquor.
Sources say ever since the 4th of January 2021 when the December curfew regulations were extended, KBL has been brewing stacks of liquor for stockpiling. This is solely the reason why the brewer decided to close shop and stop manufacturing alcohol, because KBL’s depots no longer needed supply. On Tuesday suppliers were told to stop supplying KBL as next week the plant will be closing.
Air of uncertainty was hovering in the KBL plant premises on Tuesday as many workers feared mostly for their jobs. No one knows when alcohol ban will be lifted or if Botswana is going for a hard lockdown following the recent surge of Covid-19 infections. Botswana has 18,630 coronavirus cases, with 88 deaths and 14,624 recoveries.
KBL owner Botswana Stock Exchange (BSE) listed Sechaba Holdings came into contact with response to Covid-19 in March when Botswana recorded its first cases and that was the time when the company was doing well for years since the shedding of alcohol levy.
Sechaba associates, KBL and Coca Cola Beverages Botswana (CCBB), that time according to the holding company in its abridged financial results for the year ended 31 December 2019, continued to forecast growth in 2020 notwithstanding the challenges related to COVID-19.
Sechaba that time saw the business environment has been generally positive including relationship with stakeholders and the associates continue to manage the performance and business continuity risks.
Ten months ago the brewer underestimated the damage that can come with the pandemic and expected Covid-19 disruptions to be “temporary and the business will survive.”
That time Sechaba’s sole associate, KBL operates traditional beer breweries, alcoholic fruit beverages and a clear beer brewery.
In the period that just ended in December 2019, KBL contributed 72 percent to Sechaba’s revenues while CCBB contributed 28 percent. KBL also performed high in contribution to profit after tax with a share of 74 percent while CCBB contributed 26 percent.
Sechaba holds 49.9 percent in the local headline alcohol brewer KBL and 49.9 percent in the non-alcoholic drinks associate, CCBB. Sechaba holds 60 percent of the shares of KBL while SABMiller Botswana B.V. holds 40 percent. SABMiller Plc has management control in the operating company. The Botswana Development Corporation has a 25.6 percent shareholding in Sechaba Breweries Holdings Limited.
The glitter on the glass of KBL or Sechaba, is of December 2019 financial results which was downplayed and turned into a bearish affair in the financial results for the half year ended 30 June 2020. For those results, there was a spill in profit by Sechaba cash cow KBL by 72 percent while CCBB recorded a decline in profit by 15 percent, both and respectively in correspondence with the same period in 2019. All this downfall comes down to a loss of 60 percent of profit by the parent company. That was more than the 60 percent fall expected before the release of results.
In September during the release of the June 2020 results, Sechaba admitted that the intervention put by government since April, to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, negatively impacted its business performance and its associates, KBL and CCBB bore the full brunt. Revenue collected for KBL was lower by 37 percent while for its sister associate; CCBB, the numbers were down by 7.1 percent. This is the time when sale of alcohol was banned and manufacturing of soft drinks was not part of essential services.
Sechaba Chairman, Bafana Molomo last year said even though Covid-19 interventions would have an impact on the associates, this impact is expected to be temporary and the businesses will survive.
“However, it is advised that the situation is changing constantly and that it will be monitored closely. The Group’s associates continue to forecast growth in 2020 notwithstanding the challenges relating to Covid-19. The business environment has been generally positive, and the Group continues to enhance relationships with all stakeholders. The associates continue to manage the performance and business continuity risks,” he said.