Most sub-Saharan African countries have long had to rely on foreign assistance or loans from international financial institutions to supply part of their foreign currency needs and finance part of their domestic investment, given their low levels of domestic saving. But now many of them, for the first time, are able to borrow in international financial markets, selling so-called eurobonds, which are usually denominated in dollars or euros.
The sudden surge in the demand for international sovereign bonds issued by countries in a region that contains some of the world’s poorest countries is due to a variety of factors—including rapid growth and better economic policies in the region, high commodity prices, and low global interest rates. Increased global liquidity as well as investors’ diversification needs, at a time when the correlation between many global assets has increased, has also helped increase the attractiveness of the so-called “frontier” markets, including those in sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, the issuance of international sovereign bonds is part of a number of African countries’ strategies to restructure their debt, finance infrastructure investments, and establish sovereign benchmarks to help develop the sub-sovereign and corporate bond market. The development of the domestic sovereign bond market in many countries has also help strengthen the technical capacity of finance ministries and debt management offices to issue international debt.
Whether the rash of borrowing by sub-Saharan governments (as well as a handful of corporate entities in the region) is sustainable over the medium to long term, however, is open to question. The low interest rate environment is set to change at some point—both raising borrowing costs for the countries and reducing investor interest. In addition, oil prices are falling, which makes it harder for oil-producing countries to service or refinance their loans. In the medium term, heady economic growth may not continue if debt proceeds are only mostly used for current spending, and debt is not adequately managed.