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The state of the global financial system: A decade after the crisis

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It all originated with debt! In the early 2000s, US real estate seemed irresistible, and a heady run-up in prices led consumers, banks, and investors alike to load up on debt. Exotic financial instruments designed to diffuse the risks instead magnified and obscured them as they attracted investors from around the globe.

Cracks appeared in 2007 when US home prices began to decline, eventually causing the collapse of two large hedge funds loaded up with subprime mortgage securities. Yet as the summer of 2008 waned, few imagined that Lehman Brothers was about to go under—let alone that it would set off a global liquidity crisis. The damage ultimately set off the first global recession since World War II and planted the seeds of a sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone. Millions of households lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings.

The road to recovery has been a long one since those white-knuckle days of September 2008. Historically, it has taken an average of eight years to recover from debt crises, a pattern that held true in this case. The world economy has recently returned to robust growth, although the past decade of anemic and uneven growth speaks to the magnitude of the fallout.

Central banks, regulators, and policy makers were forced to take extraordinary measures after the 2008 crisis. As a result, banks are more highly capitalized today, and less money is sloshing around the global financial system. But some familiar risks are creeping back, and new ones have emerged.

Below are the findings on the financial markets and how the landscape has changed.

  1. Global debt continues to grow, fueled by new borrowers
  2. Households have reduced debt, but many are far from financially well
  3. Banks are safer but less profitable
  4. The global financial system is less interconnected—and less vulnerable to contagion
  5. New risks bear watching

 

Global Debt Continues to Grow, Fueled by New Borrowers

As the Great Recession receded, many expected to see a wave of deleveraging. But it never came. Confounding expectations, the combined global debt of governments, nonfinancial corporations, and households has grown by $72 trillion since the end of 2007. The increase is smaller but still pronounced when measured relative to GDP.

Underneath that headline number are important differences in who has borrowed and the sources and types of debt outstanding. Governments in advanced economies have borrowed heavily, as have nonfinancial companies around the world. China alone accounts for more than one-third of global debt growth since the crisis. Its total debt has increased by more than five times over the past decade to reach $29.6 trillion by mid-2017. Its debt has gone from 145 percent of GDP in 2007, in line with other developing countries, to 256 percent in 2017. This puts China’s debt on par with that of advanced economies.

Growing government debt

Public debt was mounting in many advanced economies even before 2008, and it swelled even further as the Great Recession caused a drop in tax revenues and a rise in social-welfare payments. Some countries, including China and the United States, enacted fiscal-stimulus packages, and some recapitalized their banks and critical industries. Consistent with history, a debt crisis that began in the private sector shifted to governments in the aftermath. From 2008 to mid-2017, global government debt more than doubled, reaching $60 trillion.

Among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, government debt now exceeds annual GDP in Japan, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Rumblings of potential sovereign defaults and anti-EU political movements have periodically strained the Eurozone. High levels of government debt set the stage for pitched battles over spending priorities well into the future.

In emerging economies, growing sovereign debt reflects the sheer scale of the investment needed to industrialize and urbanize, although some countries are also funding large public administrations and inefficient state-owned enterprises. Even so, public debt across all emerging economies is more modest, at 46 percent of GDP on average compared with 105 percent in advanced economies. Yet there are pockets of concern.

Countries including Argentina, Ghana, Indonesia, Pakistan, Ukraine, and Turkey have recently come under pressure as the combination of large debts in foreign currencies and weakening local currencies becomes harder to sustain. The International Monetary Fund assesses that about 40 percent of low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa are already in debt distress or at high risk of slipping into it. Sri Lanka recently ceded control of the port of Hambantota to China Harbor Engineering, a large state-owned enterprise, after falling into arrears on the loan used to build the port.

 

Corporate borrowing in the era of ultra-low interest rates

An extended period of historically low interest rates has enabled companies around the world to take on cheap debt. Global nonfinancial corporate debt, including bonds and loans, has more than doubled over the past decade to hit $66 trillion in mid-2017. This nearly matches the increase in government debt over the same period.

In a departure from the past, two-thirds of the growth in corporate debt has come from developing countries. This poses a potential risk, particularly when that debt is in foreign currencies. Turkey’s corporate debt has doubled in the past ten years, with many loans denominated in US dollars. Chile and Vietnam have also seen large increases in corporate borrowing.

China has been the biggest driver of this growth. From 2007 to 2017, Chinese companies added $15 trillion in debt. At 163 percent of GDP, China now has one of the highest corporate-debt ratios in the world. It is estimated that roughly a third of China’s corporate debt is related to the booming construction and real-estate sectors.

Companies in advanced economies have borrowed more as well. Although these economies are rebalancing away from manufacturing and capital-intensive industries toward more asset-light sectors, such as health, education, technology, and media, their economic systems appear to run on ever-larger amounts of debt.

In another shift, corporate lending from banks has been nearly flat since the crisis, while corporate bond issuance has soared (Exhibit 2).

The diversification of corporate funding should improve financial stability, and it reflects deepening capital markets around the world. Nonbank lenders, including private-equity funds and hedge funds, have also become major sources of credit as banks have repaired their balance sheets.

 

Households have Reduced Debt, but many are far from Financially Well

Unsustainable household debt in advanced economies was at the core of the 2008 financial crisis. It also made the subsequent recession deeper, since households were forced to reduce consumption to pay down debt.

 

Mortgage debt

Before the crisis, rapidly rising home prices, low interest rates, and lax underwriting standards encouraged millions of Americans to take out bigger mortgages they could safely afford. From 2000 to 2007, US household debt relative to GDP rose by 28 percentage points.

Housing bubbles were not confined to the United States. Several European countries experienced similar run-ups—and similar growth in household debt. In the United Kingdom, for instance, household debt rose by 30 percentage points from 2000 to reach 93 percent of GDP. Irish household debt climbed even higher.

US home prices eventually plunged back to earth starting in 2007, leaving many homeowners with mortgages that exceeded the reduced value of their homes and could not be refinanced. Defaults rose to a peak of more than 11 percent of all mortgages in 2010. The US housing collapse was soon mirrored in the most overheated European markets.

Having slogged through a painful period of repayment, foreclosures, and tighter standards for new lending, US households have reduced their debt by 19 percentage points of GDP over the past decade (Exhibit 3).

But the homeownership rate has dropped from its 2007 high of 68 percent to 64 percent in 2018—and while mortgage debt has remained relatively flat, student debt and auto loans are up sharply.

Household debt is similarly down in the European countries at the core of the crisis. Irish households saw the most dramatic growth in debt but also the most dramatic decline as a share of GDP.

The share of mortgages in arrears rose dramatically when home prices fell, but Ireland instituted a large-scale mortgage-restructuring program for households that were unable to meet their payments, and net new lending to households was negative for many years after the crisis.

Spain’s household debt has been lowered by 21 percentage points of GDP from its peak in 2009—a drop achieved through repayments and sharp cuts in new lending. In the United Kingdom, household debt has drifted downward by just nine percentage points of GDP over the same period.

In countries such as Australia, Canada, Switzerland, and South Korea, household debt is now substantially higher than it was prior to the crisis. Canada, which weathered the 2008 turmoil relatively well, has had a real-estate bubble of its own in recent years. Home prices have risen sharply in its major cities, and adjustable mortgages expose home buyers to rising interest rates. Today, household debt as a share of GDP is higher in Canada than it was in the United States in 2007.

 

Other types of household debt

Looking beyond mortgage debt, broader measures of household financial wellness remain worrying. In the United States, 40 percent of adults surveyed by the Federal Reserve System said they would struggle to cover an unexpected expense of $400. One-quarter of nonretired adults have no pension or retirement savings.

Outstanding student loans now top $1.4 trillion, exceeding credit-card debt—and unlike nearly all other forms of debt, they cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. This cycle seems likely to continue, as workers increasingly need to upgrade their skills to remain relevant. Auto loans (including subprime auto loans) have also grown rapidly in the United States. Although overall household indebtedness is lower since the crisis, many households will be vulnerable in future downturns.

 

Banks are Safer but Less Profitable

After the crisis, policy makers and regulators worldwide took steps to strengthen banks against future shocks. The Tier 1 capital ratio has risen from less than 4 percent on average for US and European banks in 2007 to more than 15 percent in 2017. The largest systemically important financial institutions must hold an additional capital buffer, and all banks now hold a minimum amount of liquid assets.

 

Scaled back risk and returns

In the past decade, most of the largest global banks have reduced the scale and scope of their trading activities (including proprietary trading for their own accounts), thereby lessening exposure to risk. But many banks based in advanced economies have not found profitable new business models in an era of ultra-low interest rates and new regulatory regimes.

Return on equity (ROE) for banks in advanced economies has fallen by more than half since the crisis (Exhibit 4).

The pressure has been greatest for European banks. Their average ROE over the past five years stood at 4.4 percent, compared with 7.9 percent for US banks.

Investors have a dim view of growth prospects, valuing banks at only slightly above the book value of their assets. Prior to the crisis, the price-to-book ratio of banks in advanced economies was at or just under 2.0, reflecting expectations of strong growth. But in every year since 2008, most advanced economy banks have had average price-to-book ratios of less than one (including 75 percent of EU banks, 62 percent of Japanese banks, and 86 percent of UK banks).

In some emerging economies, nonperforming loans are a drag on the banking system. In India, more than 9 percent of all loans are nonperforming. Turkey’s recent currency depreciation could cause defaults to climb.

The best-performing banks in the post-crisis era are those that have dramatically cut operational costs even while building up risk-management and compliance staff. In general, US banks have made sharper cuts than those in Europe. But banking could become a commoditized, low-margin business unless the industry revitalizes revenue growth. From 2012 to 2017, the industry’s annual global revenue growth averaged only 2.4 percent, considerably down from 12.3 percent in the heady pre-crisis days.

 

Digital disruptions

Traditional banks, like incumbents in every other sector, are being challenged by new digital players. Platform companies such as Alibaba, Amazon, Facebook, and Tencent threaten to take some business lines, a story that is already playing out in mobile and digital payments.

It is projected that as interest rates recover and other tailwinds come into play, the banking industry’s ROE could reach 9.3 percent in 2025. But if retail and corporate customers switch their banking to digital companies at the same rate that people have adopted new technologies in the past, the industry’s ROE could fall even further.

Yet technology is not just a threat to banks. It could also provide the productivity boost they need. Many institutions are already digitizing their back-office and consumer-facing operations for efficiency. But they can also hone their use of big data, analytics, and artificial intelligence in risk modeling and underwriting—potentially avoiding the kind of bets that turned sour during the 2008 crisis and raising profitability.

 

The Global Financial System is Less Interconnected—and Less Vulnerable to Contagion

One of the biggest changes in the financial landscape is sharply curtailed international activity. Simply put, with less money flowing across borders, the risk of a 2008-style crisis ricocheting around the world has been reduced. Since 2007, gross cross-border capital flows have fallen by half in absolute terms (Exhibit 5).

Global banks retrench

Eurozone banks have led this retreat from international activity, becoming more local and less global. Their total foreign loans and other claims have dropped by $6.1 trillion, or 38 percent, since 2007 (Exhibit 6).

Nearly half of the decline reflects reduced intra-Eurozone borrowing (and especially interbank lending). Two-thirds of the assets of German banks, for instance, were outside of Germany in 2007, but that is now down to one-third.

Swiss, UK, and some US banks have reduced their international business. Globally, banks have sold more than $2 trillion of assets since the crisis. The retrenchment of global banks reflects several factors: a reappraisal of country risk, the recognition that foreign business was often less profitable than domestic business, national policies promoting domestic lending, and new regulations on capital and liquidity.

The world’s largest global banks have also curtailed correspondent relationships with local banks in other countries, particularly developing countries. These relationships enable banks to make cross-border payments and other transactions in countries where they do not have their own branch operations.

These services have been essential for trade-financing flows and remittances and for giving developing countries access to key currencies. But global banks have been applying a stricter cost-benefit analysis to these relationships, largely due to a new assessment of risks and regulatory complexity.

Some banks—notably those from Canada, China, and Japan—are expanding abroad but in different ways. Canadian banks have moved into the United States and other markets in the Americas, as their home market is saturated. Japanese banks have stepped up syndicated lending to US companies, although as minority investors, and are growing their presence in Southeast Asia. China’s banks have ramped up lending abroad.

They now have more than $1 trillion in foreign assets, up from virtually nil a decade ago. Most of China’s lending is in support of outward foreign direct investment (FDI) by Chinese companies.

 

Foreign direct investment is now a larger share of capital flows, a trend that promotes stability

Global FDI has fallen from a peak of $3.2 trillion in 2007 to $1.6 trillion in 2017, but this drop is smaller than the decrease in cross-border lending. It partly reflects a decline in corporations using low-tax financial centers, but it also reflects a sharp pullback in cross-border investment in the Eurozone.

However, post-crisis FDI accounts for half of cross-border capital flows, up from the average of one-quarter before the crisis. Unlike short-term lending, FDI reflects companies pursuing long-term strategies to expand their businesses. It is, by far, the least volatile type of capital flow.

 

Global imbalances between nations have declined

Ben Bernanke pointed to the “global savings glut” generated by China and other countries with large current account surpluses as a factor driving interest rates lower and fueling the real-estate bubble. Because much of this capital surplus was invested in US Treasuries and other government bonds, it put downward pressure on interest rates. This led to portfolio reallocation and, ultimately, a credit bubble. Today, this pressure has subsided—and with it, the risk that countries will be hit with crises if foreign capital suddenly pulls out.

The most striking changes are the declines in China’s current account surplus and the US deficit. China’s surplus reached 9.9 percent of GDP at its peak in 2007 but is now down to just 1.4 percent of GDP. The US deficit hit 5.9 percent of GDP in its peak at 2006 but had declined to 2.4 percent by 2017. Large deficits in Spain and the United Kingdom have similarly eased.

Still, some imbalances remain. Germany has maintained a large surplus throughout the past decade, and some emerging markets (including Argentina and Turkey) have deficits that make them vulnerable.

 

New Risks Bear Watching

Many of the changes in the global financial system have been positive. Better-capitalized banks are more resilient and less exposed to global financial contagion. Volatile short-term lending across borders has been cut sharply. The complex and opaque securitization products that led to the crisis have fallen out of favor. Yet some new risks have emerged.

 

Corporate-debt dangers

The growth of corporate debt in developing countries poses a risk, particularly as interest rates rise and when that debt is denominated in foreign currencies. If the local currency depreciates, companies might be caught in a vicious cycle that makes repaying or refinancing their debt difficult.

As the corporate-bond market has grown, credit quality has declined. There has been notable growth in noninvestment-grade “junk” bonds. Even investment-grade quality has deteriorated. Of corporate bonds outstanding in the United States, 40 percent have BBB ratings, one notch above junk status. We calculate that one-quarter of corporate issuers in emerging markets are at risk of default today—and that share could rise to 40 percent if interest rates rise by 200 basis points.

Over the next five years, a record amount of corporate bonds worldwide will come due, and annual refinancing needs will hit $1.6 trillion to $2.1 trillion. Given that interest rates are rising and some borrowers already have shaky finances, it is reasonable to expect more defaults in the years ahead.

Another development worth watching carefully is the strong growth of collateralized loan obligations. A cousin of the collateralized debt obligations that were common prior to the crisis, these vehicles use loans to companies with low credit ratings as collateral.

 

Real-estate bubbles and mortgage risk

One of the lessons of 2008 is just how difficult it is to recognize a bubble while it is inflating. Since the crisis, real-estate prices have soared to new heights in sought-after property markets, from San Francisco to Shanghai to Sydney. Unlike in 2007, however, these run-ups tend to be localized, and crashes are less likely to cause global collateral damage. But sky-high urban housing prices are contributing to other issues, including shortages of affordable housing options, strains on household budgets, reduced mobility, and growing inequality of wealth.

In the United States, another new form of risk comes from nonbank lenders. New research shows that these lenders accounted for more than half of new US mortgage originations in 2016. While banks have tightened their underwriting standards, these lenders disproportionately serve lower-income borrowers with weaker credit scores—and their loans account for more than half of the mortgages securitized by Ginnie Mae and one-third of those securitized by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

 

China’s rapid growth in debt

While China is currently managing its debt burden, there are three areas to watch. First, roughly half of the debt of households, nonfinancial corporations, and government is associated, either directly or indirectly, with real estate. Second, local government financing vehicles have borrowed heavily to fund low-return infrastructure and social-housing projects.

In 2016, 42 percent of bonds issued by local governments were to pay old debts. This year, one of these local vehicles missed a loan payment, signaling that the central government might not bail out profligate local governments. Third, around a quarter of outstanding debt in China is provided by an opaque shadow banking system.

The combination of an overextended property sector and the unsustainable finances of local governments could eventually combust. A wave of loan defaults could damage the regular banking system and create losses for investors and companies that have put money into shadow banking vehicles.

Yet China’s government has the capacity to bail out the financial sector if default rates reach crisis levels—if it chooses to do so. Because China’s capital account has not been fully liberalized, spillovers to the global economy would likely be felt through a slowdown in China’s GDP growth rather than financial contagion.

 

Additional risks

The world is full of other unknowns. High-speed trading by algorithms can cause “flash crashes.” Over the past decade, investors have poured almost $3 trillion into passive exchange-traded products. But their outsized popularity might create volatility and make capital markets less efficient, as there are fewer investors examining the fundamentals of companies and industries.

Cryptocurrencies are growing in popularity, reaching bubble-like conditions in the case of Bitcoin, and their implications for monetary policy and financial stability is unclear. And looming over everything are heightened geopolitical tensions, with potential flash points now spanning the globe and nationalist movements questioning institutions, long-standing relationships, and the concept of free trade.

The good news is that most of the world’s pockets of debt are unlikely to pose systemic risk. If any one of these potential bubbles burst, it would cause pain for a set of investors and lenders, but none seems poised to produce a 2008-style meltdown.

The likelihood of contagion has been greatly reduced by the fact that the market for complex securitizations, credit-default swaps, and the like has largely evaporated (although the growth of the collateralized-loan-obligation market is an exception to this trend).

But one thing we know from history is that the next crisis will not look like the last one. If 2008 taught us anything, it’s the importance of being vigilant when times are still good.

 

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The Focus

Is China Recolonizing Africa?

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Sino-African relations have existed since ancient times, but were first formalized in 1956 when Egypt established diplomatic relations with China. This move paved the way for China to strike up relations with the rest of Africa. Over the subsequent half century, China has emerged as Africa’s largest trading partner coupled with a visible growing volume of Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) on the continent.

Over the past decade, China has increasingly become a major economic player in Africa. Bilateral trade between the two partners grew twentyfold between 1014 and 1015 with trade value rising from US$10.6 to US$110 billion in this period. One can hardly pass through an African country without coming across a road, railway, stadium, skyscraper, or a set of infrastructures that are built by the Chinese. China has become a key partner to Africa’s development.

Yet, for all the fancy involvement of China in Africa, there still lingers a perception that China is up to no good. Suspicions abound that China is here to plunder Africa’s natural resources. Some have gone as far as saying that China is executing modern imperialism at Africa’s expense to enable her become a global player. In 1014, according to Al-Jazeera, “China is investing billions of dollars in Africa in exchange for exploiting the continent’s vast mineral and energy resources, at the expense of local people.” An obvious question stems from this: Is China attempting to recolonize Africa?

The question has been debated significantly in recent times. Unfortunately, this debate is mainly dominated by non-African residents. Perceived doubts are not coming from Africans but mostly from ‘soured’ Westerners.

It is important to reveal that most Africans believe that most cooperation with Africa is not balanced in the sense that non-African countries benefit disproportionately more due to their superior financial muscles, military power, technology, and competitiveness. This, of course, suggests a hegemonic cooperation.

Some people in the donor communities, for example, may see international cooperation as a result of globalization where nations are necessarily interactive, interconnected, and interdependent economically, socially, and politically. But it is clear that different countries have different levels of bargaining power depending on their level of socioeconomic development or, to use the language of world system theorists, on their position in the world system—which is, among other things, a function of a country’s history, colonial past, developmental path, and so on.

Sino-African Trade: Context and Framework

Sino-African cooperation is, to some extent, the product of a long history that was mainly informed by socialistic ideological ties. Ideology informed cooperation was believed to be superior to its alternatives because it was based on the idea that it would be equally beneficial for all the cooperating partners. This belief is easy to understand. Unlike their capitalist and imperialist counterparts, socialist ideas and ideals were not believed to have predatory tendencies.

It should be noted that during the Cold War, foreign aid was an important political tool that China used to gain Africa’s diplomatic recognition and to compete with the United States for Africa’s support. As early as 1963, the then-Prime Minister Zhou Enlai visited ten African countries and announced the well-known “Eight Principles of Foreign Economic and Technological Assistance”. These principles were designed to compete simultaneously with the “imperialists” (the United States) and the “revisionists” (the Soviet Union) for Africa’s approval and support.

Since then, Sino-African cooperation has changed from being driven solely along ideological lines to a more institutionalized framework. Sino-African cooperation is now based, more practically, on a framework called the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which provides an institutional arrangement for promoting bilateral and multilateral cooperation between the two parties in implementing China’s foreign policy agenda.

FOCAC was launched in 1000, spearheaded by the joint ministerial conference in Beijing, and has since been held every other three years. Built on a so-called win-win platform, FOCAC aims to inculcate solidarity and cooperation based on equality, consultation, consensus, friendship, partnership, and mutual benefit. For instance, at the 1018 FOCAC summit, a US$60 billion package for Africa was announced comprising US$35 billion in preferential loans and export credit lines, US$5 billion in grants, US$15 billion of capital for the China-Africa Development Fund, and US$5 billion in loans for the development of African small and medium enterprises.

Many African countries see FOCAC as a positive arrangement to usher the continent out of a shameful cycle of dependency. This is because it is assumed to be based on five critical values that are seemingly never practiced by traditional Development Partners (DPs) in Africa.

They include (1) mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, (1) mutual nonaggression, (3) mutual noninterference in internal affairs, (4) equal rights and reciprocal benefits, and (5) peaceful coexistence. Since 1013, FOCAC has been using the One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBORI), which focuses on funding physical infrastructure such as ports, rail lines, and other projects across Asia, Europe, and Africa.

Through this strategy, China hopes to expand its market base, access to natural resources, and attain superpower status. Critics, however, maintain that the program has saddled developing countries with crippling debts and increased their dependence on China.

Sino-African Cooperation and Sovereignty

China casts itself as a noninterfering economic partner to Africa. China never meddles in the internal matters of countries it cooperates with as long as Chinese business interests are not jeopardized.

However, suggesting that China has a zero-interference policy is not strictly true. It actually does interfere, perhaps much more than traditional DPs. The difference is that, instead of working with the opposition figures, activists, media, civil society organizations (CSOs), and NGOs, and so on, it works directly with the government of the day and/or the ruling party.

Chinese economic partnership also comes with stringent diplomatic conditions that contravene national sovereignty. For instance, any form of Chinese assistance requires a partner country to denounce Taiwan as an independent country. African countries that have rejected this condition—such as Burkina Faso, Gambia, Swaziland, Sao Tome, and Principe—do not receive Chinese development assistance.

One could argue that these countries are a ‘pushover,’ given their smaller financial muscles. However, the fact that, in 1014, South Africa denied entry to the Dalai Lama following tacit diplomatic pressure from China, speaks volumes on the extent China possesses hegemonic power relations over its African partners—especially when its interests are directly affected.

China’s military encroachment in Africa seems to be gaining momentum as the country increasingly wants a share of the market for military gear on the continent.

Sino-African Cooperation and Mutual Respect

There is a misconception that Sino-African cooperation is based on mutual respect. This fallacy is especially perpetuated by African leaders who appear willing to serenade China as the ‘messiah’ of the continent. Perhaps this is a result of China’s well-oiled propaganda machine.

Sino-African cooperation is based on the pursuit of “equality, mutual trust, and mutually beneficial cooperation.” Given this, it is not surprising to hear from some people that “Unlike the Western countries, China respects our cultures, form of democracy, and the way we run our countries. This is very important to us as sovereign nations.”

However, stories about China upholding mutual respect with their African ‘comrades’ are exaggerated, to say the least. Examples throughout the continent show China’s disrespect toward Africa. Evidences abound on issues surrounding poor treatment meted out to Africans by the Chinese at the workplace.

In Ghana, the law restricts mining of small plots of 15 acres to Ghanaian nationals. However, despite this law, the Chinese continue to operate mining at that micro-level knowing for sure that such practices are illegal. The most ridiculous bit of it all is that across streets in Accra, there are a lot of billboards stating the law restricting foreigners from small-scale mining—written in both English and Chinese, suggesting that Chinese may be sponsoring them.

Another point of contention concerns dumping cheap and low-quality goods in Africa from China. Recent research has also suggested that Chinese presence has not brought to Africa significant skill developments, adequate technological transfer, or any measurable upgrade to its productivity levels. For instance, in Nigeria, the influx of low-priced Chinese textile goods has caused 80 percent of Nigerian companies in this industry to shut down.

More people recommended that the local content requirement should be observed on all Chinese projects happening in Africa. Specifically, they opine that the Chinese government should use local experts in their investment activities to cultivate a sense of local ownership and skill transfer.

On the matter of building local content, someone suggests, “There should be a protective policy and a well enforced law to make sure that Chinese companies in Africa employ African experts rather than importing experts from China.”

Sino-African Cooperation and Balance of Trade

One of the biggest concerns pertaining to Sino-African cooperation is China’s hegemony over trade with its African counterpart. There is a palpable feeling among people that the cooperation only favors China.

It should be noted that China currently stands as Africa’s largest trading partner. This happened as it overtook the United States and Europe, increasing trade from US$10 billion in 1000 to more than US$110 billion in 1010.

The main reason behind China’s vigorous trade expansion in Africa is its insatiable appetite for the raw materials it needs to grow its economy. Despite popular opinions, some African countries actually have a trade surplus with China. At least ten countries (including Zambia, Congo Angola, Gabon, and Sudan) fall into this category and benefit from China’s activities in their countries.

Figure 1 sums up the hegemony of China’s trade over Africa.

Figure 1.

Figure 1 shows that between 1991 and 1016, China generally recorded a more favorable balance of trade in Sino-African cooperation. This was interrupted by eleven years (1004–1014) of the swing going Africa’s way. But this swing can be misleading as most of that was a result of China’s increased appetite for natural resources (mainly extractives). For instance, at the peak of the swing in 1014, the balance favored Africa by US$11,507.3 million. A quick look at the data shows that 81.4 percent swing was caused by imports from seven natural resources–rich African countries. This corresponds to arguments that China is in Africa to plunder the continent of its natural resources.

Although it is true that some African nations had a trade surplus with China between 1991 and 1016, Africa, as a whole had not. By 1008, Africa had a US$10 billion trade deficit with China. This is particularly pertinent when one considers that Sino-African trade “represents close to 10 percent of the continent’s exports and imports”. Furthermore, China continues to import basic raw materials from Africa and not finished goods. According to research, approximately 70 percent of registered African exports to China consist of crude oil, and 15 percent are raw materials. The percentage shares of China’s main oil suppliers in 1003 included Angola (9 percent) and Sudan (7.7 percent), which explains the misleading swings in balance of trade in Sino-African cooperation.

Sino-African Cooperation and FDIs

As alluded to previously, people are concerned with the lack of effort from China to undertake some serious investments in Africa.

Figure 2 clearly elaborates this notion that China is not keen to bring FDI to Africa. It does not matter which country or territory one compares with the continent, Africa remains at the very bottom in terms of receiving FDI from China. For instance, Chinese FDI was at its highest in Africa in 1016 when US$39.9 billion of Chinese FDI was spent on the continent. This was less than half what the British Virgin Islands received (US$88 billion), almost one-third of what Cayman Islands received (US$104.1 billion), and constituted only 5 percent of what Hong Kong received. Simply put, Chinese cooperation with Africa is not one that involves genuine FDI flows, but one that uses the continent as a source of raw materials and a dumping place for low-quality finished goods and services.

Figure 2.

Note. FDI = foreign direct investment.

Figure 3 clarifies the argument. Disaggregating Chinese FDI to Africa in recent times (1013–1016) makes it easy to see that China is not particularly keen to pump real investments on the continent. The biggest FDI (approximately US$36 billion) goes to construction where we know that a lot of Chinese employees migrate to undertake these projects rather than building local capacities. This is closely followed by mining (raw materials) at US$35 billion. In stark contrast, when it comes to investing in Information and Computer Technology—including transmission services, which are core ingredients of the fourth industrial revolution—China spends a meager US$6 billion in Africa.

Figure 3.

Note. FDI = foreign direct investment.

To make matters worse, Chinese cooperation with Africa seems to cripple Africa’s manufacturing base. For instance, a Botswana politician, Motlhaleemang Moalosi, was quoted by Ndhlovu as claiming that Chinese bring more harm than good to local business as “they have killed local contractors by offering cheap prices for sub-standard work,” such as the bungled Morupule B power station project.

Sino-African Cooperation and Financial Intermediation: 

The “Debt Trap”

Mischievous Chinese loans, dubbed ‘soft loans’ by China, have become the biggest point of contention among people. People see China as using loans as a means to impose their hegemony on African countries. Others are concerned with the secrecy with which the countries taking these loans employ. Simply put, Chinese loans are clearly the scariest part of Sino-African cooperation for people, regardless of cadres.

Most Chinese loans are directed to countries with a large endowment of natural resources. It is also interesting to know where exactly these loans are going. 71 percent of Chinese loans to Africa go to only two sectors: power and mining. Another mysterious 6 percent goes to an ‘unallocated’ category. This could be a source of concern as critics have already accused China of engaging in corrupt activities. In a departure from traditional DPs, China is unconcerned with issues pertaining to environmental protection, budget, humanitarian projects, reconstruction, or disaster preparedness, as well as funding refugees. China literally ‘minds its own business.’

There is no doubt that the Chinese so-called ‘debt trap diplomacy’ has aided its hegemony over Africa and other needy countries across the world. They do so using the famous ‘Angolan model’ in which natural resources are used as collateral for loans. This is how it works: Angola owes China approximately US$60 billion, having accumulated debts over the course of more than two decades. With an abundance of oil in Angola, the country should not have found repaying the debt difficult as it would simply sell oil in the global market and use some of the proceeds to service the Chinese loan. Unfortunately, Chinese debt trap diplomacy does not allow Angola to sell oil in the open market. Rather, the oil itself is used to repay the Chinese debt. This means that Angola is short of liquidity as their biggest earner is ‘trapped’ by China. So Angola goes back to Beijing to borrow even more, digging a bigger hole for itself in the process.

We also know that China holds 66 percent of the bilateral debt with Kenya, mostly thanks to the loan given to Kenya to construct the Nairobi to Mombasa Standard Railway Gauge (SGR). While it is well known that Kenyan officials siphoned billions from the Chinese loans, the jury is still out over the possibility that China may have inflated the actual cost of the SGR project. The prospects of Kenya repaying the loan are dim. China has already offered an option of being given Mombasa Port in exchange for the loan, prompting political commentators like Masiga to suggest that Kenya is beginning to virtually become a Chinese colony.

Analogous concerns abound in Tanzania where China plans to build Bagamoyo Megaport, a US$10 billion investment. While the processes stalled for some time when President Magufuli came to power, the government has since announced that the deal shall go on as originally agreed. If things proceeded according to plan, Bagamoyo is set to become the largest port in Africa. The fear is that, because the government already owes China billions of dollars from the construction of the Mtwara–Dar es Salaam gas pipeline, China may eventually resort to the Angolan model and take over Bagamoyo Port—or, indeed, the pipeline itself.

In Zambia, there is a fear that China has literally taken over the economy. It is reported to have taken over strategically important physical assets and businesses including the Zambian Broadcasting Corporation, which are reportedly collateralized in the event Zambia fails to pay its debts. As if the country is not in deep enough trouble, it increased its debt to China by 350 percent between 1015 and 1016.

Debt trap diplomacy has made China one of the biggest creditors in the region, accounting for 14 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s total debt stock.

The indication these cases show is that indebted countries are either forced to pay cash to China or hand over management of infrastructures such as ports to Chinese state-owned firms. When it is too risky financially, China has resorted to demanding majority ownership of infrastructure upfront.

The point here is that China is not helping Africa in exchange for nothing. Chinese projects create access to Africa’s natural resources and local markets, business opportunities for Chinese companies, and employment for Chinese laborers. When Chinese officials emphasize that China also provides aid to countries that are not rich in natural resources, to defuse international criticisms, they often forget to mention that China may have its eyes on other things these countries can deliver, such as their support of Beijing’s “one China” policy, or China’s agenda at multilateral forums.

China has also been using its aid strategically. There is a strong correlation between the amount of aid given and support for China’s foreign policy objectives. AidData calculates that for every 10 percent increase in voting support within the United Nations (UN), China increases its aid by an average 86 percent. This strategy is working. African countries have supported China in its foreign policy pursuits on numerous occasions.

It should be noted that not every country in the world bows to Chinese pressure. From Pakistan and Tanzania to Hungary, projects under the OBORI are being canceled, renegotiated, or delayed due to disputes about costs or complaints that host countries receive too little from Chinese projects.

It should be noted that, as per the definition of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—of which China is not a member—the bulk of Chinese financing in Africa does not fall under the “aid” category. However, both Chinese and African governments have been loosely calling most of the concessional loans “aid.” Even though China gives little aid, it is because China knows it will get ample contracts as payback.

How Chinese Cooperation Compares with Traditional Donor Countries

Interestingly, people have underscored the similarities between China and the developed counterparts. To people, it is clear that China and traditional DPs aim at defending and promoting their national economic interest, they all seek to exploit Africa’s abundant natural resources and other raw materials, and all seek to use Africa as a ready-made market for their finished products.

However one looks at it, the exploitation of Africa’s resources and domination of its markets are the twin objectives of all DPs, including China. Many people see that cooperation between traditional DPs and Africa is still very much anchored on colonial relations that considered traditional DPs as superior partners. The Chinese are smart enough to take full advantage of this past by pointing out that their cooperation is purely based on ideological consensus rather than neocolonialist ideals.

Another key difference concerns the kinds of loans and investments made between traditional DPs in Africa. While China focuses on financing hard infrastructural projects (it has now overtaken the World Bank [WB] in doing so on the continent); traditional DPs still concentrate on soft infrastructures such as establishing democracy and human rights. Now, democracy and the likes are certainly important ingredients for securing sustainable development. However, hard infrastructures, such as roads, railroads, ports, and reliable power, are indispensable if Africa has to kick-start its development agenda. Regrettably, traditional DPs knowingly or unknowingly do not seem to grasp this. As a result, Africa sees China as a preferred partner.

The conditions made to secure financial support between the DPs are related here. It has been well documented beyond this narration that China typically gives loans to Africa to secure its natural resources while largely guaranteeing nonintervention on domestic matters. By contrast, traditional DPs usually provide financial support to Africa on the condition that countries promote democracy, transparency, and accountability as well as reduce corruption, among other things. Unfortunately, such conditions are perceived to be patronizing and infringing of Africa’s sovereignty—once again, giving the upper hand to China as a preferred partner.

Also, according to some views, unlike China, traditional DPs have consistently made use of international organizations such as the WB and International Monetary Fund (IMF), including laws and treaties/contracts enacted to serve and protect their interests at the expense of developing countries. In such cases, when the signatory country happens to violate these instruments, it gets punished through travel bans, military invasion, and economic embargoes.

In the end, the efficacy of mechanisms used by China depends on negotiation capabilities, the so-called principle of mutual respect, and the superior bargaining power of state representatives in the agreements. A good example is seen in Ghana where negotiations with the WB to build a dam stalled for about seven years. When the Ghanaian government decided to engage China, it merely took two months for the deal to be settled. Project implementation started a month later. What traditional DPs seem not to understand is that election cycles cannot wait for their formalities of social audits, environmental audits, and the like to take place.

Chinese firms seem to also have a competitive edge over those from traditional DPs.

Finally, unlike traditional DPs, China seems to be comfortable investing in highly politically risky areas like Sudan. China seems to have spotted a niche in Africa for hard infrastructure development—a gap left by traditional DPs who appear to be obsessed with building soft infrastructures. Of course, we now know that China’s so-called soft loans to Africa are, by and large, entrapments in which African countries are subjected to loans they can only repay through surrendering their strategic assets, like ports.

Special mention should be made of Scandinavian countries. Suggestion was that these countries have a hybrid international cooperation mechanism that allows for the provision of aid and soft loans with moderate conditions while rarely interfering in domestic politics. One wonders whether the Scandinavian model is the best of them all.

Improving Sino-African Cooperation

There is a need for Sino-African cooperation that will generate win-win outcomes. In other words, business agreement and other investment decisions should be taken with a view to secure mutual benefit between the two sides. The need for China to build local content in Africa is very crucial. Suggestions are that China should use local experts in their investment activities to cultivate a sense of local ownership and skill transfer. China should also work hard to debunk the general perception that the products made by its companies are of low quality. However, local African regulatory authorities should work harder to ensure that the perceived counterfeit products do not find their way onto African markets.

Sino-African cooperation should not be shrouded in too much secrecy. Efforts to enhance transparency and accountability in all agreements entered into by China and Africa should be prioritized to enhance proper scrutiny. Moreover, while the principle of noninterference is still appealing all over Africa, China could do well to expand its involvement beyond the construction and extractive sectors. This should necessarily entail China’s emergent support of sociopolitical issues (e.g., humanitarian projects and disaster management) and promote social justice for the well-being of the continent.

Another recommendation is that Africa should work harder to protect its natural resources. To this end, governments should work to build the capacity of their employees in terms of negotiation skills to secure fair deals in the various engagements it has with China. Just like China has its formal framework of cooperation in FOCAC, Africa should also formulate its own agenda. As Crabtree rightly puts it, “China knows what it wants from Africa but most African countries don’t have a strategy vis-a-vis China.” This situation has to change. And fast. The continent likewise needs to hold China accountable and ensure that financing is directed into those sectors that would be the most economically beneficial. Africa cannot afford to keep permitting China to build stadiums, parliaments, and other luxurious buildings while its people are living in abject poverty. To this end, there is a call for the continent to come up with stricter project eligibility criteria that could lead to more competent project preparation and implementation as well as reducing project price inflation. This could not only put loans to better use, but also ensure that the projects undertaken are based on the quest for engineering sustainable development in Africa rather than being determined by election cycles. In the end, the hegemony that China exercises over Sino-African cooperation has to be stopped, one way or another.

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