Haemorrhaging Zambia: Underlying sources of the current sovereign debt crisis

Following a stand-off with commercial creditors and protracted but unresolved negotiations with the IMF, Zambia defaulted on its external sovereign debt on 13 November this year. While most commentary has focused exclusively on the government’s sovereign borrowing, our own research has detected massive outflows of private wealth over the past 15 years, hidden away in an obscure part of the country’s financial account. The outflows are most likely related to the large mining companies that dominate the country’s international trade. With many other African countries also facing debt distress, this huge siphoning of wealth from Zambia provides crucial lessons that need to be central in discussions about debt justice in the current crisis. We explain here what we’ve found.

Zambia was already debt-stressed going into the COVID-19 pandemic. The economy was hard hit following the sharp fall in international copper prices from 2013 to 2016, especially given that copper made up about 72% of its exports in 2018 (including unrefined, cathodes and alloys). Following a severe currency crisis in 2015, the government entered into negotiations with the IMF for a balance of payments support loan, but until now they have failed to reach an agreement on the conditions and accompanying programme. There was some improvement in its macroeconomic outlook in 2017 due to rising copper prices, which sent international investors throttling back into optimism.

However, international investors again turned against the country in 2018 in the midst of the global emerging market bond sell-off, which compounded the effects of severe droughts in 2018-19. As a result, the government was already teetering on the edge of default on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic fall-out of the pandemic has since pushed the country over the edge (see an excellent analysis here).

Inductive quantitative balance of payments analysis

Most of the commentary on Zambia’s default focuses exclusively on the government’s sovereign borrowing. Our own analysis peers behind this headline focus into the intricacies of financial flows into and out of the economy.

This is part of our ERC-funded project on the political economy of externally financing social policy in developing countries. As the principal investigator, I have focused on researching aid and financial flows related to social protection programmes and their place within broader macroeconomic and political economy dynamics. The rest of the research team (three PhDs: Ana Badillo Salgado, Emma Dadap-Cantal, Benedict Yiyugsah, and one postdoc, Dr Charmaine G. Ramos) have been focusing on how these external dynamics influence the adoption and implementation of social protection programmes.

As one of my main methods, I have been conducting historical-structural inductive analysis of balance of payments and related macroeconomic data. This might be best described as a form of investigative or forensic analysis of the external accounts of the respective case countries, of which Zambia happened to be one.

Financial account anomalies in the post debt-relief period

It is through this analysis that I identified a difficult-to-explain data anomaly on the financial accounts of the Zambian balance of payments that started with the debt relief of the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI) in 2005. The anomaly is a sharp rise in net acquisitions of debt instruments by resident non-financial ‘other sectors’ on the ‘other investment’ account. In other words, Zambian residents – which include the local subsidiaries or affiliates of transnational corporations – were massively increasing their holdings of debt assets abroad even in the midst of debt distress at home.

The magnitude of these acquisitions of debt assets far exceeded the amount of Eurobonds that are now in default (worth $3 billion USD). They started at the same time as the MDRI debt relief, when this category jumped from non-existence in 2003 to over $600 million in 2005 and over $900 million in 2006, more than counteracting the gains of debt relief.[1] These obscure debt asset acquisitions then jumped to almost $1.5 billion in 2007 and peaked at over $5 billion in 2012, over $3 billion in 2015, and over $1.8 billion in 2017. While they subsided in 2018 and 2019, they had already reached over $1.3 billion in the first half of 2020 (based on the latest quarterly reporting).

In proportional terms, these outflows reached peaks of almost 20% of GDP in 2012, 15% of GDP in 2015, and over 7% of GDP as recently as 2017. They thereby siphoned off most of the gains from both the commodity boom of the early 2010s and the government’s borrowing, undermining any hope for achieving external financial stability.

What could such debt assets represent? Local subsidiaries of transnational corporations have been known to borrow heavily offshore, as is commonly discussed in the financialization literature.[2] However, such financial operations would appear as debt liabilities, not as debt assets, so this explanation does not make sense.

In exploring this puzzle during fieldwork in Zambia in 2017,[3] we came to understand that the debt assets in question represent an accounting discrepancy that is mostly likely explained by unreported profit remittances by large mining companies in Zambia. Other corporates might have also been involved, although given the conventional wisdom that most things occurring on the external accounts of Zambia are somehow related to the mining majors, it follows that so too were the discrepancies.

The monetary authorities in Zambia have been aware of this anomaly.[4] They admitted to us that they had been trying to figure it out with the help of the IMF. It was not related to private capital flight through banks given that the banking sector is well regulated by the central bank (the Bank of Zambia or BoZ). In contrast, mining companies are not required to report to the BoZ given that they are non-financial firms and hence are not covered by banking regulations, even though they dominate much of the financial activity in the economy, especially on the external accounts.

Indeed, the anomaly itself was a creation of the BoZ based on their observation of discrepancies between their own data versus the reporting of assets held by Zambian residents by the Bank of International Settlements, to which international banks are required to report even when they fall outside Zambian jurisdiction. This led the BoZ to believe that the discrepancies belonged in this category of international debt assets. Technically, however, they should have been reported in the category of errors and omissions or even as profit remittances, although this would have of course raised alarm bells given the magnitude of these flows.

More than just debt relief is needed

The enormous sums involved provide a vital counterperspective to the rise of sovereign borrowing by Zambia. In effect, sovereign borrowing has helped sustain these private outflows, especially once the commodity boom came to an end. Foreigners have profited, much of the wealth of Zambia is now offshore, and yet the Government of Zambia has continued borrowing in a desperate attempt to keep the financial ship afloat despite these massive holes in its hull. Regular Zambians are now paying the price.

The argument for this economic model since the beginning of the century has been, to put it crudely, that Africans are better off being exploited than not being exploited at all, in terms of the extra jobs, investment, demand, and revenue that transnational corporations bring. With governments returning to the spectres of hard adjustment and deep recession, so soon after debt relief and commodity boom were squandered by massive outflows of wealth that open capital accounts facilitated, it is hard to see how this logic retains any credibility. More than just debt relief, a complete rethink of the model is required.

[1] Cancelled multilateral debt was close to $2 billion in both 2005 and 2006 although the actual gains from this were only accrued through reduced interest payments on debt, which only fell by $73 million USD in 2016 and $37 million USD in 2017.

[2] For instance, see Serena JM, Moreno R. 2016. ‘Domestic financial markets and offshore bond financing’. BIS Quarterly Review, September: 81-97. For more critical discussions, see Bortz PG, Kaltenbrunner A. 2018. ‘The International Dimension of Financialization in Developing and Emerging Economies’. Development and Change. 49(2): 375-393; or Kaltenbrunner A, Painceira JP. 2015. ‘Developing countries’ changing nature of financial integration and new forms of external vulnerability: the Brazilian experience’. Cambridge Journal of Economics. 39(5): 1281-1306.

[3] While the PhDs in the project spent four to six months in each of the case study countries conducting political economy process tracing of social protection agendas and programmes, I joined them in each of the countries for a shorter period of time and focused specifically on conducting elite interviews with a range of specialized actors that had technical knowledge and experience over the external financing of domestic spending. These actors included staff from major donors, international organisations, central banks, finance ministries, and other government departments, especially those involved in social protection programmes.

[4] These must remain anonymised given the political sensitivity of these issues.

This article is an abridged and slightly modified version of the full analysis, including detailed data analysis, posted on the Developing Economics blog, which can be found here.

About the author:


Andrew Fischer

Andrew M. Fischer is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Development Studies at the ISS and the Scientific Director of CERES, the Dutch Research School for International Development. His latest book, Poverty as Ideology (Zed, 2018), was awarded the International Studies in Poverty Prize by the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP) and Zed Books and, as part of the award, is now fully open access (http://bora.uib.no/handle/1956/20614). Since 2015, he has been leading a European Research Council Starting Grant on the political economy of externally financing social policy in developing countries. He has been known to tweet @AndrewM_Fischer

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published.

  • huong
    December 1, 2020

    a look into the debt at the country. I just wonder whether that debt tumor has many other deep roots like corruption. the more the oficials get deeper in the money they could borrow on the account of the nation they have a better cut? I like this research.

  • Anonymous
    December 1, 2020

    a look into the debt at the country. I just wonder whether that debt tumor has many other deep roots like corruption. the more the oficials get deeper in the money they could borrow on the account of the nation they have a better cut? I like this research.