6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
Ethiopia has a limited and undeveloped financial sector, and investment is largely closed off to foreign firms. Liquidity at many banks is limited, and commercial banks often require 100 percent collateral, making access to credit one of the greatest hindrances to growth in the country. Ethiopia has the largest economy in Africa without a securities market, and sales/purchases of debt are heavily regulated.
The IMF, as part of its Extended Credit Facility and Extended Fund Facility, in December of 2019 approved a three-year, 2.9 billion U.S. dollar program to support Ethiopia’s economic reform agenda. The program seeks to reduce public sector borrowing, rein in inflation, and reform the exchange rate regime. In preparation for the program, Ethiopia rescheduled much of its external debt with significant bilateral lenders.
The Ethiopian government has announced, as part of its overall economic reform effort, its intention to liberalize the financial sector. The government has already made good progress by allowing non-financial Ethiopian firms to participate in mobile money activities, introducing Treasury-bill auctions with market pricing, and reducing forced lending to the government on the part of the commercial banks. Still, the creation of a stock market and the fuller participation of foreign financial firms in the sector likely remain years away.
The NBE began offering, in December of 2019, a limited number of 28-day and 91-day Treasury bills at market-determined interest rates. The move was part of an effort to expand the NBE’s monetary policy tools and finance the government in a more sustainable way. Previously, the NBE had only sold Treasury bills at below-market interest rates, and the only buyers were public sector enterprises, primarily the Public Social Security Agency and the Development Bank of Ethiopia.
Ethiopia issued its first Eurobond in December of 2014, raising 1 billion U.S. dollars at a rate of 6.625 percent. The 10-year bond was oversubscribed, indicating continued market interest in high-growth sub-Saharan African markets. According to the Ministry of Finance, the bond proceeds are being used to finance industrial parks, the sugar industry, and power transmission infrastructure. Due to its increasing external debt load and the terms of its IMF program, the Ethiopian government has committed to refrain from non-concessional financing for new projects and to shift ongoing projects to concessional financing when possible.
The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX), launched in 2008, trades commodities such as coffee, sesame seeds, maize, wheat, mung beans, chickpeas, soybeans, and green beans. The government launched ECX to increase transparency in commodity pricing, alleviate food shortages, and encourage the commercialization of agriculture. Critics allege that ECX policies and pricing structures are inefficient compared to direct sales at prevailing market rates, triggering an amendment to the ECX law in July 2017 that eliminated a number of criticized regulations, and permitted the trading of financial instruments at a future date.
Money and Banking System
Ethiopia has 18 commercial banks, two of which are state-owned banks, and 16 of which are privately owned banks. The Development Bank of Ethiopia, a state-owned bank, provides loans to investors in priority sectors, notably agriculture and manufacturing. By regional standards, the 16 private commercial banks are not large (either by total assets or total lending), and their service offerings are not sophisticated. Mobile money and digital finance, for instance, remain limited in Ethiopia. Foreign banks are not permitted to provide financial services in Ethiopia, however, since April 2007, Ethiopia has allowed some foreign banks to open liaison offices in Addis Ababa to facilitate credit to companies from their countries of origins. Chinese, German, Kenyan, Turkish, and South African banks have opened liaison offices in Ethiopia, but the market remains completely closed to foreign retail banks. Foreigners of Ethiopian origin are now allowed to hold shares in financial institutions.
Based on recently made available data, the state-owned Commercial Bank of Ethiopia mobilizes more than 60 percent of total bank deposits, bank loans, and foreign exchange. The NBE controls the bank’s minimum deposit rate, which now stands at 7 percent, while loan interest rates are allowed to float. Real deposit interest rates have been negative in recent years, mainly due to inflation. The government of Ethiopia in November of 2019 rescinded the so-called “27 percent Rule,” which mandated forced, below inflation rate lending by the commercial banks to the NBE.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
All foreign currency transactions must be approved by the NBE. Ethiopia’s national currency (the Ethiopian birr) is not freely convertible. The GOE removed in September 2018 the limit on holding foreign currency accounts faced by non-resident Ethiopians and non-resident foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin.
Foreign exchange reserves started to become depleted in 2012 and have remained at critically low levels since then. At present, gross reserves stand at about 4 billion U.S. dollars, covering approximately 2 months of imports. According to the IMF, heavy government infrastructure investment, along with debt servicing and a large trade imbalance, have all fueled the intense demand for foreign exchange. In addition, the decrease in foreign exchange reserves has been exacerbated by weaker-than-expected earnings from coffee exports and low international commodity prices for other important exports such as oil seeds. Businesses encounter delays of six months to two years in obtaining foreign exchange, and they must deposit the full equivalent in Ethiopian birr in their accounts to begin the process to obtain foreign exchange. Slowdowns in manufacturing due to foreign exchange shortages are common, and high-profile local businesses have closed their doors altogether due to the inability to import required goods in a timely fashion.
Due to the foreign exchange shortage, companies have experienced delays of up to two years in the repatriation of larger volumes of profits. Local sourcing of inputs and partnering with export-oriented partners are strategies employed by the private sector to address the foreign exchange shortage, but access to foreign exchange remains a problem that limits growth, interferes with maintenance and spare parts replacement, and inhibits imports of adequate raw materials.
The foreign exchange shortage distorts the economy in a number of other ways: it fuels the contraband trade through Somaliland because the Ethiopian birr is an unofficial currency there and can be used for the purchase of products from around the world. Exporters, who have priority access to foreign exchange, sell their allocations to importers at inflated rates, creating a black-market for dollars that is roughly 30 to 40 percent over the official rate. Other exporters use their foreign exchange earnings to import consumer goods with high margins, rather than re-investing profits in their core businesses. Meanwhile, the lack of access to foreign exchange impacts the ability of American citizens living in Ethiopia to pay their taxes, or for students to pay school fees abroad.
The Ethiopian birr has depreciated significantly against the U.S. dollar over the past ten years, primarily through a series of controlled steps, including a 20 percent devaluation in September 2010 and a 15 percent devaluation in October 2017. The NBE increased the devaluation rate of the Ethiopian birr starting in November of 2019, and it has continued to be devalued at a more rapid rate since that time, as per the terms of the IMF program. The official exchange rate was approximately 33.60 Ethiopian birr per dollar as of May 2020. The illegal parallel market exchange rate for the same time was approximately 42 Ethiopian birr per dollar.
Following the 15 percent devaluation of the Ethiopian birr, the NBE increased the minimum saving interest rate from four percent to seven percent, and limited the outstanding loan growth rate in commercial banks to 16.5 percent, which limits their loan provision for businesses other than those in the export and manufacturing sectors. Moreover, banks were instructed to transfer 30 percent of their foreign exchange earnings to the account of NBE so the regulator can use the foreign exchange to meet the strategic needs of the country, including payments to procure petroleum, wheat, and sugar, as well as to cover transportation costs of imported items.
Ethiopia’s Financial Intelligence Unit monitors suspicious currency transfers, including large transactions exceeding 200,000 Ethiopian birr (roughly equivalent to U.S. reporting requirements for currency transfers exceeding 10,000 U.S. dollars). Ethiopia citizens are not allowed to hold or open an account in foreign exchange. Ethiopian residents entering the country from abroad should declare their foreign currency in excess of 1,000 U.S. dollars and non-residents in excess of 3,000 U.S. dollars. Residents are not allowed to hold foreign currency for more than 30 days after acquisition. A maximum of 1000 Ethiopian birr in cash can be carried out of the country.
Ethiopia’s Investment Proclamation allows all registered foreign investors, whether or not they receive incentives, to remit profits and dividends, principal and interest on foreign loans, and fees related to technology transfer. Foreign investors may remit proceeds from the sale or liquidation of assets, from the transfer of shares or of partial ownership of an enterprise, and funds required for debt servicing or other international payments. The right of expatriate employees to remit their salaries is granted by NBE foreign exchange regulations. In practice, however, foreign companies and individuals have experienced difficulties obtaining foreign currency to remit dividends, profits, or salaries.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
Ethiopia has no sovereign wealth funds.