US Development Finance’s Forgotten Franchise

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By: admin

The new US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), merging the foreign private investment promotion agency OPIC with the credit support functions of the main overseas development arm USAID, started in October with rare bipartisan political and consensus emerging market expert backing. Recommendations to overhaul the decades-old model dated back to the Obama administration. It gained momentum under President Trump, who has otherwise moved to cut economic assistance, as a financing and geopolitical competitor to China’s global multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative. The restructuring doubled OPIC’s original balance sheet exposure limit to $60 billion, and added equity to debt, guarantees and risk insurance in the toolbox to spur direct and portfolio inflows to low and middle-income countries.

A September report by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) acknowledges that the DFC cannot match China’s policy banks and state enterprises “dollar for dollar” in underwriting infrastructure and natural projects throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. It advises focus on other potential comparative advantages such as technology transfer, small business funding, and capital market creation.

This last category, concentrating on stock exchange launch and modernization, can be an all-encompassing theme with maximum “bang for the buck.” At the same time, it could revive the US aid establishment’s glory days during the 1990s and early 2000s, when securities market introduction was a priority in post-communist and socialist transition economies in Europe and frontier and developing markets worldwide. Emerging market investors, in search of an underlying story for the asset class into the future, could in turn organize dedicated advisory groups as in the past.

CSIS predicts that internal administration and strategy delays will likely keep annual DFC commitments below $10 billion in the initial phase. It begins with 300 staff and a 90-country portfolio, and a lower minimum US investor participation requirement. A fifteen-member board of directors from the cabinet and outside government, and independent panel of academics and advocates yet to be named, will provide governance and guidance. Inherited operations total close to $25 billion with a roughly even split between regions, and one-quarter in “fragile” states.

From a foreign policy perspective, job creation and private sector growth are priorities in the Middle East and Africa to counter terrorism, and in Central America’s Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to curb mass migration. In Africa, the intent is to leverage parallel US government programs on power generation and trade.  DFC also has expanded authority to offer technical assistance and local currency debt guarantees and to diversify the range of existing venture capital “enterprise funds.” Earlier versions spurred private equity takeoff throughout Central and Eastern Europe, which in turn spurred European Bank for Reconstruction and Development support for public markets.  

OPIC, over its 40-year life, could claim no net cost to the taxpayer as earnings were returned to the budget, often under risk-averse management as high-return assets subsidized poor country engagement. USAID over the past fifteen years largely abandoned capital markets as a core emphasis, as technical assistance shifted to a small Treasury Department unit promoting government bonds throughout the developing world.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago, the US administrations relied on a private sector ecosystem to advance financial market transformation that has since withered. Wall Street bankers and fund managers took short-term assignments in Europe and elsewhere under a Financial Services Volunteer Corps still in existence, and the Nasdaq dispatched experts and encouraged nascent stock exchanges to adopt its over the counter system, as with the Rasdaq in Romania. After the emerging market term was first coined in the late 1980s, Washington had a roster of brokerage executives on hand to travel to far-flung destinations like Kenya preaching the securities gospel.

The African Development Bank has since launched its own initiative mainly for bond markets, and the continent now has half a dozen regional equity components on the benchmark MSCI frontier stock market index. Performance has been overwhelmingly negative this year, as foreign investors decry chronic liquidity and size constraints. Stock exchanges in East and West Africa have long explored cross-trading and consolidation with little progress, as South Africa remains the runaway depth and diversity leader, according to an annual reference compiled by regional banking giant Absa in collaboration with London’s Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF). The continent and other overlooked regions such as Central Asia, where Uzbekistan is in startup mode, could be early targets for DFC “soft” infrastructure help in contrast with China’s approach. The payoffs would come in stock market volume and results reflecting increased private company access to finance in the frontier universe, as well as official reputation and investor coalition revival for an impressive triple bottom line debut.   

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