Refugee Bonds’ Millions to Billions Chant

At the annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank, the global refugee crisis, which has spread from the Middle East to Asia with the headline escape of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh after years of flight into the broader region, was in the spotlight. World Bank President Jim Young Kim emphasized the new development lender mantra of “turning billions into trillions” through innovations and risk management tools to better mobilize private capital, as the Institute for International estimated that foreign inflows into emerging debt and equity markets would again reach $500 billion with this year’s stellar index performance.

The poor country IDA window envisions $2 billion in the future for refugee host needs, as Bangladesh’s Finance Minister submitted an initial request for the Rohingya influx which alone may cost $1 billion, according to a local economist. The Bank may issue additional emergency bonds in its own name for on-lending alongside the Global Concessional Financing Facility (GCFF) – created by the Bank, EBRD and the Islamic Development Bank to allow discount borrowing by middle-income frontline states like Jordan and Lebanon – but conventional emerging and frontier market investors could more easily be directly tapped for larger sums through dedicated “refugee bonds” where the Bank instead should emphasize credit enhancement. Jordan’s government has shown interest in a pilot program which, after modest startup and preparation outlays, could raise hundreds of millions to billions in fresh long-term funding the first year.

Sovereign bonds are a logical starting point for refugee capital markets development, but public and private equity participation through investment funds is also feasible, particularly in view of the number of large listed stock exchange companies already providing goods and services to this population in camps and cities. Jordan is just one possibility in the area’s economies overwhelmed by refugee and displaced person waves, including Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia and Iraq. It has issued external bonds both cleanly and with US government guarantees, and a $500 million one at 7% yield was oversubscribed recently within the guidelines of its IMF program aiming to prevent increase in the steep 90 percent of GDP debt ratio.

Preliminary discussions with traditional emerging market investors, as well as those focused on “impact” investing drawn to the socially-responsible component, suggest that the government could offer a lower yield for a refugee bond that ties the cost to detailed, independently verified reporting on proceeds allocation. The instrument would be designed to promote “best practice” in relief and to identify revenue streams, such as tax-producing job entry and business creation, that generate repayment cash flow. For collateral backup, buyers could also potentially have limited ownership rights in housing, road, power and sanitation facilities built to handle extended influxes into host countries, now averaging stays of more than a decade, according to UN data.

Bangladesh, which has accessed international markets once, would be a compelling candidate for development bank guarantee and risk support in an inaugural refugee bond. The Asian Development Bank could help arrange a local currency alternative as well, reflecting its mandate to strengthen domestic and intra-regional bond markets since the late 1990s financial crisis. Its work contributed to transforming India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Thailand, also with large Rohingya migrant populations, into mainstream fixed-income emerging market investor destinations. Malaysia has become the global hub for Islamic sukuk activity, and a debut Bangladesh bond with sharia compliant features could be structured through there as the Malaysian government considers a separate one. The World Bank’s South Asia director said that its own form of bonds for the emergency is under review, as it still grapples with the right public-private sector mix in refugee operations. A creative emerging financial market-based solution has been presented to the institution and awaits official, commercial, or philanthropic sponsorship to realize millions to billions in available foreign investment beyond slogans.