The BUILD Act’s Beguiling Build-out
With strong bipartisan passage of the US Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act in October, the six-month clock is ticking for OPIC and USAID bureau unification and specific plans for using new equity and foreign currency authority under the doubled $60 billion allocation maximum. An Atlantic Council paper urges Sub-Sahara focus, which already absorbs one-quarter of OPIC’s portfolio with a push from the Obama Administration’s Power Africa program, as well as attention to informal markets and supporting commercial and financial “eco-systems” in underserved poorer economies. The organization has provided political risk insurance and debt and private equity fund investment for almost four decades with $5 billion returned to the Treasury. The oldest bilateral provider is the UK’s CDC in existence for sixty years, and together with counterparts in France, Germany and the Netherlands $35 billion was committed mostly to Africa, with Asia and Latin America then evenly split. Non-Western sources including China, India, Turkey and Morocco are also “aggressive,” with Beijing now the largest debt holder at 15% of the total. It backs thousands of infrastructure projects and in September added $60 billion to the pot through end-decade. According to consulting firm McKinsey two-way annual trade is over $200 billion, as the AGOA free trade arrangement with Washington has stagnated, and may be renegotiated under the Trump team’s aversion to existing deals. The Development Finance Corporation must follow first-mover, catalyst, and strategic interest principles but the activity and product landscape is ripe for experimentation. An African venture capital association survey underscores local currency exposure as an overriding risk, despite fund growth to $35 billion with development lenders as anchor investors. However this sum was less than 1% of the global one, and the continent’s job creation is only one-third the annual 10 million positions needed for new entrants.
The document recommends consideration of small companies that “straddle” formal and informal markets, such as car hire in Nigeria and food sales in Kenya, and incubator creation that also offers a technical assistance range. Private equity subscriptions could be on a shared platform to standardize procedures and avoid duplication, and the financing menu could otherwise embrace first-loss coverage and feasibility grants. Tech investment should be a priority with the US competitive advantage and China’s challenge; performance metrics should be finalized and publically accessible over the coming months; and senior private sector experts should be recruited temporarily in the startup phase. Sub-regional approaches should be tried in the first wave of funds and other offerings, as the Millennium Challenge Corporation already applies in its pacts, the Council believes. Public equity in turn has been in the dumps, from core South Africa with a 30% loss to frontier components Kenya and Nigeria, down around 15% through October. Elsewhere in SADC, Botswana is off 35%, while Zimbabwe is the runaway winner with a 100% gain on the MSCI index as a savings refuge. The Finance Minister, previously chief economist at the African Development Bank, has floated controversial “bond note” proposals further spiking scarce hard currency demand, as the stock exchange builds a safe haven reputation by comparison.