Mr. Speaker Sir, thank you for giving me this opportunity to brief the Honourable Members of this August House on the evolution and current status of the country’s public debt portfolio. It is a widely discussed matter by the public and by honourable members. It is important therefore that the Government should disseminate the facts of the matter and what they mean.

1. Total Public Debt

To begin with, Mr. Speaker Sir, total public debt amounts to K2.5 trillion comprising K1.4 trillion (US$1.9 billion) external debt and K1.1 trillion domestic debt. These figures are as of 30 June 2017. In terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), total public debt, in Net Present Value (NPV) terms, is 45.4 percent of GDP of which 19.8 percent is external debt and 25.6 percent is domestic debt.

Mr. Speaker Sir, allow me to discuss some terminologies that are important in discussing this subject.

The first is the concept of Net Present Value of debt. Since long term or medium term debt is repaid in future, it is important to calculate the value of the total debt servicing (i.e. repayment instalments and interest) for the entirety of its life (tenor). To convert these into the present value, these total future values are discounted by the current interest applicable to the servicing currency. The result minus the loan itself is called Net Present Value (NPV) of debt. The sum of the NPVs for all loans is calculated as a ratio of nominal GDP which is 45.4%. The threshold of the danger point is 50%.

The second is the concept of concessionality of a loan. Concessionality of a loan is assessed by calculating its Grant Element which is a function of the rate of interest charged, length of grace period and the repayment period among other terms. A bigger number represents high level of concessionality (i.e. high degree of softness) and vice-versa. For Malawi, a loan is considered to be concessional if its grant element is at least 35 percent.

The third concept is debt sustainability. This concept addresses the question of whether a country will be able to meet its debt servicing obligations without problems or accumulating arrears over the medium to long term. For external debt, the following ratios are applied:-

1. Net Present Value of Debt Stock to Gross Domestic Product (NPV of Debt / GDP);

2. Net Present Value of Debt Stock to Exports (NPV of Debt / Exports);

3. Net Present Value of Debt Stock to Domestic Revenue (NPV of Debt / Revenue);

4. Debt Service to Export (DS / Exports); and

5. Debt Service to Domestic Revenue (DS / Revenue).

Each of these ratios has a recommended threshold.

For domestic debt, only one ratio debt to GDP is applied. The recommended threshold is 20%.

Mr. Speaker Sir, I now discuss the external and domestic debt profiles separately.

1. External Debt

The external debt portfolio has evolved over a long period of time since we got our independence in 1964. Cumulatively, the country has borrowed over US$6 billion from external sources to finance our development interventions over the years. In between, there were episodes of unsustainable external debt stock that peaked at US$3.0 billion (or 150% of GDP in Net Present Value terms) between 1980 and 2006. Fortunately, the debt stock fell drastically to just under US$500 million (or 11% of GDP in Net Present Value terms) courtesy of debt relief received in 2006 under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI). Currently, the external debt to GDP ratio (in Net Present Value terms) is about 20 percent against the recommended threshold of 30 percent for Malawi, an indication that the external debt portfolio is sustainable over the medium to long term albeit with a moderate risk of debt distress.

Since the HIPC, the country is not allowed to borrow at commercial rates and repayment periods have to be long. In fact, the majority of donors, particularly bilateral (donor governments) apart from emerging market donor countries such as China and India, aid is in form of grants. The result is a very low ratio since that time.

Mr. Speaker Sir, it is worth noting that the amount of external debt contracted in each era as presented in the Report on External Loans Contracted from 1964 to 2017 (which has been circulated to all the Honourable Members of Parliament) cannot be comparable across the five political administrations we have had since independence in 1964. This is on account of two reasons; one each era had its own rate of US Dollar inflation and two both the operating environment and duration of the political administrations varied across the five eras. On the basis of these arguments, Mr. Speaker Sir, it would be inappropriate for us today to be debating as to which administration contracted more external debt than the other. Instead, we need to acknowledge the fact that each administration faced some challenges that could be specific to their time.

Furthermore, Mr. Speaker Sir, I would like to inform the Honourable Members in this House that Malawi mostly borrows from multilateral financial institutions, key among them being the International Development Association of the World Bank Group and the African Development Fund of the African Development Bank Group. Financial support from the United Nations and the European Union is largely received in form of grants. Honourable Members may wish to note that borrowing from the World Bank and the African Development Bank is relatively cheaper as I will explain later.

In terms of bilateral creditors in our external debt profile, the People’s Republic of China and India top the list. Most of our bilateral development partners provide their support in the form of grants. These include the USA, UK, Norway, Germany, Japan and others.

Mr. Speaker Sir and Honourable Members, the amount of resources that the country can access from multilateral institutions like the World Bank at any point in time is, through the Country Assistance Strategy, pre-determined and ear-marked for specific development interventions to be implemented over a five year period. According to the World Bank’s policy guidelines, the allocation to Malawi is 50 percent loans and 50 percent grants based on our current rating of debt distress as a moderate risk country. The implication of this is that the Government does not have an upper hand in terms of determining the amount of loans that can be contracted in a particular (financial) year during the lifespan of the Country Assistance Strategy. In light of such lending policies and rules that dictate borrowing by the Government from institutions of this nature, some of the criticism and accusations that portray the Government as borrowing irresponsibly should not arise.

On a more positive note, Mr. Speaker Sir and Honourable Members, your analysis of the Report on External Borrowing will reveal that the borrowed resources were largely directed towards the productive sectors of our economy. This is why the Government is satisfied that, through external borrowing, the country has achieved a significant level of infrastructural development over the past five decades as can be attested in the various sectors of the economy.

With your indulgence, Mr. Speaker Sir, I would like to invite the Honourable Members to study and analyse the Report on External Borrowing that I have alluded to above for more details on the effectiveness of external borrowing and the medium to long-term sustainability of the country’s external debt portfolio.

1. Domestic Debt

Turning to the domestic debt portfolio, Mr. Speaker Sir, I would like to inform the Honourable Members that the current domestic debt stock of K1.1 trillion which is equivalent to 25.6 percent of GDP is high compared to the recommended threshold of 20 percent of GDP. Honourable Members may wish to appreciate that domestic borrowing by the Government took an upward trend in 2013 the year Cashgate was discovered. Before 2013 Mr. Speaker Sir, the domestic debt stock levels had been kept within the recommended threshold of 20 percent of GDP for over a decade.

It is common knowledge that after Cashgate some of our development partners withdrew their direct budgetary support which in turn prompted the Government to fill the ensuing fiscal gap through increased domestic financing hence the surge in the domestic debt stock in the post 2013 period.

However, Mr. Speaker Sir and Honourable Members, the policy of the Government is to gradually reduce domestic borrowing in order to bring down the debt stock to a more sustainable level. In line with this policy direction, the Government has consistently reduced net domestic borrowing over the past three financial years from 2014/15, both in nominal amounts as well as in proportion to GDP. Specifically, net domestic financing was K82.7 billion (2.6% of GDP) in 2014/15 financial year; K65.2 billion (1.7% of GDP) in 2015/16 and K37.2 billion (0.8% of GDP) in 2016/17 financial year. The net domestic borrowing target for this financial year is K27.8 billion (0.6% of GDP). Since nominal GDP is expected to grow, the recommended domestic debt to GDP ratio of 20 percent should be attained within the next two years.

1. Debt servicing

Mr. Speaker Sir and Honourable Members, external debt service, including principal and interest payments, has been within the recommended threshold of 18 percent of domestic revenues. Isolating interest payments, Honourable Members might wish to note that although the external debt stock is higher than the domestic debt stock, interest payments are much higher on domestic debt than on external debt. This is on account of external debt being contracted on softer (or concessional) terms that include lower interest rates of up to 2 percent per annum, grace periods of up to 10 years and long repayment periods of up to 30 years. On the other hand, domestic debt is contracted at market prices (interest rates) that are significantly high and may rise above 30 percent in extreme economic situations.

Mr. Speaker Sir and Honourable Members, interest payments on domestic debt have been persistently above 20 percent of our domestic revenues since 2013 which is consistent with the high domestic debt stock accumulated over this period as alluded to earlier on. (There is no recommended ratio for domestic interest payments, but the interest/ domestic revenue ratio provides a reasonable proxy for determining pressure that domestic debt servicing exerts on the national budget.) Mr. Speaker Sir, the Honourable Members may wish to refer to the attached spreadsheet labelled Annex 1 for a summary of the domestic debt statistics covering the period since 2002.

1. Conclusion

In conclusion, Mr. Speaker Sir, I would like to underscore the point that the current public debt stock is within the country’s carrying capacity and therefore manageable. The debt ratios will be even better as Government continues to be more prudent its borrowing going forward. In this regard, sustained fiscal discipline anchored by the on-going public finance management reforms will be critical. With growth in nominal GDP and constrained domestic borrowing, the domestic debt to GDP ratio is expected to decline to the recommended threshold within the next two years. On the external front, loans will continue to be contracted largely on soft (concessional) terms. However, less concessional loans from our bilateral creditors will also be contracted for purposes of financing important development interventions for the country’s sustainable economic development.

Mr. Speaker Sir, I beg to move.

Source: Malawi News Agency MANA