Thursday, December 23, 2010
Source: Rick’s Picks
Thursday, December 23, 2010
“Phenomenally accurate forecasts”
(Here’s a man-bites dog story from Cam Fitzgerald, a frequent contributor to Rick’s Picks who lived for a while in Ethiopia. Cam paints a picture of an African nation that will be unfamiliar to many readers; for in fact, even though Ethiopia has only begun to emerge from poverty, its economic prospects are as bright as you will find anywhere on the African continent. To understand why, read Cam’s first-hand report . RA)
This is a growth story. A few years ago, I spent some time living in Ethiopia. I was in the suburbs of Addis Ababa, getting to know one terrific family in particular: the mother, who was the real head of the household; the father, Abba, a shoemaker; and his four single daughters, all in their thirties. What could possibly go wrong? OK, I am already getting off track. This is supposed to be an article about Ethiopia’s boom and the inflation that has come in its wake. I call the daughters “my gals” when I talk about them with friends, and we keep in touch almost daily via e-mail. One is a student, and the other three work: as a translator, a seamstress and a secretary. They all have good educations, speak English and are in every way typical of women you might meet anywhere in the world: the same hopes and dreams, the same troubles with men and the same daily worries about meeting the bills, making ends meet and trying to save.
Well almost the same. You see, these women earn a grand total of 2900 Ethiopian birr in monthly income between them. That’s roughly $175 dollars for six people to share — a fairly typical income in Ethiopia. However, I never thought of the family as poor during the time I knew them. They own a home, are well educated, eat well, and the girls were always “dressed to kill,” so on the surface it all looked pretty normal to me. Expenses are regional and relative, and so daily costs there are generally incredibly low. But come on! A buck a day per person is just not enough money! Nevertheless.
16.5% Devaluation Overnight
So the cost of living is low. At least it was. Until the Central Bank, in a surprise announcement last month, devalued the currency by 16.5% in a single day, making it the fourth devaluation in less than two years. Monetary policy was being used as a means for the country to retain a competitive export advantage, and to manage its currency’s float against the U.S. dollar. A falling dollar in effect precipitated the action by the Ethiopian Central Bank. So, this was no stealth devaluation — it was all in-your-face.
Compounding worries for my girls is the recent commodity boom and an attendant, sharp price increase in cotton, coffee, cocoa, wheat, canola, and of course cooking fuel (kerosene). The problem they are facing is that commodities, while locally sourced, are not locally priced, as they are subject to global competition and speculative forces. Prices are set in the futures markets. So despite being an agricultural country and net food exporter, Ethiopia and its people face the same market dynamics and price hikes that we are about to experience in the West. (This story is indirectly about us, as you will see). And because Ethiopia is primarily an agricultural exporter, the new prices hit the streets almost as fast as they changed on the boards in New York and London. It is no joke that Ethiopians are now unable to afford buying some of the produce of their own country. Following this last price spike, coffee is almost out of the question.
Coffee a Luxury
Since the summer, the cost of a kilo of coffee has climbed from about$ 2.20 U.S. to more than $4 –a price spike of almost 100%. Buying coffee on a daily budget of a dollar is not just prohibitive, it is a sacrifice and a luxury. This irony is not lost on the people living right in the midst of the country where coffee was originally discovered, and where it is still a primary exports.
The gals have been pretty worried lately. They are stoic, though, and rarely complain, even though the price of flour is also up over 70%, cooking oil by 50%, and onions (of all things) by an incredible 250%. And you thought we had inflation worries in the U.S.! Ethiopia’s Central Statistical Agency (CSA), meanwhile, reports for 2010 that tobacco has risen 34%, clothing 25% and rent, fuel and power have collectively risen by over 16%. Yikes! All of this is an outgrowth of a shifting, global investment dynamic that has made paper investments risky; where bonds pay nothing; and where holding cash is a surefire way to go broke over the long run. There has been a shift, particularly amongst hedge funds, from certain equities and debt instruments and into hard assets, gold and resources.
Exacerbating this trend is the widespread belief that quantitative easing is leading to dollar devaluation. This makes resource investments very appealing as a long-term hedge against inflation. Stimulus leakage itself, as well as the outcomes of investment changes that flow from quantitative easing, are now driving the African growth story even as they exert tremendous inflationary pressures. These are the sources behind some of the stresses the people there are now facing.
An unfortunate outcome of the new dynamic is big price increases that negatively impact not only Ethiopians, but people who live in the poorest countries in the world. Keep in mind that in many countries across Africa and parts of Asia, food and transportation are the largest components of household budgets. Double-digit inflation therefore inflicts hardship in a way that very few North Americans can fully comprehend. Today, Ethiopia is one of the largest coffee exporters in the world, and not so surprisingly, government revenues have surged on the back of commodity price increases and export growth. Increased incomes from both private and corporate sources including the VAT tax have reportedly shot up a staggering 150% in just the last three months, and the government is on track to fully exceed its wildest estimates.
To look at it one way, the price increases for food are coming out of the pockets of the average person on the street and then miraculously reappearing on government ledgers. While it is not quite simple, the differences between export revenues and increased consumption costs could hardly balance equitably. But this is not a bad-news story, and while Ethiopians are paying the price at the till, the country is experiencing powerful growth on the other. Why? Because the country possesses abundant natural resources. Ethiopia is a veritable cornucopia, and China (amongst others) wants in on the action. So they have shown up with what the country badly needs: hard cash, engineering expertise and generous assistance with infrastructure improvements. They even send in their own people and equipment to get the jobs done. No hurry of course. Pay the bill later.
A Happy Surprise
The happy surprise is that the commodities boom is beneficial to Ethiopia in many ways. The country’s natural resources are only now being explored, even as known quantities of gold, potash and natural gas are being exploited beneficially. Diamond exploration is under way in Welega Province by an Australia miner, Nyota (ASX:NYO). From what I know, they are almost certain to find some there. As a result, employment numbers are up across the country and there has been a significant infusion of foreign investment over the last few years. Capital is flowing from India, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Australia and many other sources. Not so surprisingly, there has also been inflation to match the rapid growth, and this has made life difficult for the working man or woman.
The most recent inflation data show that the annual rate is above 11% even without considering commodities. This is on top of last year’s 9%, and an astounding rate of 45% in 2008. If you can believe this, people there hold U.S. dollars as an inflation hedge! This actually makes perfect sense, since inflation is relative. And when both Gold and Silver lie beyond the financial means of virtually everyone, then a store of greenbacks seems as good as gold itself. Especially when the value of your own currency is shrinking by the day. According to the CIA fact-book, Ethiopian GDP growth was running at 8.7% for 2009 while industrial growth exceeded 10%, making Ethiopia the world’s fifth fastest-growing economy. Exports were worth a paltry $1.6 billion U.S. versus $7 billion in imports. Obviously, there is much progress needing to be made. However, as U.S. contributions to programs and aid have added to remittances from the Ethiopian diaspora, IMF forgiveness of some indebtedness and Chinese direct investment have made up the difference, bringing the country’s budget nearly into balance.
As noted above, the Chinese, among others, are taking a very serious interest in the region, which is enjoying a construction boom. According to The Economist, Ethiopia and Eritrea will be among the three fastest-growing economies in the world in 2011. Wow! Growth there is anticipated to exceed 10% annually. Surprise! And you thought it would be China, didn’t you? Nazret.com, the Ethiopian news portal, just reported Chinese investments exceeding $800 million in a wide variety of projects and activities, including cement factories that are creating thousands of new jobs. This might sound like chump change, but it is in fact very significant relative to Ethiopian export incomes.
Imagine for a moment that a single country invested in the U.S. a sum equal to half of America’s exports trade, and you can see what is happening to Ethiopia. In the background, up to 16 new universities are being constructed or are near completion, courtesy of the German government and related agencies. According to Wiki, nearly half of Ethiopia’s population is below the age of 14, and 60% of it is below 30. Quite a contrast to the burgeoning retiree population of Western nations. Furthermore, health initiatives from a multitude of sources including the U.S. Government, the Gates Foundation, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and a host of others are making the country stronger and healthier than ever. At 2%, AIDS rates are among the lowest in Africa and dropping due to education and health initiatives. Relatively low wages have also enticed some of Asia’s overheated economies into outsourcing to Ethiopia. This might seem surprising, since many people think of Asia itself as one monstrous factory. Rarely do we consider that production costs, particularly in China, have spiked due to the ongoing real estate bubble, and that the Chinese themselves are eager to hold down production costs by outsourcing. Much of Africa beyond Ethiopia has been benefiting from this development.
A Friendly Place
As a result, Ethiopia has been ramping up its textile business at a feverish pace, and factories have been springing up across the country. The government of Meles Zenawi has openly welcomed new investments, and resource rights are being sold to interested parties as exploration for minerals ramps up. The government is stable and has been for many years, and the country is more or less at peace. It would be hard to find a friendlier, warmer place to visit.
But there is so much more to this story. China’s growing demand for construction materials has seen them investing in no fewer than three cement facilities recently to supply voracious demand in Asia’s big cities, but also to build dams in Ethiopia. Dams? Yes. Few of you reading this will know that the Nile River’s main source of water – as much as 85% of it, according to one recent estimate — lies in the Ethiopian highlands. This has raised concerns that Egypt may someday receive less than what it currently believes is equitable. Ethiopia is by no means the parched wasteland that many imagine it to be. To the contrary, although almost devoid of trees, much of the country is wet and green, particularly in the highlands, and this is why hydroelectric is such an obvious solution to the country’s growing power needs.
The rains unfortunately are not always predictable, and this has been at the root of some past disasters and famines, as irrigation has not been sufficiently developed to ensure steady agricultural productivity. But growth has been phenomenal, due in large part to the needs of a burgeoning Asia. The Chinese in particular have moved into the country in a big way and are busy building roads, dams, irrigation systems and bridges across the country. Things are changing for the better, and quickly. Thus, in a surprise twist, what is arguably the poorest country on Earth is actually one of the world’s biggest investment and growth stories of the year. Don’t believe me? Go and see it for yourself. Ethiopian Airlines is well known as the best carrier on the continent, sporting the newest fleet of Boeing 737’s and 777-200’s, as well as one of the safest flight records anywhere.
This year alone, Ethiopian Airlines have acquired or placed on order 38 new aircraft including ten state-of-the-art 787’s. An expansion of the Bole International Airport, which is considered Africa’s primary air hub and which hosts almost four million passengers annually, is ongoing to accommodate growing air traffic and congestion. The on-board food, incidentally, is terrific.
Back in Addis, meanwhile, my gals are feeling very stressed. Their wages are on the rise but are not keeping pace with the loss of buying power caused by the recent birr devaluations, nor with the fast pace of rising costs for nearly all of the things they need. I can send cash to help out, of course (and I do), but the girls represent only one small family in a country of more than 80 million people. What about everyone else? I worry, too, for my friends over there, and I can only hope that the recent developments eventually lead to a higher standard of living, and that Ethiopia can escape the grip of poverty that has been its hallmark for most of the past century. Industrialization and resources are clearly the keys to Ethiopia’s future, the fuel behind its recent growth story. It is still early in the game for capitalists to get involved. The country is open to investment, and even a relatively small sum can yield potentially explosive results.
If that sounds like advertising, consider that fewer than 1.5 people in 100 have cell phones, according to a recent report. That is the lowest concentration in all of Africa, and among the lowest in the world. There is huge pent-up demand for technology of all kinds, a youthful population and a growing (although still tiny) middle class. Like much of Africa, Ethiopia has energy to burn and a desire to break from the bonds of the past. Demographics tell us there is tremendous potential there and a lot of future customers. Asian direct investment tells us that development is being fast-tracked. This is a country you will want to follow if you are an investor who is interested in emerging markets. And last, Ethiopians themselves are telling us they want to be an integral part of the global community. This is truly a growth story.
If you remain doubtful that Ethiopia has potential, check out this short video of a concert in Addis Ababa. It is a little rough and almost certainly made with a cell phone, but if this does not convince you the country has energy, then nothing will. Beyonce is center stage, and she kicks off a show featuring Teddy Afro, one of Ethiopia’s most famous musicians.
This five-minute clip should tell you everything I cannot say in words alone. Hopefully, it will open your eyes to one of the very biggest development stories in the world today. It is about the New Africa, the world’s last big frontier, and a Wild West of investment opportunities. The potential is tremendous. All of those people look hungry, all right — but in a way you probably never expected. So forget the sad, sad imagery of the past. These people are hungry to join the party!
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Posted by FRIENDS of ETHIOPIA:: at 6:07 AM