Zambia’s Debt Crisis: What You Should Know
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Defaulting on debt
In November 2020, Zambia became the first African nation to default on its Eurobonds during the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing the country’s debt distress into headlines around the world. The debt crisis resulted from “years of economic mismanagement,” the International Monetary Fund said. Drought in 2019 and COVID-19 in 2020 worsened Zambia’s economic challenges.
A precarious macroeconomic situation
But the Zambian economy was witnessing “a weak macroeconomic condition” even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development said. Growth was sharply declining. Zambia was facing severe challenges such as high inflation, unsustainable debt levels, low international reserves, and tight liquidity conditions, according to the economic outlook of the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Over the past five years, Zambia’s economic growth slightly accelerated in 2017 and 2018, slowed in 2019, declined to a negative in 2020, and resumed in 2021, as reported by the 2022 Index of Economic Freedom. In 2018, Zambia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was estimated at US$ 26.31 billion, with an annual growth rate of 4 percent. But an “expansionary fiscal policy mainly financed by external and local borrowing” caused Zambia’s debt to hit 91.6% of its GDP in 2019 and 104% in 2020.
Inflation nearly doubled, and the Zambian kwacha quickly depreciated by 64%. When COVID-19 hit Zambia being in this situation, the country’s precarious macroeconomic position took a turn for the worse. The Zambian economy fell into a deep recession, the AfDB said. More inflation, currency depreciation, and a significant debt burden forced Zambia to default on its debt obligation and seek more relief from lenders.
A new dawn for Zambia
In August 2021, Zambia’s trajectory significantly shifted with the election of a new government led by longtime opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema. As Zambia’s seventh president, Hichilema inherited a nation with unsustainable debt larger than previously known and had to deal with the impact of its debt default.
According to Deloitte, debt restructuring, talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and a more stable exchange rate, among other measures, would be “fundamental to Zambia achieving macroeconomic stability.” Hichilema outlined an ambitious agenda to address structural weaknesses through macroeconomic reforms guided by an IMF program.
Engaging the IMF
“Zambia is in debt distress and needs a deep and comprehensive debt treatment to place public debt on a sustainable path,” the IMF said. The government began to actively seek a comprehensive debt restructuring. Specifically, it initiated a creditor engagement strategy to secure immediate debt service relief and better terms, the AfDB said.
On December 6, 2021, the government of Zambia announced it had reached a staff-level agreement on a US$1.4-billion extended credit facility with the IMF from 2022 to 2025. On September 6, 2022, the IMF’s Executive Board approved a 38-month credit facility amounting to US$1.3 billion to “restore economic stability and foster higher, more resilient, and more inclusive growth.”
These recent events marked a significant milestone and set the path for negotiations with Zambia’s lenders to restructure the country’s external debt.
Focusing on economic recovery
The country’s economic outlook has markedly improved, given renewed optimism and increased investor confidence post-elections. Additionally, the newly elected government has made several important policy announcements, including an enhanced focus on rebuilding the economy and creating an enabling business environment to foster growth.
Zambia’s growth in the coming years is to be likely driven by “a clear path to debt sustainability, leveraging the country’s mining potential, increased private sector participation, focus on job creation, and good governance,” said Deloitte & Touche (Zambia) Managing Partner Humphrey Mulenga in Doing Business in Zambia. Economic activity will gradually pick up, with the World Bank estimating growth at an average of 3.8% from 2022 to 2025. While the market sentiment has markedly improved, the Zambian economy remains fragile, the IMF said in a September 2022 report.
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