Ghana seeks to ride out challenges

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Having been among the continent’s fastest-growing economies on the back of an oil-fuelled boom, Ghana has cut its growth target for this year and revised its forecast for inflation and budget deficit upwards as a result of slowing commodity revenues and high current spending.

Ghana’s forecasts for 2014 are by any comparison still robust, but they have highlighted some cyclical hurdles ahead. In an economic update released in July, Finance Minister Seth Terkper said GDP growth for 2014 was now estimated at 7.1% instead of 8% previously.

He added that the budget deficit for the full year would climb to 8.8% instead of the initially targeted 8.5%, well below the double-digit rates of a few years ago but still higher than expected. The minister has requested parliamentary approval for an additional GHS3.1bn ($837m) in spending on top of the original 2014 budget of GHS34.9bn ($9.43bn).

More worryingly, the updated outlook also included a higher forecast for inflation, at about 13% instead of the earlier estimate of 9.5%.

With gold, cocoa, and oil accounting for about four-fifths of Ghana's total export revenues according to 2013 figures, the finance minister cited lower external receipts as a major cause of the fiscal problems, although high levels of spending have also been a factor. Electricity subsidies, a large wage bill and expensive repayments on public debt all weigh heavily on the exchequer.

The change in circumstances has prompted the government to consider all options, and in August, Ghana officially approached the IMF for assistance. Earlier in the year, the IMF, which has estimated Ghana’s growth at 4.8% in 2014, had called for a “more ambitious adjustment scenario” and suggested raising interest rates to limit inflation. Ghana is the second high-growth African market to turn to the IMF for aid, after Zambia said in June it would begin discussions with the fund.

Ghana has also announced plans to tap international debt markets later this month with a eurobond sale of as much as $1bn. The bond would be the country’s second, after a previous sale in July 2013 of $750m. Ghana’s political stability and maturing democratic institutions had previously made it a favourite among investors hungry for high-yield sovereign debt, and recent issuances by Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire have indicated continuing high demand for African paper.  

Export-led growth to stall

Ghana’s long-term strategy has been to use export receipts to speed up domestic infrastructure building, with economic growth and diversification plans following in tandem with the increased government spending.

However a dramatic slowdown in the third quarter of 2013 – as growth eased to 0.3% compared with 6.1% in the previous quarter – due to lower revenues in the extractive sectors has since precipitated more muted performance overall. The drop in revenues was partly attributed to a drop in gold prices, as well as lower-than-expected oil production.  

Long-term outlook brighter

There are signs the outlook may improve in the long term. Ghana, the world’s second-largest producer of cocoa, is hoping that increasing wealth and spending power in Asian countries will translate to higher consumption of chocolate in the longer term, raising global price levels. Plans to reinforce output through the distribution of new hybrid seedlings and improved logistics chains should also help to strengthen production.

The country is also expected to finally see long-awaited gas infrastructure – a pipeline for associated deposits from the Jubilee oil field and a processing plant – come online later this year, which should widen the scope for higher crude output as well as boost domestic power production.

And despite the deterioration in public sector finances, the IMF considered the risk of debt distress to be moderate in Ghana. It also noted that Ghana aims to lower wage costs to 8.7% in 2014, with possible options including temporary hiring freezes and a halt to regular wage increases.

The wage costs, which represent one of the country’s largest current expenditures, have come on the back of a rollout of the single-spine salary structure (SSSS) that improves transparency and harmonises payscales across all public sector agencies. The SSSS is intended to slow wage spending in the future but has resulted in a short-term jump.

With the long-term picture brightening as a result of potentially higher cocoa prices and expanded oil production, the final bill for Ghana may be nothing more than a delay in infrastructure investment plans. When this resumes in earnest – particularly the plan to improve access to electricity – diversification can pick up, strengthening industries that can provide a buffer when commodity prices take a downward turn.

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