Catalytic: Pension funds can ignite economic development, and it is estimated that Africa has a $29bn unutilised pool of pension fund capital. Picture: 123RF
Catalytic: Pension funds can ignite economic development, and it is estimated that Africa has a $29bn unutilised pool of pension fund capital. Picture: 123RF

For the past 20 years capital market development has been identified as an important tenet to economic development on the African continent, with several efforts made with varying degrees of success.

Combined efforts of African governments, development agencies and the private sector have sought to deepen capital markets via the establishment of stock exchanges to facilitate access to alternative sources of capital to bank lending.

Initially, these initiatives were supported by privatisation programmes and regulatory incentives such as tax breaks, which led to formerly state-owned businesses and multinationals securing local listings.

However, the growth and development of these markets has stalled in recent years. Among the reasons cited are negative emerging market sentiment, especially with the slowdown in the Chinese economy, an African population that still has a poor savings culture, illiquid markets and lack of confidence in the regulatory framework. 

I believe these initial capital market development efforts did not quite address the social economic structures prevalent in many African countries. There is a large gap between those companies initially listed on exchanges and those many believed would develop over time and be listed.

Many of the private sector companies people believed would be listed are still far from being ready to list. These midmarket and large corporates must undergo an additional phase of development — increase their track record with banks, as well as open up to private debt investment.

From a macro perspective, Africa signals many attractive indicators for both investment and investors:

  • Real output growth is expected to accelerate to 4.1% in 2019. Overall, the recovery of growth has been faster than envisaged, especially among non-resource-intensive economies.
  • Growing populations and increased urbanisation increase the need for world-class infrastructure, goods and services.
  • Nascent African capital markets, resulting in a financing gap for growth and working capital to fund SMEs and infrastructure.
  • The assets managed by African institutional investors are expected to rise to $1.8-trillion by 2020, from $670bn in 2012. African pension funds have expanded in several countries, offering a viable option for both long and short-term financing opportunities.

As touched upon earlier, for African companies and economies to achieve their potential, private debt will play a critical role. Private debt has become an asset class simply too big and too important to ignore. Given that it is predominantly floating rate in nature, in an environment of rising rates its appeal can only grow from an investor’s perspective.

For investors, the market can be somewhat confusing as not only are there many ways of defining private debt, it also forms a subset of a larger class of alternative debt strategies. These have grown since the global financial crisis as banks have withdrawn or refocused their lending activities.

Active investors in the private debt market range from ultra-high net-worth individuals and family offices to institutional investors (pension funds and insurance funds). In the US, institutional investors have been lending directly to the corporate sector for decades, and Europe is seeing a more recent transition from the banking sector to non-bank lenders.

Private debt offers both a complementary (to bank financing) and alternative sustainable financing solution for SMEs and more established companies, both for long-term growth capital as well as short-term working capital.

The market can be somewhat confusing as there are many ways to define private debt.

As an asset class, it offers an attractive opportunity to investors, particularly pension funds as it offers a much-needed alternative, which has diversification benefits, as well as being somewhat uncorrelated to other asset classes and macroeconomic conditions (such as trade finance).

Pension funds can play a catalytic role in economic development; for instance, the 1979 employment retire income security act reform in the US resulted in an explosion in the private equity and venture capital industry. This explicitly allowed pension funds to invest in venture capital funds by amending the “prudent man” rule.

The Emerging Market Private Equity Association estimates that Africa has an unutilised pool of pension fund capital of about $29bn, suggesting significant potential to replicate this impact for the continent. Pension funds can also play a critical role in finance through the mobilisation and allocation of stable long-term savings to support infrastructure and corporate finance. In sub-Saharan Africa, the infrastructure funding gap across information and communications technology, power, water, roads and others are circa $100bn per annum.

Targeted investments by pension funds can go a long way to help fill this gap and boost growth. Further, there is increasing literature on the role pension funds play in capital market development, by broadening the depth of the market — for example, the Public Investment Corporation is SA’s largest asset manager representing almost half of the non-banking financial assets — specifically by improving the efficiency of loan and primary markets by acting as a financial intermediary and lowering the cost of capital.

Furthermore, a growing middle class is placing greater emphasis on savings. This growth in Africa’s middle class and the subsequent rise in savings will boost the demand for pension products. This is further aided by increased adoption of technology by pension funds, making it easier to reach wider populations and reducing the cost of distribution.

PWC estimates that pension fund assets under management in 12 African markets will rise to about $1.1-trillion by 2020, from $293bn in 2008. As assets under management grow to a significant proportion of GDP, there will be fewer domestic opportunities available to provide the capital protection and diversification necessary for pension funds to meet their obligations and portfolio limits. This will create further pressure for both pension funds and regulators to explore the private credit space.

The immediate benefit of pension funds playing a larger role in the private investment market is the deepening of liquidity sources. The increased liquidity, coupled with pension funds’ increased understanding of the private debt asset classes, will lead to the development of private credit markets in Africa.

Effective mobilisation of capital will deepen the financial sector on the continent, resulting in an increase in capital investment in Africa as well as playing a key role in enabling the continent to achieve its potential.

• Mate is head of advisory & Africa at Qbera Capital.