Bankers have adopted a more skeptical attitude toward lending in Africa, but they are still lured by the continent's promise of vast mineral and agricultural potential, according to those interviewed at the recently concluded meeting here of the African Development Bank.
Scores of bankers flock each year to the annual general meeting of the development bank--the highlight of banking activity in Africa--to get the chance to hobnob with finance ministers in the corridors and swap views with peers. This year, the observers were fewer and their approach markedly more cautious, but the message was clear: Many banks still want to do business in Africa.
"Africa's not a good risk now. Most United States banks are taking a conservative stand," said Antonin Pujos, a vice president of First National Bank of Chicago. "But it's the last exciting continent. Everything's constantly changing--from governments to commodity prices," he added, underlining the ambivalent philosophy that prevails.
"There's a great role to play, but not as we did in the past. We were giving money without paying attention to how it was used. Now we are going to scrutinize projects closely. Bankers will no longer throw their money around in these countries. We'll want to put money in projects that generate foreign exchange so that they can pay their loans back," he said.
Bankers were reluctant to give their views of Africa's credit risk rating, but some admitted that it is the weakest of all the continents. Lending from the commercial capital markets took on a new intensity in the late 1970s as banks sought to cash in on Nigeria's oil boom and moved on to other countries for profitable spinoffs.
Commercial financial institutions became an important source of capital as their lending grew by about 80 percent a year. Since 1978 they have provided more than 40 percent of the money that flowed into black Africa. By comparison, the figure in 1970 was 3 percent.
Since then, the economies of most black African states have been dragged down by the high interest rates on loans and a global recession that dampened demand for the continent's raw materials. As a result, many countries have been forced to reschedule their debts. This year six countries have sought refinancing.
Now banks, locked into longer debt repayment schedules, are faced with the dilemma of either lending more money to help ailing economies or refraining from further activity.
"We are here because we are in," shrugged a U.S. banker. "We are not only collecting. We must continue to do business carefully. We are part and parcel of Africa."
Others are more upbeat about the long-term prospects the continent offers. In the view of Jim Conrow, a director in the U.S. Treasury's Office of Multilateral Development Banks, "With the turnaround in the U.S. economy we hope there will be an increase in demand in their raw materials and minerals and with that you'll see the commercial banks come in."
The banks that have opted for commitment are revising their procedures and giving more weight to political analysis in this continent where coups are a common occurrence.
In an effort to obtain accurate figures--many countries' national statistics are out of date or even downright misleading--they also are pooling information among themselves.
"What we are looking at now in a much more intense manner is the erosion of government machinery, one banker said. "A country can be poor but well managed, such as Ethiopia or Malawi. It doesn't help if the country has minerals in the ground if it is far from getting them developed. This decay is a general management issue and major point of country risk," he said.
Many bankers believe that sound administrative methods will turn Africa's debt problems into a transient phase. From this perception has emerged a new breed of national finance managers whose aim is to get their clients' debt profile in line with expected revenue.
The British merchant bank Morgan Grenfell and a syndicate of the United States' Kuhn Loeb Lehman Brothers International, France's Lazard Freres and Britain's Warburgs are discreetly acting as financial advisers to about 10 debt-plagued African nations.
The syndicate now is sorting out the financial entanglements of Nigeria, Senegal, Congo and several other African countries.
" . . . .Under certain circumstances, it can make a great deal of sense for governments to turn to specialized financial advice, as do large financial corporations. If we can help a government to put its finances into regular order, that can hasten economic recovery and new investment," said Richard Moose, of Kuhn Loeb Lehman, who was assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Carter administration.
"But our function is in no way to make the world safer for more loans," he cautioned. "Our main work is to assist governments in maintaining their financial credibility. . . ."
Morgan Grenfell, which advises Uganda and Sudan, sifted through central bank statistics in Sudan and came up with a foreign debt figure twice as high as the Sudanese thought they had. As a result of this information and Morgan Grenfell's guidance during negotiations, Sudan has just received a 16-year rescheduling of its debt obligations to concessionary lenders.