AFRICA MONEY-Opening the books to outsiders

By Ed Cropley, African Investment Correspondent

JOHANNESBURG, March 31 (Reuters) – With increasing foreign
interest in Africa’s fast-growing frontier markets, governments
and central banks are waking up to the importance of releasing
economic and financial data — and releasing it on time.

Unsurprisingly, some of the improvements can be traced to
the spread of the Internet.

If you are interested in Malawi treasury bills — and a
yield of 6.3 percent on 3-month debt means some people are —
you simply ring up the central bank, ask for a helpful gentleman
called Mr. Malala, and he puts you on his weekly debt auction
email distribution list.

But the growing openness and timeliness of many Sub-Saharan
authorities also testifies to the importance they attach to
foreign capital, which should ultimately translate into lower
borrowing costs for government and companies and more stable
currencies.

“I started doing Africa research about four years ago and it
was a nightmare. There was nothing available,” said Celeste
Fauconnier, a regional economist at Rand Merchant Bank in
Johannesburg.

“But they’ve realised that people are interested, and that
they have to make their countries attractive.”

South Africa, far and away the continent’s biggest and most
sophisticated economy, is an exception in publishing a wide
array of data on every aspect of its economy, as befits its
status as a fully-fledged emerging market.

However, its influence rubs off on other countries in its
immediate neighbourhood, making southern Africa the most
efficient of the continent’s frontier regions in pumping out
economic data, according to most analysts.

East Africa, most notably Kenya, comes second and West
Africa and Nigeria a distant third, although the situation is
improving quickly in the continent’s most populous nation and
biggest oil producer.

“There’s been a conscious effort by central banks to provide
more information to markets,” said Razia Khan, head of regional
research at Standard Chartered in London and one of the most
experienced navigators of Africa’s often beffudling economies.

“In the case of Nigeria’s recent Monetary Policy Committee,
it wasn’t just the usual communique — it was individual MPC
members saying what they voted for and why. We don’t see that
level of transparency in a lot of other markets.”

ANGOLA STAYS ALOOF

Inflation, among the easiest of numbers to crunch, is the
most regular data nugget, pumped out by the likes of Uganda with
military precision at 0800 GMT on the final day of the month —
even when, as today, the number was awful.

Such efficiency only breeds more demand from economists and
analysts desperate for more and more data about a corner of the
globe the International Monetary Fund says is going to grow 5.5
percent this year and 5.8 next.

“I would like to see more on the GDP side for most these
countries, and ultimately would like to see more higher
frequency data like industrial production,” said Stuart
Culverhouse of London-based brokerage Exotix.

“If you’re doing due diligence on a company, you want to
know what’s going on in its accounts. It’s the same for a
country.”

States such as Zambia seeking to launch dollar bonds are
likely to be the most open. Conversely, countries with large
minerals revenues often fail to see the point of opening
themselves up to outsiders.

For instance, Botswana, the world’s biggest diamond
producer, has been known to release inflation data on a
Saturday, while Angola, the continent’s second biggest oil
producer and one of its most closed shops, hasn’t published any
CPI figures since December.

“When a country is in that sort of position, they don’t
really feel they have to bend over backwards to try to make this
stuff available,” Khan said.

(Editing by Ron Askew)

AFRICA MONEY-Opening the books to outsiders