Banks’ Emerging-Market Boom Leaves a Grim Legacy

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Lenders piled into Africa and Asia after the financial crisis. The cost of some of their deals is now becoming apparent.

By Lionel Laurent

Emerging markets were a boon for bankers after the 2008 crisis, when resource-rich Africa and Asia seemed to have definitively decoupled from the debt-laden economies of the U.S. and Europe. Yet as lawsuits over alleged corruption and bribery pile up, an uglier side of those glory days is emerging — and taxpayers and investors will be left to pick up the tab.

Credit Suisse Group AG’s dealings in Mozambique, where about half the population lives in poverty, are the latest to be thrust in the spotlight by U.S. prosecutors. Three former employees were charged in New York this week with defrauding investors over $2 billion of state-backed loans that prosecutors say generated at least $200 million in bribes and kickbacks. Mozambique’s former finance minister has also been charged and faces extradition — something he has said he will fight. (Lawyers for the three bankers couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, according to Bloomberg News.)

The case has eerie parallels with Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, in which two former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. bankers were last year charged for allegedly covering up bribes and kickbacks from a state development fund.

Both Goldman and Credit Suisse say they were deceived by rogue bankers who circumvented internal risk controls to complete the deals. (The Swiss bank itself hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing.) The charge sheets in the two cases set out the lengths to which information was hidden internally: In Credit Suisse’s case, prosecutors argue that much due diligence — from company directors to competitive tender processes — was faked.

But the common thread is also one of boom-time activity, when red flags might be more likely to be missed. The backdrop to these alleged frauds was a time, around 2012 and 2013, when banks were desperate for new sources of profit after the financial crisis. Between 2008 and 2012, annual emerging-market bond issuance rose from $487.3 billion to $1.6 trillion. Amid that boom, risk controls appeared to take a back seat.

The lucrative fees added an incentive. The $600 million Goldman netted from 1MDB’s fundraising amounted to a stunning 10 percent of the $6.5 billion raised. A report by Kroll, disputed by Credit Suisse, alleges the Swiss bank received about $160 million in fees for arranging $2 billion of loans in Mozambique. This included $141 million of “contractor fees,” which were, however, passed on to other banks.

The cost of these transactions may now become more apparent: As the orchestrators of the Mozambique deal lined their pockets, according to prosecutors, the government found itself sinking deeper into costly debt.

Take Ematum, a fishing company backed by the government of Mozambique. To expand its fleet, it borrowed money, much of which prosecutors say ended up being siphoned off. According to the International Monetary Fund, the loans Credit Suisse and others arranged effectively doubled the cost of servicing the country’s debt.

This was just the tip of the iceberg: In 2016, the IMF stopped funding the country after finding out there was $1 billion in hidden debt on the government’s books. Mozambique defaulted and then restructured its debt. Last year, the country’s economy was due to grow at the slowest rate in 18 years — a burden that its citizens will be left to bear.

Whatever the outcome of these cases — no doubt, risk controls will be tightened and new standards set — the bitter taste of these experiments with market capitalism will linger.

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