EBRD president Suma Chakrabarti
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is a curious beast. Founded to help former communist countries make the transition from state planning to market economics, it now covers a clutch of markets around the Mediterranean from Greece to Morocco.
It is part of the European development architecture, but has a global shareholding, including – since January 2016 and July 2018 respectively – China and India.
It has a mandate to support private enterprise, but in nearly a third of its 37 countries of operation the public sector accounts for more than half of its portfolio. In Bosnia, Moldova and North Macedonia, less than a fifth of the bank’s investment is in the private sector.
These anomalies have prompted questions about the EBRD’s development role. Last year, some members of the European Commission revived suggestions of merging it with the European Investment Bank.
A joint Franco-German declaration, published in June 2018, called for the establishment of a “wise persons” group to examine the European financial development architecture, “especially regarding the roles of the EIB and EBRD”.
This was duly set up in April and will report in October. Sir Suma Chakrabarti, the EBRD’s president, has already given evidence to the group. He says the response was positive.
“They very much liked the EBRD business model,” he tells Euromoney. “They recognize that the EBRD does some things that no other multilateral development bank does, particularly in combining private-sector development and policy work.”
Chakrabarti, who joined the EBRD in 2012 from the UK’s civil service, argues that the bank’s global shareholding is “a great strength” and “a great benefit to Europe”.
“Just as Nato is for the defence of Europe, but the US plays a major part in it, similarly the EBRD is taking forward European development objectives, but with the US and others heavily involved,” he says. “That’s something to celebrate.”
He also notes that, along with the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, the EBRD is one of only two multilateral development banks (MDBs) that are growing. When Chakrabarti joined the bank, it had 60 shareholders. With the addition of Libya in July, it now has 71.
Nevertheless, as he points out, even after Brexit – “if it happens” – the European Union will have a majority in the bank’s shareholding structure.
We have managed to deliver European policy objectives while having a global shareholding. That’s the pitch I’ve made to the wise person’s group – and I think it has landed- Suma Chakrabarti
He contends that the EBRD has done “a very good job of taking forward the European policy agenda” in the western Balkans, Ukraine, Georgia and north Africa.
“We’ve also done well with the refugee situation, in terms of dealing with Syrian refugees in southeast Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon,” he adds. “We have managed to deliver European policy objectives while having a global shareholding. That’s the pitch I’ve made to the wise person’s group – and I think it has landed.” The next big question for the EBRD’s shareholders and the European authorities will be whether or not the bank should consider further geographical expansion into sub-Saharan Africa.
The idea was mooted by Chakrabarti before the bank’s annual meeting in May 2018 but met with pushback from some of its largest shareholders, including France and Germany. Approval for a full feasibility study on gradual expansion was eventually given at this year’s meeting in Sarajevo.
Chakrabarti argues that the EBRD’s track record of expansion has proved it can be relevant outside the post-communist sphere.
“That’s a big thing in development because the conventional wisdom holds that MDBs should focus on hermetically sealed regions, which are quite similar,” he says. “We’re saying: ‘No, the world has changed and it’s the business model that matters’.
“Obviously you need country knowledge, and we have big country teams – much bigger than any other multilateral on the ground – but you also need deep sector knowledge, and that is transferable. I don’t think the academic world or the media have really caught up with this fundamental shift.”
Changes in thinking on the role of private finance in development – particularly in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals in the Paris climate change agreement – also play to the EBRD’s strengths, according to Chakrabarti.
“In this context, the traditional model of public-sector grant financing doesn’t work,” he says. “What you need is institutions that can leverage in private finance from the markets and help countries grow their private sector.
“That has been the EBRD’s raison d’être from the day it was founded – to build the market economy, to improve the investment climate and to help foreign and domestic investors find reasons to invest in our countries.” He acknowledges, however, that the bank has had to rethink its ideas about what makes an effective market economy.
“Go back to 1991 and all we wanted was for CEE [central and eastern European] companies to become more competitive and catch up with the West in value chains,” he says. “All of us, including the EBRD, didn’t pay enough attention to issues around inclusion.”
That led to skewed development and, eventually, to populist backlashes against the market economy.
“We no longer think competitiveness is the only thing that matters for an effective market economy with transition qualities,” says Chakrabarti. “You also need better governance and to make economies more green, inclusive, resilient and integrated.”
Euromoney: What are the biggest challenges facing international financial institutions in general and the EBRD in particular?
Sir Suma Chakrabarti: We’ve got a very challenging agenda to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in the Paris climate change agreement by 2030, and the hard truth is that we’re off track as a system. Some serious soul-searching has to go on as to how we’re going to achieve this great agenda, which will change the lives of so many people in the world, without really doing some different things.
One of most fundamental changes that has to take place is a shift away from the old agenda of Millennium Development Goals focused solely on social development, health and education. These issues are very important, but you also need to bring in the economic agenda of infrastructure, energy, etc.
In this context, the traditional model of public-sector grant financing doesn’t work. It’s useful, but what you really need to achieve the new agenda is private finance. That means having institutions which can really leverage in private finance from the markets and help countries grow their private sector.
That has been the EBRD’s raison d’être from the day it was founded – to build the market economy, to improve the investment climate and to help foreign and domestic investors find reasons to invest in our countries.
We have therefore become centre stage in this debate now. Our business model has really worked in the countries we’ve operated in, but we only cover a limited geography. The question is how the rest of the system can learn those lessons and start to drag in more private financing into other regions.
Multilateral development banks (MDBs) are facing competition from bilateral financing under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). How is the EBRD responding to that challenge?
SC We have very clear standards – the highest of all the multilaterals. You can’t process an EBRD project unless you follow the full environmental and social impact analysis and have full public procurement. We don’t do direct deals.
One of the best answers to some of the criticism of the Belt and Road would be to finance projects with MDBs like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The more projects that are done with these multilaterals, the more guarantee all the stakeholders have that they will be done in the right way.
The wider issues around debt sustainability in many of those countries, which sometimes BRI is accused of undermining, is an issue beyond a project level. It’s a question of whether particular public-sector projects are so heavy in debt-servicing costs that they impact the public budgets of those countries.
So there’s a micro critique at project level – are these projects good enough, are they following the right standards? And there’s a macro critique that too much public-sector focus on these projects can impact the debt servicing of those countries.
Both those critiques have good answers. At the project level, the more you do with multilaterals the better, because you can’t escape our standards.
At the macro level as well, countries need to work with the IMF and the World Bank, who look at the macro situation much more than we do and can work out whether a string of projects in the public sector are going to affect the debt servicing levels of a particular country, whether it’s Pakistan or somewhere in the Balkans.
One of the main attractions of bilateral funding is speed. Does the EBRD need to streamline its processes? And is that possible without compromising standards?
SC: The EBRD has a reputation as being the fastest of all the multilaterals. When we co-finance with other MDBs, countries often tell me they wish the other financier could move as quickly as the EBRD. So, although co-finance is a good thing to do, it often holds us up.
Compared with a direct deal with a financier that is not an MDB and doesn’t have to apply those standards, undoubtedly we will be slower. The question countries need to ask themselves is whether the benefits of going faster outweigh the benefits of doing it properly.
It is an increasing issue and not just a BRI issue. We in the west need to own up to this. There are lots of trade missions with prime ministers and presidents from the developed world who go to these countries and offer faster deals that don’t necessarily require public procurement.
I’ve just been in central Asia and heard from policymakers that they get these offers – not just from the Chinese, which we in the west like to focus on, but also from western Europe. We don’t talk about that.
For all stakeholders, the more we can encourage multilateral practices the better, even if the multilaterals aren’t involved. It’s good practice to do environmental and social impact analysis and public procurement, and the benefits outweigh the fact that it will undoubtedly be slower.
We should of course always keep trying to improve our systems internally to see if we can speed up, but without losing sight of the quality.
Do policymakers in the EBRD’s countries of operation (COOs) appreciate the value of using multilateral financing as opposed to quick and dirty alternatives?
SC As well as the individual project, what you get with an MDB, as the government of a transition country, is policy dialogue. What a multilateral can do that bilateral lenders can’t is give you lessons learned across all the countries they’ve worked in.
We give policy advice. We often give technical assistance directly to the enterprises we are working with and to central governments to help improve their capacity and capability. That’s not on offer with a direct deal.
The EBRD is a strong supporter of public private partnerships (PPPs). Should the bank be encouraging developing countries to increase their contingent liabilities?
SC I don’t think it’s the biggest issue around PPPs. The biggest issue is having a decent regulatory regime that really does transfer risk to the private sector so that the contingent liabilities aren’t so big on the public-sector balance sheet.
What I like us to do before we finance any projects is to work with the governments of those countries and with other MDBs such as the World Bank and IFC on creating the right regulatory and legal environment for PPPs to work.
We helped design the PPP law in Kazakhstan. In Jordan and Egypt, before investing in renewables, we worked on the regulatory framework to ensure the projects would succeed.
Of course, we can’t guarantee that if governments change they will stick with the framework that has been adopted, which is what strategic investors who are making a very long-term commitment want to be sure of. That obviously has been more of an issue in some countries than others.
Political change has also led to the dismantling of second-pillar pension funds in central and eastern Europe (CEE), another concept that was strongly supported by the EBRD.
SC I think there’s a general issue we all have to face up to in terms of models of economic development. We and others have believed in the market model, which is increasingly being challenged in many countries, including eastern and western Europe.
That requires us continuously to rethink how to convince governments and the wider population of the benefits of a sustainable, effective market economy.
The market economy wasn’t thinking enough about cohorts of people, so you get skewed development. That has led to populist backlashes against the market economy- Suma Chakrabarti
We have done that by refashioning the concept of what we think is a good market economy. Go back to 1991, and we would have thought it was enough just to have a competitive market economy. All we wanted was for CEE companies to become more competitive and catch up with the west in value chains.
We no longer think that’s the only thing that matters. We believe it’s one of six things needed for an effective market economy with transition qualities. You also need better governance and to make economies more green, inclusive, resilient and integrated.
In particular all of us, including the EBRD, didn’t pay enough attention to issues around inclusion. As a result, many people – women entrepreneurs, for example – got locked out of the market economy and didn’t have access to finance. We’re also increasingly looking at youth unemployment, which is a social, economic and political risk.
The market economy wasn’t thinking enough about cohorts of people, so you get skewed development. That has led to populist backlashes against the market economy, which is why it’s now very integrated into our work and why we have so many projects in this space.
What more can the EBRD do to promote financial inclusion?
SC This is something where we are doing more and more. The Women in Business programme is a good example. It started in Turkey seven years ago. We couldn’t understand why we weren’t getting enough female entrepreneurs coming through the work we were doing.
At the same time, Turkish banks were concerned because they could find good female entrepreneurs but couldn’t lend to them. This was partly because lending practices often mirror cultural norms. You can be a progressive banker in Turkey, but if you only lend with property as collateral, that’s not usually in the woman’s name – so you have to rethink the whole way you lend.
That was how the programme started, and we then adapted it for different countries. We now have 18 women in business programmes, all developed in the last few years.
A second area is lending to SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises]. In many of our countries of operation, one of the hurdles we’ve encountered in trying to develop the private sector is that often local banks don’t build up the capacity to assess SMEs and the quality of their lending.
Equally, many SMEs don’t have the management capability to put together a good project, structure a budget and apply to a bank for finance.
What can the EBRD do to address this issue?
SC We’ve tried to tackle this from both ends. We’ve introduced advisory services in many countries to help SMEs. We show them how to devise and present projects. We improve their corporate governance. Then, on the banking side, we’ve put a lot of technical assistance into local banks to build their capability to assess project ideas.
This is very important work that needs to be continued over the long term. One of the lessons we’ve learned is that you may think you’ve built this capacity, but it can erode quickly as a country develops.
Kazakhstan, for example, used to have good capacity in SME lending in banks, but as they developed rapidly and the oil and gas sector drove economic growth, banks started neglecting SME financing. When the oil price fell and the need to diversify the economy became urgent, the banking system had to regain the capacity to do SME lending.
The lesson for all of us is that building financial inclusion through the banking system is not just the work of a few years.
One of the biggest problems for firms in CEE – especially in the more advanced countries of central Europe – is lack of equity financing. Is there more the EBRD could do here?
SC I absolutely agree it’s a problem and that the EBRD is part of the answer. First, though, we need to ask why equity investors shy away from CEE and why our most advanced region is bottom of the league of global emerging markets in terms of equity.
Unfortunately, it’s partly because of issues that some previous investors have had with corruption and transparency, which have made them very shy.
There are other reasons – for example, venture capitalists tend to prefer markets like India and the US, where they see a closer nexus between the IT sector, universities and R&D.
But what I hear from my team and from potential equity investors in the Gulf, North America and Asia is that they see our advanced region as having lots of opportunity, but they’re put off by bad experiences in the past.
Our equity financing went up again last year, but I would like it to be higher, particularly in our advanced region.
Those countries should be on a curve from debt financing from the EBRD to more equity finance, because now it’s about making companies much more regionally capable and one day even able to invest globally.
That is something we’re very focused on, but finding the right deals and finding equity investors to partner with us is challenging.
Could fintech solutions help to promote the flow of funds into the region?
SC This is an avenue we are exploring that is potentially quite exciting. Some of our shareholders, in particular the Baltic states, are leaders in this area and are very keen for us to join them.
We want to see if there are some bankable new products that would allow us to get into the fintech space. We’ve created an internal working group on this that will report by October, and I hope by end of year we’ll have one or two smaller scale projects financed.
Technology in general will play a major role in our strategy for 2021 to 2025. I think fintech – and technology in the financial sector more generally – will also be important. But at the moment I would say we are in the foothills.
The EBRD has said it can do more in its original countries of operation. In which areas can the bank improve its coverage?
SC Our existing region now covers 38 countries from Morocco to Mongolia, Estonia to Egypt, so we’re not really a regional bank anymore. We’re not global, clearly, but we’re in three continents, which is highly unusual for an MDB.
Our countries are also very heterogeneous, so it’s impossible to give an answer that covers all of them. It is very country-specific and sometimes region-specific as well.
We’ve done an analysis, which we presented in Sarajevo, of the enabling factors in each country, and I’m optimistic that we can to do more in some of them.
Looking just at the numbers, we were down at about €5 billion of annual investment before the financial crisis; this year we’re hoping to get to €10 billion – although we’ve added Turkey and the southeastern Mediterranean (Semed) region since then, which obviously makes a difference.
What’s interesting about this existing region is that it’s not all post-communist. We’ve shown that our business model can work in countries that were always mixed or market economies but were not very effective in harnessing market mechanisms.
Are there commonalities in specific regions?
SC In the advanced transition countries of CEE, increasingly the focus is on capital markets development and green economy transition. It’s still one of the most energy-intensive regions in the world, so there’s a lot to do to reduce the energy intensity of production processes and consumption.
In central Asia, these are more classical developing countries. Some are oil and gas producers, some are importers. For the producers – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan – diversification is the biggest issue, so our focus completely in these countries now is how to diversify their economies.
For the energy importers, it’s more about making the financial sector work well, and investing in infrastructure and energy projects to try to really move the economy.
In Semed, there’s a wide range of different challenges. Egypt is our largest market there, where the main task is to help the government shift the economy from a heavy public-sector focus towards the private sector. I’m proud that our private-sector lending ratio there is over 60%.
It’s nice to think that maybe for the first time a decision on geographical expansion will be based on a piece of work that will show whether or not the EBRD will relevant, and that’s what we’ve embarked on- Suma Chakrabarti
There is still more to do, though, and the renewable energy PPP projects we have been investing in – including the largest solar park in Africa – are a very important part of that shift.
Then there are places like Greece, where there is a short-term job to be done to help the recovery through to the end of 2025, while in the western Balkans a lot of our work is linked to the prospect of these countries joining the European Union at some stage.
At the annual meeting in Sarajevo, we outlined how the EBRD can help each of the countries in the region make the reforms they need and do the investment – much of which is cross-border investment in infrastructure, energy, etc – to make them ready for accession to the EU.
Of course, there are risks in all our countries. In Turkey, the economy slowed down enormously last year and as a result our annual investment, which was €1.9 billion in 2016, dropped to just over €1 billion.
The Turkish government urgently needs to implement the structural reforms laid out in the new economic programme published last autumn. They are starting to do that, which should help recovery in the medium term.
So there are opportunities but challenges as well in our existing region, but we are very keen to do more where the transition analysis shows that we can.
The EU imposed sanctions on Turkey in July over its decision to drill for gas near Cyprus. Are you concerned that these could be extended to include limitations on the EBRD’s activities?
SC Obviously we look at the political situation with our shareholders – but if you look at EBRD investments in Turkey, 97% of our portfolio is in the private sector. That’s one of the highest ratios we have.
The issue for us at the moment in Turkey is managing our portfolio during the economic slowdown. So far we’ve done pretty well, but we have to be very vigilant going forward. We need to continue to be prompt in our dialogue with the Turkish government about the need for further structural reforms.
The EBRD was banned from new investment in Russia in 2014. Is the bank particularly vulnerable to political headwinds?
SC In the case of Russia, the boards of all the MDBs operating there were asked to consider not making fresh loans to the country. The EBRD was the biggest investor in Russia of the multilaterals because of our remit at the time, so it affected us much more than others.
What we have shown, I think, is an enormous capacity for rising to the challenge and finding new opportunities in other countries. Our portfolio in central Asia has grown enormously in the five years since the decisions on Russia.
Every MDB management has to be vigilant about geopolitics and how that might impinge on their work, but I think we have shown we are adept at managing these processes.
Russia remains an important shareholder of this bank. We still have a very large office in Moscow, which is doing a lot of work in Russia on our portfolio of existing projects there, as well as creating new projects in central Asia and the Caucasus.
You’ve supported the further expansion of the EBRD’s countries of operation. Why do you think that’s needed?
SC What I’ve said is we support the expansion that has taken place so far. That in itself has been an astonishing phenomenon, because it has proved that the business model of the EBRD is not just relevant in the post-communist setting.
We started in post-communist countries, but after Turkey became a COO, then north Africa, the Middle East, and now Greece and Cyprus, you can’t say that EBRD is just a post-communist organization.
That’s a big thing in development because the conventional wisdom holds that MDBs should focus on hermetically sealed regions, which are quite similar. We’re saying: ‘No, the world has changed and it’s the business model that matters’.
Obviously you need country knowledge, and we have big country teams – much bigger than any other multilateral on the ground – but you also need deep sector knowledge that is transferable. I honestly don’t think the academic world or the media have really caught up with this fundamental shift.
This has led to the question of whether the EBRD’s business model could work in other geographies, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
I don’t think this should happen just because we have sufficient capital, or because some European leaders are worried about migration. As a development person, I start by asking whether there is there a development challenge in SSA which EBRD’s business model could be relevant to.
So you would support expansion into SSA?
SC My support is for the study of this question. The EBRD’s previous expansions have all been because of a political moment. The Arab Spring drove us into Semed. The eurozone crisis pushed us into Greece and Cyprus.
It’s nice to think that maybe for the first time a decision on geographical expansion will be based on a piece of work that will show whether or not the EBRD will relevant, and that’s what we’ve embarked on.
I suggested the study, but I won’t know the answer until the work is done – and I think that’s the right thing to do. What I don’t like is people saying the work shouldn’t be done because they don’t want the answer. I think that’s very odd in public policymaking.
So we’ll see at the end of year whether there’s a case. Again, it’s very important to remember that in SSA, just as in our current region, there’s a heterogeneity of types of economy. There are conflict states, large states and intermediate states that are increasingly accessing the markets themselves.
We have to think about where the EBRD model would be most relevant and where it might need reshaping. But we have experience because our existing region is so heterogeneous, so there are lessons we can draw from that.
Crucially, of course, the decision on whether to invest in sub-Saharan Africa is one that will be taken by our shareholders and not by the EBRD management.
Is there a role for European development banks in Africa as part of addressing European issues?
SC There is a wise persons group looking at European development architecture. I’ve given evidence to that group and they very much liked the EBRD business model. They recognize that the EBRD does some things that no other MDB does, particularly in combining private-sector development and policy work.
The question then is whether there is a particular European agenda in development for Africa that is different from that of other countries, and that’s something that is argued over. Obviously Africa is very close to Europe compared to the US or China, but the US and China – which don’t have the migration issue that Europe faces – are also very interested in the development of Africa.
I think the EBRD in its existing region – in the western Balkans, Ukraine, Georgia and, of course, in North Africa – has done a very good job in taking forward the European policy agenda. We’ve also done well with the refugee situation, in terms of dealing with Syrian refugees in southeast Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
The EU will have a majority in our shareholding structure even after Brexit, if it happens, and we have managed to deliver European policy objectives while having a global shareholding. I think that’s of great benefit, so that’s the pitch I’ve made to the wise person’s group – and I think it has landed.
The EBRD is neither an EU institution nor a global institution. Is that a strength or a weakness?
SC I think it’s a great strength that we have a global shareholding. We are one of only two multilaterals in the world that are growing, along with the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.
When I joined, we had 60 shareholders. With the addition of Libya in July, we now have 71. India and China joined during my time, so a huge proportion of the G20 are now members.
I see this as a great benefit to Europe. The EBRD has been described as ‘the soft Nato.’ Just as Nato is for the defence of Europe, but the US plays a major part in it, similarly the EBRD is taking forward European development objectives, but with the US and others heavily involved. That’s something to celebrate.
Should the EBRD have more senior management from its COOs?
SC I’m a strong believer that we should have two major movements in our composition of senior staff. One is more COOs in these positions, the other is more women. If you look at my track record in the UK civil service, when I left the department for international development the majority of the board was women.
It’s been much harder at the EBRD to deliver that, partly because of the industry we work in. We hire a lot from the banking industry, which is frankly not very diverse. The banking sectors of western Europe are terribly male dominated.
So we’ve had to work much harder to try and attract very good women from that sector into the organization – but we are succeeding. So our gender numbers have also been moving in the right direction. A quarter of our executive committee is now female, but that should rise further in the next year or so.
The same is true for COOs. Of our senior management cadre – directors, managing directors and above – 22% are now from our region. That is much higher than when I arrived in 2012.
Have we gone far enough? No, on both counts. We are running three executive committee competitions right now, and I really hope both women and COOs do very well in those.
This will be a long-term issue for my successors to think about. To progress in this area you need to do more than just improving processes and reaching out. The leadership of the organization, not just the president, have to care about the issue fundamentally.
We now have a set of leaders at the EBRD who do, which is why we have made the progress we have. But there is a long way to go.
Your term at the EBRD comes to an end next year. What would you like your legacy to be?
SC I arrived in 2012 with a number of ambitions. The decision on Semed had been taken, and we had to show we could deliver this and do it really well. We have done that. Which other multilateral institution would have delivered a €9 billion portfolio in less than seven years? That’s an enormous ramping up.
When I arrived there was nothing in Egypt. My first meeting with our Egyptian team in late 2012 in Cairo was in a coffee bar – and there were four of us. Now we have 100 on the ground. What we’ve done there is wonderful and I’m really proud of it.
We’ve added Lebanon and the West Bank and Gaza since then. Now Libya and hopefully Algeria are joining as shareholders.
I’m also proud that we have really begun to make this a proper development bank for the private sector. We’re not trying to be the World Bank or the IFC but something in between. We do private-sector lending, but we are more focused on sectors and themes that the EBRD pre-2012 was not.
We’ve shown that gender, inclusion and refugees are all bankable. On the green economy, for the private sector in particular, we are the number one multilateral bank. We achieved our 40% target in 2017 and we’re going to more than hit it again this year.
We have shown that we can tackle issues that other development banks wanted to tackle and that we can do it within our own business model, which is different from others in its private-sector focus.
I also wanted to modernize the way the bank is run. The constraints of the multilateral system make it much harder to manage change than in a government department. Nevertheless, we have tried to modernize all our processes and make the bank feel more like a 21st century organization.
It would be terrible though to describe any president’s term as some sort of turning point. These things are continual processes. My predecessor did a great job in getting us into Semed, his predecessor brought in Turkey.
In each president’s term there have been big changes, and my successor will no doubt take this further and have their own agenda.
So there’s a lot to do – and I’m not quite gone yet. I’m looking forward to my last year at the bank and hopefully will be approving a new strategy for 2021 to 2025 at my final annual meeting in London next year.