Last March, Franklin Templeton Investments, a U.S.-based firm listed on the New York Stock Exchange, bought more than $2 billion worth of bonds issued by the government of Ghana. It was a sweet deal for Templeton, which offers a range of services for “high net worth individuals” and has a long history of investing in heavily indebted, politically volatile countries that are desperate for cash. A good chunk of the bonds Templeton bought carried an interest rate of 19 percent, which means it should pull in about $400 million a year in interest.
This does not look to be a very sweet deal for Ghana, whose long-suffering citizens are already saddled with enormous debt and widespread poverty. “Around 30% of government revenue is now being spent on external debt payments each year,” according to this account by the Jubilee Debt Campaign. “Such huge payments are only possible because more money is being lent by institutions such as the IMF to pay private lenders, as happened in Greece after 2010.” Meanwhile, social programs have been slashed for years to free up funds to pay off foreign lenders.
The bond sale was run in an unusual fashion, which has led to several investigations in Ghana. It was handled by the finance ministry, which announced the bond sale guidelines on March 30. The bond issue was completed the very next day, and Templeton purchased 95 percent of the high-yielding bonds.
This led to suspicion on the part of opposition figures that Templeton had an inside track on the deal. Speculations were heightened when it emerged that Finance Minister Ken Ofori Atta (who in the past had worked for Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley) and his wife were directors of a company called Enterprise Group Ghana (EGG).
Trevor Trefgarne, a Templeton non-executive director, was until recently EGG’s chairman. EGG is partly owned by Bermuda-based Databank Financial Holdings Ltd, which the finance minister co-founded and where he reportedly remains as a shareholder. Databank has made significant administrative fees on other bond deals.
Ofori Atta has denied all allegations of impropriety. A parliamentary commission issued a report last December that said normal procedures were not followed, but didn’t accuse the minister of wrongdoing. However, a statement issued by the commission minority said the “bond issuance did not follow due process and seemed hurried to accommodate special interests,” and called for the minister’s resignation.
Wrongdoing or not, the bond deal sets up a huge transfer of wealth from Ghana to a mega U.S. investment firm. The IMF and World Bank will no doubt be thrilled, but the country’s citizens are going to get pummeled.
I’ve asked Templeton and Ghana’s finance ministry for comment. If I hear back from them I’ll update this story.