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The views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk.
The market for sustainable credit in emerging markets is exploding. What's driving that growth? What are the challenges and opportunities? Veteran fixed income credit analyst Sam Epee-Bounya joins host Thomas Mucha to explore the rapidly changing environment for ESG and sustainable finance in Latin America and Africa.
1:45 – Sustainable finance growth drivers
4:20 – ESG differences with EM investing
6:55 – Examples of real-world improvements
9:50 – How Sam’s African background influences his research
11:50 – Sam’s collaborative approach to engagement
14:35 – EM challenges and opportunities ahead
18:20 – Why changes will be incremental
21:10 – Navigating geopolitical and macro risks
29:20 – Reading recommendations and personal observations
THOMAS MUCHA: What are the other factors that are in play here that make investing in EMs different?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: It’s a tricky question, because personally, I, I, I don’t think there’s that much difference, right? Maybe the emphasis on [00:06:00]particular factors is more pronounced in EM. But the reality is, um,, we’re all trying to have a better assessment, and more complete assessment, of risk. Um, aAnd this is why, you know, wearing a sustainable lens and analyzing opportunity is important.
THOMAS MUCHA: Today’s topic is sustainable finance in emerging markets. 2022 has obviously seen its challenges, from a war in Ukraine that’s roiling commodity and other markets, to deepening geopolitical strains between the US, China, and other countries around the world, including of course, many EMs. Then of course, we’ve seen inflation, shifts in global monetary policy, a deeply uncertain global macro backdrop, and a series of climate-related disasters around the world. So, in this increasingly complex backdrop, what are the risks and rewards of sustainable finance? I’m joined today by my friend and colleague, Sam Epee-Bounya, a fixed income credit analyst here at Wellington who specializes in Africa and Latin America in particular. Sam, welcome to WellSaid.
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Thank you Thomas, really happy to be here.
THOMAS MUCHA: Glad you’re here. So, let’s start with this intersection between emerging markets and sustainable finance. So, the market for this in EMs is exploding. What do you think is driving this growth? Is this investor demand? Is it shifts in the regulatory backdrop? Is it appreciation of the risks of climate change? I mean, what’s behind this?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: I would say all of the above. The reality is EM is, in my view, disproportionately impacted by climate change. I grew up in west Africa, in a country called Côte d'Ivoire, or Ivory Coast. And when you talk to my parents, in their generation alone, they’ve seen sort of the negative impact from climate risk, right? There’s places where they used to fish that no longer exist, populations have been displaced, and today, for example, you see flooding in Pakistan, extreme drought in parts of Africa with, again, worry about famine in Ethiopia, for example. I think addressing climate adaptation, making sure that economic prosperity is prevalent is important, right? And I think this is why wearing a sustainable lens as an investor to ensure we can allocate capital to places that need it most is not only the right thing to do, but I think it’s also a great investment opportunity.
THOMAS MUCHA: So, a lot of factors driving this growth, as you point out, happening all over the world. Where is all the green capital going? I mean what are the types of projects that are being funded?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: That’s a very good question. I think what we’ve witnessed so far is that a lot of capital is actually going to, not surprisingly, renewable energy. I would also say climate adaptation, you see some capital going to transition as well. Let’s say, for example, you are a Chilean utility, most of your energy was coming from thermal, typically coal. And what they’re trying to do now is to invest in more renewable. And essentially transitioning the country’s energy matrix towards a greener energy source.
THOMAS MUCHA: So, as you say, climate change is front and center in a lot of these countries. The investment dollars are flowing in those directions. I’m curious though, from your credit-analysis perspective, with the sustainable focus that you have, how does this differ from developed markets? I mean, what are the other factors that are in play here that make investing in EMs different?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: It’s tricky question because personally, I don’t think there’s that much difference. We’re all trying to have a better assessment, a more complete assessment, of risk. And this is why wearing a sustainable lens in analyzing opportunity is important. I always worry about the downside and having a clear sense of all the risk involved in a certain opportunity allows you to better price it. And so, from that perspective, I don’t think it’s that different. Now, if you ask me if there is additional risk in EM, of course. Political risk, and you mentioned climate as well, I mean this is not just EM, but I would say in EM, a bit more pronounced.
THOMAS MUCHA: So that sustainable lens gives you a clearer way to assess risks and opportunities?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: I would say clearer and more complete.
THOMAS MUCHA: More quantitative?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: As well. To be honest with you, I don’t think it’s that different from how we’ve been analyzing companies in EM for a long time. Governance was always part of the picture, assessing environmental risk, and as you know Thomas, that a lot of those countries and companies are involved in primary economic activity, i.e., mining, oil and gas. And I would say the social, in my view, has always been part of the equation, because if you’re a miner, let’s say in Chile, you need the social license from the communities to be able to operate. Now, I have to confess that 10 years ago, a lot of the companies didn’t quite understand that. I kept telling them, when I visited companies in Bogota, in Colombia, or in Santiago, in Chile, or Lima, in Peru, what struck me was the inequality that you see, right? So, you have a rich company operating and you see the surroundings, and you’re like okay, guys, you can do a better job. And their view was, it’s not our responsibility. It’s the responsibility of the government. And I always had a different view. I felt like you need to be more responsible as an economic operator in the region, investing a couple million dollars in a school so that your staff can send their children to a school nearby, to me it’s good investment as well.
THOMAS MUCHA: Well, given this increased focus on ESG, and it’s a global phenomenon, obviously, are there any examples where you feel like companies have gotten the message on this?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: I would say things have improved, the last three or four years, especially in Lat. Am. and Africa. I have to say, half of the companies I was talking to, five years ago, when you bring those topics, they would just be literally clueless. Now I think there’s a better appreciation of the importance of those factors for a couple of reasons. One is that investors care. And two, they realized that if they don’t improve their standards along those dimensions, not only will they run the risk of having capital move away from them, but, too, is that their own operation could be at risk. I can give you one well-known and publicized example, which is that of Vale, which is a leading iron ore producer in Brazil, one of the largest in the world. And in the last seven years, they had two major incidents. In 2015, Samarco, which is a major disaster that led to the death of 19 people. And then more tragically was in 2019, it was the Brumadinho, essentially a dam failing, that resulted in the death of close to 300 people, including 270 staff of Vale. And when you analyze kind of what went wrong, I think the company was exclusively focusing on production, cashflow, and in my view, less emphasis on safety and kind of the social and environmental standards. And that has changed, right? Unfortunately, it cost a lot of lives, and almost US$16 billion — a huge number in terms of impact. And of course, the company’s market cap suffered because of that. What I can tell you now is that they’ve made some efforts, right? So, they’re improving their board governance, the management team. But more importantly is that the regulation in Brazil has changed as well. Compelling companies to basically decommission this type of upstream tailings that are the ones that have been failing. It’s not just Vale, but all the miners that have upstream tailings have to decommission those. But I think finally some of those miners understand the importance of environmental and social standards in their operation. And then management now are incentivized to adhere to more stricter sort of rules.
THOMAS MUCHA: Sam, I want to dig a little bit deeper into your background, your research process, how you got to where you are today. You mentioned earlier that you come from west Africa. You’ve seen firsthand some of the impacts of these changes. So, first of all, how does that experience, that personal experience, inform the way that you look at this industry, or this development? And then how does that translate into your research process?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Growing up in Ivory Coast, which is a beautiful country, and I was blessed to grow up in a wonderful family and very privileged. But, inequality is there, and I was always interested in understanding how capital could help improve a company’s prospect. Because my view was, anything you want to achieve, you need capital. Better health care, you need money to make this happen. Better infrastructure, you need money. And how do you better allocate and make sure that that money is used in an efficient way, but also that you’re providing incentive for people to come. Because when you think about the Ivory Coast versus a neighboring country, we were attracting more investment than Burkina Faso, for example, in the north, even Mali. And that ties to the other point I made earlier about climate. Already those countries that are drier were seeing less capital. And that exacerbated the issue, because people have less opportunity, and they actually migrated towards Côte d'Ivoire. And so, I was always thinking about orienting my career a place where I could be part of a solution, right? To allocate capital to places that need it the most. So, I’ve been blessed, the last 20 years I’ve been involved in EM, and part of investment and allocating capital to those countries and those companies.
THOMAS MUCHA: So, you’re seeing fruits of that labor?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: It took a long time. I had a winding path towards investment management.
THOMAS MUCHA: A lot of us have, Sam.
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Exactly, I know.
THOMAS MUCHA: So, Sam, in your research process, what teams do you talk to, who do you collaborate with? How does the Wellington research ecosystem inform your views on sustainability, on ESG, on geopolitics?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Having had the privilege to work in different places, I can compare and contrast, and by far, Wellington has been the best in terms of collaboration. And I can tell you that in my humble view, it’s our secret sauce, and I always tap into it. I would say honestly I collaborate a lot with the ESG team, the global industry analysts, and of course our equity colleagues. So, maybe I’ll give you one example to illustrate this. I would say a few weeks back we met the chairman of the board of a large mining company, and around the table, on the Wellington side, was the ESG analyst, an equity portfolio manager, a global industry analyst and me, as a credit analyst. And why that’s important? One is because we hold the company accountable. So, I’ve been in many meetings where the company can tailor their message depending on the audience. So, when they talk to the equity colleagues, they’ll talk about growth and dividend payments. And when they talk to me, they’ll be like no, it’s all about balance sheet management and being prudent. And when they talk to the ESG analysts, they emphasize their very careful management of their mining operation and the health and safety standard that they’ve improved. But when you have everyone on the table, they have to be, I would say more truthful, in my view, because then they can’t tailor their message to one particular audience.
THOMAS MUCHA: You’ve surrounded them with knowledge.
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Not only with knowledge, but also very good questions, and we all learn from each other. But, I would say where the power of Wellington resides it’s through that collaboration. And I would say the companies themselves respect us for that. Just in the case of that mining company, after the chat and after being grilled by us, because we wanted to ensure that at least on the governance side they were making progress, they actually asked us for input, in terms of what should they consider, in terms of criteria for their board. And we put them in touch with folks internally that spend a lot of time on governance and board composition. So, to me it highlights this collaboration, but the fact that we can, in all modesty, positively influence companies in the right way, through that collaboration.
THOMAS MUCHA: So, I want to get back to the markets that are the key area of your focus. So, you’ve been covering issuers in Latin America and Africa for a long time, as you’ve just said. How do you think those markets have changed over that period, and what do you expect the next 20 years are likely to bring in terms of sustainability and development?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Very good question. I’m involved in the fixed income market, and specifically emerging market debt. And if you look at Lat. Am. and Africa, they represent about a third of the asset class. So, I continue to see growth in those places. But there’s challenges ahead. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of those economies are still focused on primary activities, and that worries me. So, a lot of mining, a lot of oil and gas. The last 10, 15 years, what has been a good sign is that there’s been more emphasis on technology, right? So, you’ve seen the emergence of solid telecom operators. You have cell tower companies. You have fiber optics companies. So, I think slowly but surely, you have companies that are, in my view, getting into the 21st century. So, I see this slow progress toward a service-oriented world. But we have to be honest. Even the new world will require some copper, some special metals, some oil. We have to be realistic that even that transition is going to require some oil. And I think Lat. Am. and Africa will still be involved in providing those services and products to the world.
THOMAS MUCHA: There’s a lot of dirty activity on the way to a cleaner future, given how we get there.
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Absolutely. But one important point I want to make is that those companies realize they have to do it a cleaner way. So, believe it or not, even the fossil fuel guys are saying, you know what, we have to do it a less carbon-intensive way. If that means having more renewable in our own processes, we’ll do so. If there’s ways to capture some of the carbon that we emitting, we’re willing to make the investment. So, I feel like a transition to a greener world in EM is possible. But it will require investment. I give the example of Chile, right? So, Chile is a country in South America that, in my view, is the most committed to the Paris Accord, right? So, the government has signed this accord, and the main takeaway was this carbon neutrality by 2050. Now, a lot of countries have stated similar goals, but in EM, Chile is one of the rare countries that actually is working really hard toward making it happen. So, they’re forcing the utility companies to essentially transition away from coal, and they gave them until 2025. I think it’s pretty aggressive. And they may not get there, but there’s pressure to do so. But more importantly, even the customers of those companies are being forced to procure their energy via renewable, right? If you’re a miner in Chile, the government is saying, okay, your energy that you’re procuring has to be clean. So, they’re making sure it’s not just a utility, but the customers also get their energy from renewable sources. So, I think it’s a great sign and shows that EM can actually transform itself.
THOMAS MUCHA: So, Sam, one of the themes that I’m picking up from this conversation is around change. You’ve mentioned policy change, regulatory change, technological change, attitudinal changes. So, as you’re looking forward here, do you think these changes are likely to be incremental? Or do you think we’re going to get wholesale transformations?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Tough question. I honestly think it’s got to be incremental. First of all, we have to understand that those countries are facing a lot of issues as we speak. Inflation, you know, it’s a global phenomenon. But in EM it's definitely impacting the lower segment. They are operating in countries where there’s a high level of dissatisfaction with the political establishment. And they are concerned that any abrupt change may disproportionately impact the lower segment of the economy. And because of that, they are worried about big changes.
THOMAS MUCHA: From a domestic political perspective, you mean? Social stability perspective?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Even just on the economic front. So, for example, if you pick a place like South Africa, yes, there’s a lot of pressure for the country to become greener. But as you know, a lot of the source of energy in South Africa is coming from coal, and it’s really challenging for them to overnight change that reality. So, my view is that we have to be flexible. We want to spend more time with those countries and those companies, and say okay, is there a transition, is there a path that we can be partners with those companies and those countries to make them get there, right, without too much disruption? Another example, in Mexico, is around oil and gas, right? Mexico produces close to two million barrels per day. Half of it is in crude. But the rest is not enough to satisfy the local economy. So, their view is, going away from fossil fuel is not necessarily workable. And they also have a large segment of the working population, involving the supply chain. So, when you have disruption, people are worried. Like what do I do with those folks? Where it’s not clear that you have the technology, and the companies to absorb the recently displaced workers. The US unemployment is what, five percent or less, right? In those countries, double that, and among the youth, sometimes 20, 25 percent. So, the equation is harder to solve, in EM.
THOMAS MUCHA: So, disruption of society is a key point here. This leads me to my favorite topic, the geopolitical and macro environments. I think a lot of what’s happening in the geopolitical backdrop, the macro backdrop today is intersecting with sustainability and these ESG issues that we’re talking about. Russia’s war in Ukraine, of course, is leading to energy disruptions, food shortages, inflationary impacts. Particularly among low-income populations, as you point out. So, what are you paying attention to most right now on the macro side of things?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: No, excellent question. As EM investors, we worry a lot about political risk. And I’m not sure the West is fully aware of the new world that we’re in. I would say the Russia influence in Africa has been surprising to me. And you know, in my humble view, has been destabilizing in some regards. So, when you think about a country like Mali that went from the French troops that were basically approved by the UN, to now, an unofficial security service from Russia as the guarantor of your security. It’s problematic, especially because a lot of observers on the ground will tell you that the way they’re compensated, I mean these Russian security service that Mali has contracted, is through in-kind mining rights. So that’s problematic. Because what one day used to be yours may not be. And I think that’s the risk in general with those type of arrangements because there’s an opacity to them which makes investment more challenging, in my view.
THOMAS MUCHA: Hard to price that.
SAM: Exactly. Exactly. And to me, that highlights a global war effort. I don’t think it’s apparent to Western observers that Russia has been basically laying out its support across the world for a moment like this. Because I was surprised to see, for example, after the Ukraine invasion, that the reaction in Africa was muted. Because I expected as former countries that were colonized, I think in general don’t necessarily see another big power invading a smaller country as positive. But I think Russia has been essentially extending their propaganda beyond the West, in corners of the world that a lot of people were not paying attention. Why does that matter? I think it matters because if you are trying to invest in those countries, you have to realize that now more than ever, geopolitical risk has increased. Because you don’t have the stability and the predictability of one actor like France or the US or the UK providing some form of backstop. Now you have actually tension between superpowers, and actually that destabilizes those countries. So, you have Russia versus the West, versus the US, but also China versus the West and US.
THOMAS MUCHA: Well, you beat me to my question, which is, obviously you and I talk a lot about great-power competition.
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: That’s right.
THOMAS MUCHA: It’s a global phenomenon, it’s not only Russia, as you say. China is making inroads in both of your areas, right? In Latin America and Africa. So, I’m curious, how does this shifting geopolitical landscape, this great-power competition that’s deepening frankly, how does that play into your analysis?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: First of all, you need to be compensated for those risks. There are places in Africa that we tend to avoid, because we think that the political risk, the security risk is too high. If you ask my colleague Matt Hildebrandt that covers Nigeria on the sovereign, he’s worried that if the security issues in Nigeria are not dealt with very seriously, Nigeria could become a failed state. The northeast of the country is no man’s land. The jihadists, including Boko Haram, is there. I would say three quarters of the GDP of the country is generated outside of those regions, so it’s still doable to invest in Nigeria and make good returns. But is it sustainable?
THOMAS MUCHA: That’s interesting, you point to political stability as a necessary factor in long-term investment. I’m not sure it’s as well appreciated among the broader Wall Street community about how important political stability has been over the past let’s say, 30, 40 years, when globalization was on the rise. We have a very different geopolitical backdrop now, right? We’ve got this increasing competition. We’ve got more political instability. You throw COVID on top of that. You throw the Russia war on top of this. You have all of these ripples. How do you think this geopolitical competition will play out in these areas? Do you think it’ll be further destabilizing? Or will a more active China, a more active Russia, provide some of the capital that you talked about earlier to be more stabilizing in these places?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Unfortunately, I think it will be more destabilizing, at least in the short run. Because when China and Russia and other regional or global powers are trying to establish the influence in a place, they want to displace the current protector, if you want. And in that process, you have a lot of destabilizing trends happening. And now that Russia wants to have a bit more influence in Latin America, sometimes via Cuba and Venezuela, you could see how that has destabilized, a bit, Colombia. And of course, you know, when you mention COVID, the economic malaise of the last few years, honestly Thomas, when you go around EM, especially in Lat. AM. and Africa, I feel like it’s a time bomb. I mean, you see that even in developed countries like the US. You feel like there’s a brewing anger because inequality is increasing, social mobility is decreasing. Chile used to be kind of the model Lat. Am. EM country, it was one of the rare single-A countries, admittedly A-minus, so not, not A-plus, but still, in the A category. And now, Chile’s looking more and more like the rest of Lat. Am. You had severe social unrest that led to a new government. The government tried to pass a constitutional change that failed. But to me it illustrates the fact that there’s almost a social fracture in a lot of those countries. And that makes investing more complicated. In Chile, for example, and Peru as well, you’ve seen the attention of, license to mine becoming more contentious, more challenging, because those communities felt like they haven’t had a fair share of the spoils. They used to protest like, I would say, in a civil manner, if you want. Now it’s becoming more violent. So, if you have mining investment, you have to be conscious of those risks, right? Before it was whether the government would expropriate your asset. Now it’s simply whether you can operate the mine. Because workers will occupy it, and sometimes they’re armed.
THOMAS MUCHA: Yeah, it’s pretty clear that a destabilized society adds another layer of complexity to these geopolitical challenges. And they sort of feed on each other.
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: That’s right.
THOMAS MUCHA: So Sam, let me end here with a couple questions about what you’re reading, how you research, how you keep abreast of all of these changes. Do you have a book that’s influenced you, or could help this audience better understand some of these nuances that we’ve been discussing?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: To be honest with you, no book I can recommend, but one thing I love doing is reading The Economist. And what I like about The Economist is that they tend to be, I wouldn’t say neutral, but they will give you both sides of the arguments, right? So, it’s not as editorialized as other publications. And honestly, if you’re investing in Africa and Lat. Am., it's one of the few publications that will actually cover those and provide you with good analysis. And because it’s a weekly, I feel like I can stay on top of this. That’s the one I would highlight.
THOMAS MUCHA: They also have the best artwork every week. I always look forward to how they depict what’s happening in the world. All right, last question, Sam. You mentioned you had a circuitous route to what you’re doing. If you weren’t doing what you’re doing today, fixed income analyst at Wellington, what career would you like to have?
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Obviously, I’d love to be a very successful soccer player.
THOMAS MUCHA: Obviously.
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Coming from the Ivory Coast and having one of our own being a superstar at Chelsea Football Club in England, we always dreamed we could have repeated what Didier Drogba did.
THOMAS MUCHA: Dream big Sam, dream big.
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Yes! No, that would have been my biggest dream, but the reality is probably a career in venture capital, focused on EM. But to be honest with you, I feel like I’m as close as that being at Wellington. So, I’m really happy and feel extremely blessed.
THOMAS MUCHA: Well, the way the world is going Sam, there’s going to be plenty of opportunity to deploy capital in ways to make life better for a lot of people, so we’re glad you’re with us, thanks for being here once again, Sam Epee-Bounya, fixed income analyst at Wellington.
SAM EPEE-BOUNYA: Thank you for having me.
Views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk. Podcast produced October 2022.
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