(Repeats INTERVIEW with no changes to headline or text)
By Daniel Bases and Rodrigo Campos
NEW YORK, April 24 (Reuters) - Ghana is seeking to issue up to $2.5 billion worth of Eurobonds in the coming weeks with a coupon in the 7 percent range, a rate well below previous sales, the West African nation’s finance minister told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.
The debt offering, for a country that still struggles with a debt burden that last year was equivalent to roughly 69 percent of its overall economic growth, coincides with government plans to leave a $918 million credit program with the International Monetary Fund by year-end.
“Boy, I would love to have 7 or under 7 (percent). But that’s me. It is what the market says,” Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta said. “I mean if you look at our yields now, it has really tightened from where we were.”
Asked why an investor would put money to work by purchasing bonds of a highly leveraged nation that is exiting the IMF program with still high inflation, Ofori-Atta said: “Why wouldn’t you want to give us money. You are looking for yield? I’m giving you yield.”
“I think we will go long, as much as we can ... So this time we would look to see whether we could do 20 or 30 years, but that is all based on advice,” Ofori-Atta said.
Citibank, JPMorgan, Bank of America and Standard Chartered are leading the offering, he said.
The majority of the debt offering, however, will be focused on retiring higher yielding debt, perhaps as much as $1.5 billion to $1.75 billion, he said.
“I think we are likely going to go for $750 million of new money, and if conditions are good, swap out an amount of about $1.5 billion to $1.75 billion,” Ofori-Atta said.
Ghana’s most recent Eurobond, a senior unsecured bond maturing in 2022, sold at par in September 2016 carrying a 9.25 percent coupon. However, it last traded with a yield of 4.725 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.. Ghana’s credit is rated junk by the major credit rating agencies.
“We had sort of derailed from the IMF program by the time we got into government,” Ofori-Atta said.
However, Ofori-Atta highlighted improving economic data. For example, inflation was at 15.4 percent when the new government of President Nana Akufo-Addo took over in January 2017. Last month, annual consumer price inflation was 10.4 percent.
Ofori-Atta said Ghana was also interested in diversifying its borrowings away from U.S. dollars, potentially looking at issuing in yen at some point after the economy strengthens.
Ofori-Atta said one of the main challenges is to build a better tax collection system.
“The people are not paying their taxes and I’m not collecting enough money,” he said, citing a 16.5 percent revenue-to-gross domestic product whereas peer nations “are north of 20 percent.”
In Ghana, with a population of more than 28 million, personal income taxes are being paid by about 1.5 million people while 6 million are operating in the informal economy, he said. The Value Added Tax “penetration rate is about 11 percent.”
“That is where we are going to have to focus on this year,” he said.
In addition to getting the economy back on track, Ofori-Atta said Ghana wants to make a statement embarking on a transformational economic development project, similar to the 1965 completion of the Akosombo Dam, which harnessed the hydroelectric power of the Volta River Basin.
“What we have suggested is can we create a logistical airport center, almost Dubai-like that would service the region?” of over 350 million people.
The preliminary cost for such a project would be above $3 billion and on a scale to service 20 million travelers annually.
“I would expect by end-year 2019 we should be cutting sod,” Ofori-Atta said when asked when the project might start. (Reporting By Daniel Bases and Rodrigo Campos; editing by Grant McCool)