Catch Me If You Can: Trade Mis-invoicing and Capital Flight in Ethiopia



Ethiopian Economics Association (EEA)
Adugna Lemi


With increased globalization comes increased opportunities to manipulate export and import invoices (trade mis-invoicing) as a vehicle to move capital unrecorded (and illegally) out of a country. Trade mis-invoicing, which is seemingly negligible in other parts of the world, is significant for developing countries in general and African countries in particular. This paper presents the extent of trade mis-invoicing and the resulting capital flight for the case of Ethiopia. Using commodity-group level trade flow data between Ethiopia and its trading partners, as well as disaggregated CIF-FOB ratios, this paper sheds light on commodity groups and trading partners that had significant impacts on trade mis-invoicing. Results show that previous studies reported underestimated trade mis-invoicing and capital flight figures from Ethiopia. I argue that underestimation was due to the exclusion of major trading partners (like China and India) and the use of fixed CIF-FOB ratios that don’t reflect variations across commodity groups and trading partners. Results also show, for trade with only advanced countries, trade mis-invoicing has cost Ethiopia $6-35 billion between 2008 and 2016; for trade with emerging economies (including China and India), Ethiopia has lost $15 -78 billion to trade mis-invoicing during the same period. If we just take the sum of the lowest estimates of trade mis-invoicing, Ethiopia had lost over $20 billion due to trade mis-invoicing with all its trading partners during the study period. A handful of commodity groups (vegetables, machinery, and transport equipment) has contributed to trade mis-invoicing in a significant way. The study also shows that India, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Finland, New Zealand, China (Hong Kong), Ireland, Australia, the US, Japan, and the Czech Republic tops the list of Ethiopia’s trading partners with the highest share of trade mis-invoicing in total trade.