This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on July 9, 2017
The interest rate cap has led to several consequences, some of which have been elucidated in this column. The most concerning are the effects is has had on monetary policy and access to credit for the private sector. However new medium to long-term effects are beginning to emerge.
The first is that, private sector, particularly SMEs are getting used to functioning without the credit lines on which they used to depend. Data from the CBK indicates that credit to the private sector expanded at 3.3 percent in the year to March 2017, the slowest rate in more than a decade. So while some private sector may be turning to the shadow lending system for credit, many more may be growing accustomed to getting by with no credit lines at all. In effect, the cap may be dampening the private sector’s appetite for credit. Thus the concern is not only that the economic engine of the country is being starved of liquidity, the engine may be getting to used to ticking away at sub-optimal levels due to poor access to credit with dire consequences to GDP growth. GDP grew at just 4.7 percent in the first quarter of the year, and although part of this is due to a contraction in agriculture, the cap has also informed the sub-par growth. Will dampened appetite for credit become a long-term trend or will private sector aggressively take up credit lines if the cap is reversed?
Secondly, since the cap has made government the preferred client for many banks, the cap has created the very situation government has been stating it has been trying to avoid and that is crowding out the private sector. Thus the irony is that in government assenting to the cap, it has created the very situation it sought to circumvent. Indeed in the 2017/18 financial year government plans to finance 60.7 percent of the fiscal deficit using domestic sources. In the past government would somewhat limit heavy borrowing from domestic markets but in the age of the interest rate cap, government is well aware of its priority status and thus seems to be leveraging this to finance the budget with domestic sources perhaps more aggressively than had previously been the case. Will this become a long-term habit that proves difficult to break?
Thirdly, however, there is a silver lining in the cloud; banks are going to come out of this period more efficient than ever. The cap has caused banks to ask themselves hard questions such as: how much labour is actually required to effectively meet client needs? How many branches need to remain open to serve clients and hit targets? The cap may be accelerating the automation drive that had already began to occur in the banking sector and banks should embrace this era of capped rates to become more efficient. Banks will likely emerge from the interest rate cap as leaner and more efficient entities than would have been the case if the cap hadn’t been effected. This is a long term effect on the banking sector and may well have lasting benefits on profit margins.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; email@example.com