Capital Markets

The cost of living question in Kenya

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on May 14, 2017


Over the past few weeks there has been deep concern voiced by Kenyans with regards to the rising cost of living in the country. Kenyans want to know why their money doesn’t go as far as it used to in the past.

There are several variables at play here the first of which is a no-brainer: the drought. The drought has had the effect of destroying food crops and livestock leading to cuts in the supply of food products. Yet the demand for food expands each year as new Kenyans are born. The drought has created a situation where food demand far outstrips supply leading to an increase in food prices and food price inflation.

https://i0.wp.com/worldteanews.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/WTN161031_KenyaDrought_tumblr_lqip385wlz1r1r5rno1_500-lo-res.jpg

(source: worldteanews.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/WTN161031_KenyaDrought_tumblr_lqip385wlz1r1r5rno1_500-lo-res.jpg)

The second factor at work is the fact that Kenya is an import economy of which food products are a key import. With the strengthening of the dollar as the US economy recovers, the relative depreciation of the shilling (albeit marginal), is making imported goods more expensive and slowly exerting inflationary pressure on food prices.

Thirdly, the interest rate cap has led to a noticeable decline in lending. And although the cap counters inflationary pressure through a contraction in liquidity, the cap means the small loans Kenyans used to qualify for to meet urgent expenses are no longer coming in. As a result, the reduced cash flow for the average Kenyan means that they have to make the little they earn stretch even further as they do not have the cushion of short term loans on which to rely. The effect is that Kenyans feel more broke now than they did last year.

Image result for interest rate cap

(source: https://i1.wp.com/chetenet.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Interest-Rate-Caps-Effects.jpg)

Finally, it would not be a stretch to surmise that there are more Kenyan Shillings moving around in the economy due to the election. Money is being spent on election related expenses that are not present during a non-election year. To be clear, there is no hard data on this which is a shame; there should be a study to assess the extent to which election spending pushes up inflation. I raised this concern with an expert a few years ago; I asked him how the government will manage the likely inflation linked to ‘artificial’ election-related spending. He told me that it would correct itself in the medium to long term as that extra liquidity leaves the economy post- election.

The factors detailed above inform why there seems to a money crunch for many Kenyans. And sadly, the interest cap has shut off the tap of liquidity on which Kenyans use to rely in times like this.

The truth of the matter is that there are no quick and ready solutions to this issue and short term remedial action will not address the structural problems of Kenya being an import economy and the ravaging effects of the drought where millions, if not billions, of shillings in agricultural assets have been lost. And since it is an election year, the related spending will continue and there will likely not be the will to reverse the interest rate cap–not until elections are over.

Government and non-government actors should take this time to assess the various issues elucidated above and develop strategies to buffer Kenyans from the confluence of factors currently making life difficult for so many Kenyans.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com

TV Panel feature on the cost of living in Kenya

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On May 11, 2017 I was interviewed on cost of living issues in Kenya.

Use Public Private Partnerships to reduce debt burden

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This article first appeared in my column with the Business Daily on April 9, 2017

When the budget was read two weeks ago, one of the key questions that kept coming us was the issue of growing public debt in Kenya.  In the 2017/18 National Budget, the Kenya government plans to borrow KES 524.6 billion (6 percent of GDP).

Views differ on whether Kenya’s debt is sustainable. Some are of the view that given the massive gaps in key sectors such as energy and transport infrastructure, the country must continue to do everything possible to finance and address the gaps and that debt accrued now will pay off in the long term. Further, they argue that at a debt-to-GDP ratio of about 53 percent, Kenya is still well below the World Bank ceiling (or tipping point) of 64 percent. And while the IMF has raised concerns about Kenya’s public debt, it is below what they view as the applicable ceiling for Kenya at a 74 percent debt-to-GDP ratio. Others are of the view that a debt-to-GDP ratio beyond 40 percent for developing and emerging economies is dangerous. Further, at about 53 percent, the debt-to-GDP ratio is above the government’s preferred ceiling of 45 percent raising questions as to why this ceiling is being openly flouted.

https://i1.wp.com/www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/Feature%20Story/Debt/Debt_Ladder-400X269.jpg

(source: http://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/Feature Story/Debt/Debt_Ladder-400X269)

Beyond the number crunching on debt figures, the broader concern for the country is that the substantial investment requirements for the country cannot be met by debt alone. This is where Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) come in. PPP refers to a contractual arrangement between a public agency and a private sector entity in which the skills and assets of each sector are shared in delivering a service or facility for the use of the general public. In short, government teams up with private sector to finance, manage and operate projects that are for public use.

There are numerous forms of PPPs ranging from projects where government owns the project and private sector operates and manages daily operations, to where private sector designs, builds, and operates projects for a limited time after which the facility is transferred to government. As the Africa Development Bank points out, PPPs are a useful means through which investment in development can continue in the context of growing pressures on government budgets. But as the World Bank points out, for PPPs to work the private sector needs political stability, a pipeline of bankable projects, transparent and efficient procurement, risk sharing with the public sector and certainty of the envisaged future cash flows.

Image result for public private partnership

(source: http://www.neoias.com/index.php/neoias-current-affairs/617-public-private-partnership)

The good news is that the Kenyan government seems to be aware of the importance of PPPs at both national and county level. Numerous county governments are working with development partners to build their PPP capacity as well as identify viable county-level PPP projects. At national level, the government seeks to lock in investment through PPPs worth about USD 5 billion between 2017 and 2020. This will be important in managing the growth of public debt in the medium and long term. Through the intelligent use of PPPs, government can put the country on the path of sustainable development financing.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com

The Importance of Shadowing in African Political Accountability

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on April 2, 2017

A Shadow Cabinet consists of a senior group of opposition spokespeople who, under the leadership of the Leader of the Opposition, form an alternative cabinet to that of the government, and whose members shadow or mark each individual member of the Cabinet. There is much use for the concept of Shadow Cabinets in the context of Africa’s political and economic development.

If every member of the Cabinet in ruling administrations in Kenya and Africa in general, knew they had an individual or team of qualified professionals scrutinising their policy, strategy and actions in their respective ministries two developments would likely occur. Firstly, the scrutiny would make cabinets more thoughtful and effective in policy and strategy development and implementation as cabinets would know all official communication and activity would engender an informed response and critique. If Shadow Cabinets were created in a context where Shadow roles were taken seriously, government would know that vague, incomplete or inaccurate information as well as inadequately thought through strategies would meet credible resistance. Secondly, the actions of Shadow Cabinets would give the general electorate a sense of how the Opposition would govern if they were in power. The track record of Shadow Cabinet critiques would present citizens with a clearer idea of how Opposition would address key challenges in the country. Image result for cabinet government

(source: http://media.dods.co.uk)

In Kenya the concept of a Shadow Cabinet is particularly important because political parties are not drawn along ideological lines. Unlike other parts of the world, political parties in this country are drawn along personalities and tribal lines. Further, political parties always realign and change composition in each election period, changing the dynamic of the leadership in the parties. As a result, in Kenya it is very difficult to know how an Opposition government would govern the country. I have long wanted to read Shadow Budgets as well as Shadow Policies on Agriculture, Education, Health and Finance for example. What would fiscal and monetary policy look like in an Opposition government? How would an Opposition government have handled the teachers’ and doctors’ strikes? How would Opposition address corruption if they were in government? These are all valid questions.

The frustration I have as a Kenyan is that I often do not know how governments will govern until they get into power. While Party Manifestos are produced every election year, they do not form a solid and consistence basis of engagement for analysis. Further, it seems Manifestos are political tools used during electioneering that are swiftly forgotten once elections are completed.

https://www.tutorialspoint.com/indian_economy/images/government_budget.jpg

(source: https://www.tutorialspoint.com/indian_economy/images/government_budget)

The time has come for Africans to demand Shadow Cabinets. In doing so citizen interests will be protected through the application of clearly thought out and consistent pressure applied on governments enhancing political and financial accountability. Further, the political landscape in Africa would stabilise as it would no longer be a guessing game as to how an incoming administration would rule the country.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com

Changes needed in National Fiscal Policy

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This article first appeared in my weekly column in the Business Daily on March 26, 2017

This week the National Budget for FY 2017/18 will be read, and being an election year this budget may indicate how fiscal policy will be approached post-election.

There are three issues with fiscal policy as articulated over the past few years. The first is sub-par revenue generation and unrealistic revenue targets. The economy grew at about 5.9 percent in 2016, yet the tax revenue forecast was raised by 8.7 percent. By December 2016, it was reported that the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) failed (once again) to meet its half-year target by KES 20 billion. This is not a new event; revenue targets are routinely not met begging the question as to whether or why unrealistic targets are set; this habit has to change in the upcoming budget. Kenya needs more realistic targets in order to more effectively anticipate debt requirements for the year.

Image result for National budget kenya

(source: http://www.capitalfm.co.ke/business/files/2013/11/BUDGET-BRIEFCASE.jpg)

The second issue in fiscal policy is notable increases in expenditure.  Please note that according to the Budget Policy Statement 2017/18 released in November 2016, the government seeks to curb non priority expenditures and release resources for more productive purposes. The BPS states an expected overall reduction in total expenditures resulting in a decline of the fiscal deficit (inclusive of grants) from KES 702 billion to KES 546.5 billion, equivalent to 7.5 percent of GDP. This is positive in that this fiscal deficit should be lower than the 9.3 percent of GDP for 2016/17. However, two problems linger; firstly a deficit of 7.5 percent is still above the preferred fiscal deficit ceiling of 5 percent. Secondly, it is almost certain that supplementary budgets that ramp up expenditure will be tabled over the course of the fiscal year. Just last month the government proposed KES 75.3 billion of additional expenditure for various ministries and government departments. Government has the problematic habit of creating what seem to be artificially narrow fiscal deficits and borrowing requirements during budget reading, only for these to be revised upward significantly over the course of the fiscal year.

Finally, and linked to the point above, government has to rein in its debt appetite. Growing expenditure, partially attributed to a bloated devolution-related wage allowances and benefits bills has contributed to government borrowing aggressively for capital expenditure. The debt to GDP ratio currently stands at 52.7 percent, up from 44.5 percent in 2013 and above Treasury’s 45 percent threshold. To be clear, the debt to GDP ratio in itself would not be worrying if there were clear and demonstrated action to manage debt levels more aggressively. The World Bank puts the tipping point for developing countries at a 64 percent debt to GDP ratio above which debt begins to compromise economic growth. Thus while there is still wiggle room, continued debt appetite juxtaposed with (or due to) subpar revenue generation means Kenya is headed towards debt unsustainability in the near future.

It is hoped that the fiscal policy due to be read will provide detailed strategies on how revenue generated will be stimulated, expenditure cuts effected as well as the articulation of a clear and realistic debt management strategy.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com

The effect of the interest cap on monetary policy

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on March 12, 2017

Last year I opposed the interest rate cap before it was approved and came into effect. I opposed it because I knew it would lead to a contraction of liquidity, particularly for SMEs who are often viewed as high risk by mainstream banks. A few months later, the fears I had have become a reality. Last week this paper reported that Kenya’s private sector growth moved towards stagnation in February partly due to a decline in private sector credit. Treasury reports indicate that credit growth slowed down to the lowest level in a decade, partly due to banks becoming reluctant to lend under the rate cap regime.

As this paper reported, Treasury data indicates that lending to businesses and homes grew just 4.3 percent in the year to December, down from 20.6 percent in a similar period in 2015. The 4.3 percent credit increase is well below what the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) says is ideal loan growth of 12 to 15 percent which is required to support economic growth and job creation

Image result for credit

(source: https://loanscanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/credit-score-scam-1.png)

The irony of this situation is two-fold. Firstly, the interest cap did not expand lending, it contracted it, particularly for SMEs. Strathmore Business School indicates that most SMEs in Kenya struggle to raise capital from banks. With rate caps, refinancing of credit from financial institutions has become even more of a challenge. Secondly, even with the interest rate cap, most SMEs find current interest rates unaffordable. Credit is still too expensive.  So what did the interest cap achieve? Firstly, it has made it even more difficult for SMEs to get access to credit and secondly, it is an effort in futility as credit is still too expensive for most, even with the cap.

This is when monetary policy would usually come in to try and address the situation. In a normal scenario with no cap, a contraction in liquidity would usually lead to a drop in interest rates to encourage banks to lend. However, the CBK would not do this due to two reasons. Firstly, the ongoing drought is already placing upward pressure on inflation; the overall inflation rate for February this year was 9.04 percent, well above the ceiling of 7.5 percent. Thus even in a normal situation, the CBK would likely not drop rates as this would place further upward pressure on inflation. Secondly, this is an election year where billions enter the economy in an almost artificial manner, putting further upward pressure on inflation.

Image result for SME Kenya

(source: https://i0.wp.com/covered.co.ke/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/sme-banking-e1479992621937-1024×857.png?fit=810%2C678&ssl=1)

However it is not business as usual, there is an interest rate cap to contend with. The interest cap has thrown monetary policy into chaos. In the current situation, the CBK cannot drop interest rates to encourage lending as this would engender further contraction in liquidity, shutting even more people and businesses out from access to credit. Lowering interest rates would make banks even more reluctant to lend. So the irony of the situation is that it appears that an increase in interest rates may encourage more lending from banks as it would raise the risk ceiling of those to whom banks are comfortable lending. Kenya is in an interesting position where increasing interest rates may actually expand lending; monetary policy has to work upside down. However, if the increase in interest rates were effected to try and address the contraction in liquidity and worked, it may then exacerbate the inflation being caused by the drought. Even in this upside down world there are reasons against raising interest rates as well as dropping them. Raising interest rates would likely expand liquidity and exacerbate inflation and dropping rates would likely engender a further contraction in liquidity.

The world is watching this experiment with interest rate capping going on in Kenya, and thus far it is making the case against interest rate caps even stronger.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzestew@gmail.com

 

 

 

TV Interview: State of the Nation with a focus on the economy

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On Monday February 27, 2017 I was interviewed by Citizen TV on the State of Kenya’s Economy.