International Finance

What China’s One Belt, One Road initiative means for Africa

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on May 21, 2017

Last week China announced a plan to build a vast global infrastructure network linking Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East into ‘One Belt, One Road’. China plans to spend up to USD 3 trillion on infrastructure in an effort that seems to be centred more on linking 60 countries in the world with China, not necessarily each other. This One Belt initiative is perhaps part of China’s determination to position itself as the world’s leader in the context of Trump’s insular USA. This initiative has two-fold implications for Africa: the opportunities and potential problems that it creates.

One belt, one road

(source: https://qz.com/983581/chinas-new-silk-road-one-belt-one-road-project-has-one-major-pitfall-for-african-countries/)

In terms of opportunity, obviously African needs continued financial support in infrastructure development. The Africa Development Bank (AfDB) estimates that Africa’s infrastructure deficit amounts to USD 93 billion annually until 2021. In this sense any effort to support the development of Africa’s infrastructure is welcome.

Secondly, this is an opportunity for Africa to negotiate the specifics of the type of infrastructure the continent requires and create a win-win situation where Africa leverages Chinese financing to not only address priority infrastructure gaps, but also better interlink the continent.

However there are multiple challenges the first of which is that Europe, India and Japan seem edgy about this initiative and have distanced themselves from it. According to India’s Economic Times, India and Japan are together embarking upon multiple infrastructure projects across Africa and Asia in what could be viewed as pushback against China’s One Belt initiative. The countries have launched their own infrastructure development projects linking Asia-Pacific to Africa to balance China’s influence in the region.

Europe is also edgy because the initiative has not been collaborative and comes across as an edict from China; countries in the initiative were not consulted. Europe is also uneasy with the lack of details and transparency of the initiative seeing it as a new strategy to further enable China to sell Chinese products to the world.

Secondly, analysts have pointed out that from an Africa perspective, the One Belt seems to continue the colonial legacy of building infrastructure to get resources out of the continent, not interlink the continent. Will the initiative entrench Africa’s position as a mere raw material supplier to China and facilitate the natural resource exploitation of the continent?

Image result for Africa infrastructure

(source: africanbusinessmagazine.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Africa-infrastructure-1k.jpg)

Additionally, there are concerns with how the financing will be structured and deployed. Will financing be debt or grants? It can be argued that China needs to increase its free aid toward Africa in order to build its image as a global leader. Further, who will build the infrastructure? Africa has grown weary of China linking its financing to the contracting of Chinese companies. Will this infrastructure drive employ Africans and use African companies? If not, then it can argued that Africa will merely be borrowing money from China to pay itself back.

Linked to the point above, is the fact that Africa is already deeply indebted to China. In Kenya, China owns half of the country’s external debt. Kenya will pay about KES 60 billion to the China Ex-Im Bank alone over the next three years.  Kenya and Africa do not need more debt from China, and if this initiative is primarily debt-financed (in a non-concessionary manner), it will cause considerable concern in African capitals.

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

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.

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(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

How fiscal policy can attract the right type of investment for Africa

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This article first appeared in my column with the Business Daily on March 30, 2017

Someone once told me that there are three types of foreign investors in Africa. The first are those who invest in the country in order exploit raw natural resources and direct them to their projects outside the country. The second are those who invest in countries in order to flood the country’s markets with their products. The third are investors who invest in the country for the long-term in a manner that creates employment, builds incomes, contributes to GDP growth and of course, generates profits. Africa seems to have little problem in attracting the first two investor type, but often struggles to secure the third type. The question for Kenya is, which type of investor is the country attracting? And what can be done to attract the third type of investor?

These questions are important in the context of fiscal policy, of which a key event will take place today when the National Budget 2017/18 will be read. Fiscal policy ought to and can play an important role in attracting the right type of investor to Kenya.

Over the past ten years, the government has been on an investment drive to build the country’s infrastructure. In principle, efficient public investment in infrastructure can raise the economy’s productive capacity by connecting goods and people to markets. The national budgets over the past few years have thus has allocated significant amounts to energy and transport infrastructure such as LAPSSET, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), Rural Electrification and the Last Mile Project. With the SGR due to be completed this year, it will become clear what dividends the country will reap from such heavy fiscal commitment to infrastructure. That said, infrastructure investment is a prerequisite to attract the third investor type as the ease and cost of transporting goods are an important business cost and variable.

Image result for infrastructure kenya

(source: http://footprint2africa.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/construction.jpg)

The second fiscal strategy that can bring long term investors as well as bolster food security and manufacturing is tax incentives to create productive agricultural value chains. Fiscal policy can more effectively engender a shift from subsistence to commercially productive farming by identifying commercially viable agriculture value chains and linking small holder farmers to manufacturers. Through incentives such as tax remissions along key food and beverage manufacturing value chains, fiscal policy can incentivise higher productivity in farming and contribute to making manufacturing more dynamic than is currently the case. The key however, is consistency in fiscal policy with no abrupt changes in tax remissions or other incentives so as to engender long term investment in food value chains.

Thirdly, the right investor type can be attracted to the country through investment in Kenya’s human capital. As the IMF points out, more equitable access to education and health care contributes to human capital accumulation, a key factor for growth and an improvement in the quality of life. Fiscal policy has two roles here; the first is creating incentive structures for private sector investment into the country’s private and public education and health networks and the second being the country’s own fiscal commitment to health and education sectors. National budget allocations to education stand at about 23 percent, while commitments to health are at about 6 percent of the national budget. Health allocations are paltry and while the education allocations look impressive, a great deal of the funds are directed to free primary education. In order to develop a healthy, highly skilled and productive labour pool, government ought to consider reorienting the almost obsessive fiscal commitment to infrastructure towards more robust allocations to health and post-secondary education. This should be complemented by the creation of incentive strategies that attract investment into national priority nodes for the sectors.Image result for health kenya

(source: https://investinkenya.co.ke/components/uploads/0942a7f713ab6801a17e2cfb325fc99c.jpg)

The fourth means through which fiscal policy can attract the right investors is by managing tax rates at national and county levels.  At the moment, private sector is facing numerous tax burdens due to the lack of harmonisation of tax rates between national and county governments. Fees and charges at county level are unpredictable, non-standardised and onerous; business face multiple payments for advertising and transporting goods across county borders. While these are not technically taxes, they are a form of tax exerted on private sector with no clear link to the service that should be expected for such payments. At national level, the main concern for private sector beyond VAT refunds, is that a small segment of business and individuals are onerously taxed due to the narrow tax base in the country. Thus national government ought to develop a long-term strategy for broadening the tax base.

A key component of broadening the tax base is addressing informality in the economy where millions of informal businesses do not pay taxes. The aim here is not to tax informal businesses, as most are micro-enterprises barely making profits, but rather creating an ecosystem that encourages the development of informal business. Again, fiscal action can be taken by government to direct financing focused at developing micro, small and medium enterprise through more the strategic deployment of the Youth, Uwezo and Women’s Funds. The financing architecture of these three funds has to be fundamentally rethought to focus on building technical skills and business management capacity, and improving productivity and profitability in the informal sector.

Image result for jua kali kenya

(http://www.afroautos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Jua-Kali3.jpg)

Additionally, the government ought to develop a strategy for Kenya’s cottage industry which is the Jua Kali (informal industry) sector linked to solid fiscal commitments. Through fiscal action, the government should create an investment environment that attracts traditional investors as well as non-mainstream financing such as angel investors, impact investors and venture capitalists to invest in Jua Kali. In this manner, action will not only invest in the informal sector, it will create incentives for investment into a sector in which over 80 percent of employed Kenyans earn a living, in a manner that complements fiscal policy.

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

How Africa can leverage growing insularity in Europe and the USA

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on March 19, 2017

 It had been brewing for years, but was fully exposed last year when Brexit happened. It was bolstered by Donald Trump being elected as the President of the United States, growing popularity of Le Pen in France and now Geert Wilders, the Dutch right-wing politician who wanted to be Holland’s next Prime Minister. While celebrating Trump’s victory, Sarah Palin termed it a movement. What is it? The growing popularity of a specific strain of right wing politics in Europe and the United States.

Sitting in Africa there seem to be common threads that run through this ‘movement’; it’s anti-Islam and selectively anti-immigration with a specific strain of aggressive (white) nationalism. It also comes across as racist, self-involved and insular. Europe and the United States have grown weary of taking care of the world, the rhetoric argues, having sacrificed the welfare of ‘real’ Americans and Europeans at the altar of immigration, laissez faire economics (the Chinese are taking over!) and generous aid packages to under-developed (and corrupt) continents such as Africa.

Image result for Trump Le Pen

(source: http://i.f1g.fr/media/figaro/805x453_crop/2016/11/09/XVM94114d02-a65e-11e6-8482-bccab3302ba7.jpg)

Naturally right wing populism is making some in African capitals jittery. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) heavily rely on Europe and North American organisations for financing, which, they argue, allows them to engage in activities that alleviate poverty, protect the vulnerable, and fight for human rights and good governance on the continent. Kenya was one of Africa’s top Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) destinations in 2015 with key investors coming from the USA, UK and the Netherlands. Large companies from Europe and the United States have also set up shop across the continent buoyed by the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative (now somewhat battered) and the growing African middle class. And military and security support from Europe and the USA have been important for countries such as Kenya currently trying to fight Al-Shabaab.

Just as Africa was starting to be seen as more than a basket-case of poverty and poor governance by Europe and the USA, just as the continent was beginning to be perceived as a serious and attractive destination for investment, right wing populism stepped in and changed everything. Some Africans worry aid from the US and some of Europe will drop; in fact last week State Department staffers in the USA were instructed to seek cuts in excess of 50 percent for funding UN programs. And the combination of the economic recovery of the USA coupled with right wing populism juxtaposed with slowing economic growth in Africa may relegate Africa to the periphery of investment once more. Right wing populism wants to Make America/Britain/the Netherlands/France great/ours again; and it seems continents such as Africa will be very low on the ‘to do’ list.

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(source: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/30/c6/ef/30c6effe70e2baf6e07cdba0c87934a6.jpg)

However, there is another side to the story. Gone are the days where African economies were dominated by western metropoles. We now live in a multipolar world where countries such as China and India have become important economic partners for Africa. Research from a French research institute indicates that the share of Europe in Africa’s total trade has steadily declined from around 68 percent in 1990 to 41 percent in 2016. Asia has surpassed Europe as Africa’s biggest trading partner, accounting for around 45 percent of the continent’s total trade. And while some of Kenya’s top FDI investors were from Europe and the USA, key investors also came from India, Japan and China.

And it must be stated, frankly, that some Africans are relieved by the growing insularity in Europe and the USA; perhaps now those countries will have less impetus to meddle in African affairs and focus on their own domestic issues. Older Africans have not forgotten how the UK and USA in particular took out post-colonial African leaders such as Lumumba and Sankara and many modern Africans are not ashamed of being Africans; in fact we revel in Africa’s culture and newfound economic dynamism.

So while the growing popularity of (extreme) right wing politics may negatively affect the continent in some ways, let Africans also leverage the reality of a multipolar world. As some retreat into self-involvement and insularity, let the continent intelligently engage the many who are still seated at the table.

 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

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(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.

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(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