fiscal policy

Is agriculture being neglected under devolution?

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on June 16, 2017

 It is not a secret that Kenya has been suffering the consequences of a ravaging drought for about a year now. Q1 2017 GDP growth stood at 4.7 percent largely due to a notable contraction in agriculture. The 1.1 percent contraction in agriculture is obviously informed by the drought. For example, the drought has decimated the production of tea one of Kenya’s key exports; production is expected to drop by 12 to 30 percent. Livestock production has also been devastated with estimated losses of 40 to 60 percent of livestock assets particularly in the North East and Coast. Maize farmers in Uasin Gishu continue to generate measly yields from their farms.

The question becomes, how did this happen? This is the first major drought to affect the country since the advent of devolution. Are there issues that have emerged in the context of devolution that allowed the drought to grip the country to the extent it has? The answer seems to be yes.Image result for agriculture Kenya

(source: https://ccafs.cgiar.org)

The first issue is budget allocations to agriculture. According to the International Budget Partnership (IBP), national government allocated the sector as follows: 2 percent in 2015/16, 1.3 percent in 2016/2017 and 1.8 percent in 2017/18. As IBP points out, the Maputo Declaration 2003 calls for allocation of at least 10 percent of total national budget towards agriculture. The average expenditure on agriculture in Africa is 4.5 percent; Kenya’s national allocations are sub-par. These paltry allocations may be due to the fact that that agriculture isn’t an attractive sector to finance. Infrastructure remains a priority for national and (it seems) county governments because physical assets can be pointed to as proof of ‘development’. The same cannot be done with agriculture, as a result agriculture seems to wallowing in financial neglect.

The second concern is the lack of coordination between county and national government. It is still not clear who is responsible for what in the agriculture sector. While agriculture has been devolved, the truth is that the national government through the Ministry of Agriculture, is still a key player in the sector. In the work I have done at county level, it has become abundantly clear that neither county nor national government are of the view that they are fully in charge of the sector. As a result, the sector is wallowing in a lack of ownership riddled by a lack of collaboration and coordination between the two levels of government. This is surely a contributing factor that allowed the drought to reach the scale it did.

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(source: https://anzetsewere.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/af82e-kenya-ag-1.jpg)

The third is a breakdown in support services to small holder farmers and poor early warning systems; both of which should sit in the county government. It has been noted that extension services that rural farmers in particular used to enjoy are no longer there. Aside from subsidies in fertiliser for example, small holder farmers on whom most Kenyans rely for food, need continuous support to make their farms more productive, limit post-harvest loss and make sure their products reach markets. County governments also seem to have failed in the early warning systems that should have signalled the crisis as they are present at grassroots levels. County governments seems to be having difficulty in playing their role in the sector and it is not clear why. Perhaps it may be a combination of a lack of technical capacity as well as limited financial allocations to the sector.

What is clear is that the situation detailed above cannot continue to happen. National and County government need to not only prioritise agriculture in terms of budget allocations but also solve the coordination problem that is so clear.

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

Lingering effects of interest rate cap

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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?

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(source: http://www.goldmansachs.com/citizenship/10000women/meet-the-women-profiles/kenya-women/mary-kenya/slide-show/mary-slide1.jpg)

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?

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(source: http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/image/view/-/3947270/medRes/1621958/-/62ktdm/-/NT.jpg)

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; anzetsew@gmail.com

 

Systemic fiscal weaknesses need to be urgently addressed

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on June 25, 2017

Last week the International Budget Partnership (IBP) presented information on what is driving fiscal performance at national and county level, with a focus on revenue inflows. This is a behemoth task in itself due to significant data gaps that impede comprehensive analysis. For example, gazettes released by the National Treasury tend to be incomplete and it is not clear when the disbursements actually happen. Additionally, figures frequently change (particularly revenue inflows) mid-year with no explanations and the same information can be presented in numerous formats making analysis on consistent data sets difficult.

That said, there is enough data from FY 2011/12 to 2016/17 to make some important observations. The first challenge that has emerged has to do with the sequencing of revenue inflows into National Treasury that affects county budget disbursements. National Treasury does not receive all of the revenue required to be dispensed over the fiscal year in equal tranches; that is 4 sets of 25 percent of revenue each quarter over the fiscal year.

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According to data over the time period analysed, in Q1 only about 20 (not 25) percent of total revenue in-flows have been received, this goes up to 47 percent by mid-year. What this means is that the bulk of financing for the fiscal year is received in the second half; as a result national government disbursement to counties follow a similar pattern where the bulk of county finances are sent in the later half of the year. This may explain complaints by governors that they do not get their disbursements on time and they blame Treasury for this.  But to be fair, National Treasury is not in full control of when revenue inflows come in. Nonetheless, since it is clear that this is a systemic issue that recurs, national government ought to start taking remedial action so that county governments are not affected by their revenue inflow constraints.

However, county governments are not innocent bystanders when it comes to fiscal weaknesses; counties almost consistently fail to approve their budgets on time and thus do not submit the attendant requisitions that lead to allocations. It seems that in most cases, county budgets have not been approved by the June 30 deadline; this leads to delays in disbursements. The factors behind these delays at county level are not clear but seem to be an amalgam of county capacity constraints as well as disagreements between County Executives and County Assemblies on what should feature in county budgets.Image result for fiscal policy

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A third factor at play that is informing fiscal performance is to do with sources of revenue. We know that county governments are still very poor at generating their own revenue and thus are almost entirely reliant on national government allocations. This makes them less autonomous in controlling their fiscal performance. At national level, the issue is that government is being increasingly affected by delays in revenue inflows partly because taxes are making a decreasing share of national government revenue inflows. National government is becoming more reliant on other sources of revenue beyond taxes, which means more borrowing and government often does not control when those disbursements are received. So at both county and national level, government is not in full control of revenue inflows which leaves the country exposed to cash crunches on which quick remedial action cannot be taken.

It is important that national and county government develop revenue inflow strategies that mitigate current challenges so that expenditure and development plans can be more efficiently effected.

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.

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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.

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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

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.

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(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

TV Interview: The state of the Kenyan economy

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Yesterday I was interviewed by Citizen TV on the state of the Kenyan economy.

The economics of the doctors’ strike

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on January 22, 2017

Doctors in Kenya went on strike in December 2016 due to on-going concerns with regards to numerous issues including remuneration, working conditions, promotion and transfer policies, doctor occupational safety issues and inadequate health staff and facilities.

Both the press and national government have given Kenyans the impression that the main demand being made by doctors is focused on a 300 percent pay increase. However, a public announcement released by the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU) stated concerns that, ‘in all its offers the government has addressed itself solely on a non-existent 300 percent pay increase demand and has refused to give its position on the non-monetary issues’. Thus while there are requests by doctors to improve compensation, there are other demands that would benefit the greater health of Kenyans including a call to hire more doctors and better equip hospitals.

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However, it must be said that although the CBA the doctors seek to have honoured is not solely on remuneration issues, their demands would have financial implications. For example, there is a demand to hire 1,200 doctors per year for four years, making a total of 4,800 new doctors. It cannot be denied that honouring this request in addition to meeting the demands of increased compensation and better equipping medical facilities would be an expensive endeavour; and that is likely why national government has yet to broker an agreement with the doctors.

The reality is that Kenya’s fiscal space is narrowing and the ability of national government to take on added costs is becoming increasingly limited. Last year the government overshot its fiscal year debt target having borrowed KES 147.1 billion against a target of KES 106.0 billion. The public debt to GDP ratio stands at about 52.8 percent, well above Treasury’s 45 percent ceiling; and the fiscal deficit is at 8 percent, well above the 5 percent target. Indeed, the country has acquired public debt to the extent that a fifth of the budget is committed to repaying loans. The national government seems to have acquired the habit of chronic over-spending. And while debt levels are still thought to be sustainable, bodies such as the IMF and World Bank have issued warnings about the trend of government borrowing with concerns that it may lead to the country being over-leveraged, probably in a shorter time span than anticipated. So there is reason for national government to be concerned about the financial implications of the demands being made by doctors.

However, there are is a clear flaw in the case being made by government attempting to use finance and economics to deny doctors their requests. Just as the government seems stuck on chronic over-spending, it also seems stuck in chronic financial mismanagement. Kenyans will simply not believe that the government does not have enough money to meet doctors’ demands given the sheer volume of allegations of colossal corruption housed in national government bodies such as the Ministry of Devolution and Ministry of Health; allegations of graft in these bodies alone are estimated to stand at about KES 8.5 billion. Last year Member of Parliament (MPs) negotiated a deal that effectively made Parliament’s wage bill rise by more than KES 2 billion in a year.  Please note that by 2013 reports indicated that Kenyan legislators are the second-highest paid lawmakers in the world, beating their counterparts in USA, Britain and Japan. Ergo, the issue is not a lack of money, the issue is what priorities are absorbing public finances.

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Thus, while there are financial and economic implications to the demands being made by doctors, I fundamentally agree with their demands. This is not only because the country can only develop on the foundation of a healthy and productive population, fiscal policy is wanting. It is wanting not only in terms of fiscal mismanagement but also through the prioritisation of wages for some while failing to better equip hospitals and ensure the adequate compensation of doctors and other health staff.

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