TV Panel: The Interest Rate Debate

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On the June 18, 2018 Fanaka TV held a debate in collaboration with the Kenya Bankers Association, The institute of Economic Affairs and Strathmore Business School. The debate engaged both sides of the capping divide with an intention of deeply analysing the impact of capping of interest rates and came up with possible solutions and way forward. I was among the panelists for the debate.


Fiscal consolidation opportunity to address private sector issues

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on May 6, 2018

The government seems intent on implementing a course of fiscal consolidation that will put Kenya on a more sustainable fiscal path. While fiscal consolidation is welcome and should be supported, it raises new challenges with which the country has to grapple. The intent of government is to ramp down spending, reduce borrowing, bring down the fiscal deficit and raise revenues. The combination of these factors translates to the reality that government will not be able to finance its new agenda, particularly the Big Four, as robustly as perhaps was initially intended.

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As a result, government has already began calls for the private sector to actively engage in the Big Four. The Budget Policy Statement has made it clear that Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) will be fast tracked in order to fully leverage private sector engagement. However, there are realities of which we ought to be aware as government makes the call to private sector to help realise and frankly, co-finance, the Big Four.

Firstly, over 90 percent of the Kenyan private sector consists of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise (MSMEs). While the presence of the large companies is dominant and well publicised, the reality is that the engine of the economy is run by smaller businesses that sprawl across the formal and informal economy. MSMEs are thought to contribute at least 30 percent to GDP and employ over percent of employed Kenyans. However, MSMEs work in an environment, and have internal firm dynamics, that negatively inform their productivity and economic strength. The fact that they constitute over 90 percent of business in the country yet only contribute about 30 percent to GDP signals serious productivity problems.

Thus, while government intends to pull in the private sector to work on their agenda, they ought to be cognisant of the composition of private sector in the country. I am of the view that MSMEs can be engaged to deliver on government projects, but the nature of the engagement will likely be more involving than government initially envisioned.

Linked to the point above is the issue of the capacity and experience of indigenous firms. Given that foreign firms are angling for Big Four projects, the question of the competitiveness of domestic private sector becomes important. Will government deliberately reserve a portion of projects for indigenous private sector to ensure local participation? If not, does Kenya risk outsourcing the bulk of government projects to foreign companies, and what would be the implications?

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Linked to the point above is the issue of PPPs, where it has been widely noted that domestic firms do not have the financing, experience, and enablers that foreign firms do. For example, domestic firms get credit at 14 percent while this figure can be as low as 2 percent for foreign firms; this reduces the former’s competitiveness. Government seeks efficiency in the context of limited funds thus the question becomes how domestic private sector can secure contracts and competitively deliver on them in the context of international competition.

In truth, fiscal consolidation will shine a spotlight on the domestic private sector and the factors that inform their ability and competitiveness. Government and private sector ought to use this opportunity to address key issues decisively, such that the process strengthens the domestic private sector.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;

How Kenya can recover in 2018

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on December 3, 2017

After what has been widely noted as a difficult year for Kenya, the conversation must now turn to how Kenya can recover. The first step to doing so is acknowledging the factors that held economic growth back and those that sustained and propelled growth.

The first sector that was hit was obviously agriculture, due to the drought which made many Kenyans food insecure, hit forex earnings from the export of agricultural commodities and of course led to aggressive inflation. The financial sector was negatively affected by the continued unfolding effects of the interest rate cap and linked to that, credit growth, particularly to SMEs shrunk considerably. Finally, a great deal of investment was held back over the course of the year. Indeed, a few weeks ago, the Kenya Private Sector Alliance stated that the business community had lost more than KES 700 billion in just four months of electioneering. This figure was arrived at by costing not only business lost due to disruptions linked to protest and general unrest, but deferred investment decisions as well.

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It is important to unpack the impact of deferred investment because there are negative ripple effects linked to this, particularly in the African context. When investors choose to hold off on investing, several entities are hit. These include market research companies, product developers, manufacturers, advertising companies, suppliers, and distributors. The entire ecosystem around investors suffers as investors make the decision to postpone or defer investment. As a result, the multiplier effect of suspended investment has left many Kenyan feeling particularly financially strapped this year.

On the bright side, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), most of whom actually sit in the informal economy, proved to be hardy. The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) stated that MSMEs showed ‘extraordinary resilience’ and helped cushion the economy. The factors behind this resilience has not been formally unpacked but studies on the informal economy reveal an nimbleness, flexibility and litheness that larger, more formal businesses may find difficult particularly within short time frames. Challenges aside, informal businesses have an ability to change their business models and adapt to a changing environment much faster than formal businesses with more rigid structures and processes.

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Going forward, it is important to take remedial action on what emerged as weak spots. This will begin by ensuring better coordination between national and county government on the management of agriculture in the country as well as serious consideration of the repeal or adaptation of the interest rate cap. In terms of positive aspects, MSMEs ought to be prioritised going forward and given the necessary support by government, financiers and business development agencies to scale formal MSMEs with promise, and support informal MSMEs on the journey of sustained profitability and formalisation.

Finally, both government and domestic private sector have to give candid and honest signals on the state of the political economy in Kenya. Investors need to be given a clear indication of when and where to invest such that the investment ecosystem is sustainably revived.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;