public debt

Toxic public debt a chance for African firms to raise capital

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on November 25, 2018

Kenya’s public debt stands at over KES 5 trillion. Both last year and this year, international finance institutions and development banks such as the World Bank, African Development and the IMF cautioned Kenya over the pace, composition and terms of public debt accrual. But the appetite for debt continues unabated. And Kenya is not alone. The Brookings Institution makes the point that since 2008, public debt in Africa countries has been rising at an increasingly rapid pace and by 2016, the continent’s gross public debt to GDP ratio had doubled. Countries such as Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Ghana, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and of course Kenya have been warned that their fiscal path and debt pile up is unsustainable.

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The composition of debt is of particular concern. Kenya for example has a domestic to foreign public debt split of about 50-50. With the strengthening dollar, the cost of servicing foreign debt will be increasingly onerous. This is in a context of chronic subpar revenue generation with revenue targets routinely revised downwards year on year. Thus, not only is government unable to raise planned levels of revenue, it will have to figure out how to raise even more local currency to service foreign debt as the dollar strengthens.

Another favourite of African governments has been sovereign bonds, and these too are becoming more expensive. Last week Bloomberg reported that spreads on Africa’s sovereign bonds had widened to 506 basis points (bp) above U.S. Treasuries, the most in two years. Te Velde, an analyst, makes the point that at the current rate at which African countries issue sovereign bonds (USD 14bn in the past year), a 2 percent (500bp-300bp) increase in cost of financing, means an increase in future cost of servicing newly issued bonds at more than USD 250 million a year. Let that simmer for a while.

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Now this would perhaps be fine if there were assurance that African governments were using the debt effectively and in an economically productive manner. But even that is not clear. What is clear is that the rapid accumulation of debt by African governments, partnered with serious questions about fiscal accountability will translate to a massive drop in the popularity African governments have been enjoying in local and international debt markets. And this is good news for the African private sector.

Africa’s private sector continues to be under-capitalised and the past decade or so of considerable appetite for public debt from Africa has left most of the African private sector in the shadows. However, creditors are beginning to understand that debt owed by African governments can be toxic. And this presents the perfect opportunity for private sector in Africa to better position itself to domestic and international players for financing. Let the African private sector grab this opportunity and show the world that much of Africa still has its head on right.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;

TV Interview: 8% VAT on Fuel in Kenya

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On September 18, I was part of a panel that discussed the 8% VAT on fuel that has since been effected.

The China Debt Question

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on May 20, 2018

There has been clear concern voiced over the sustainability of Kenya’s fiscal path over the past five years. Total debt has risen from KES 1.7 trillion in 2013 to about 4 trillion in 2017. The good news is that there seems to be indication that plans for fiscal consolidation are underway, although these will only be confirmed when the 2018/19 Budget is read.

Embedded in concerns with Kenya’s fiscal path, is a narrative that raises red flags on Chinese debt. If you look at the accrual of public debt owed to China, this stood at 63 billion in 2013 and rose to 479 billion in 2017; China owns about 66 percent of Kenya’s bilateral debt. This has led to alarm about Kenya’s ‘over-exposure’ to Chinese debt. Indeed, there is an emerging commentary that argues that China is saddling Africa with unsustainable debt and seeks to use indebtedness to further its geopolitical control over the continent.

 Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping  prepare to inspect Chinese honour guards during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 19, 2013. AFP PHOTO


While I agree that there should be concern with debt levels, I think the ‘danger’ of Chinese debt has dubious motives. In fact it is fair to ask if all the hue and cry over debt owed to China would be as pronounced if the debt belonged to another part of the world. The focus on Kenya’s and indeed Africa’s, rising debt needs to be approached in an intellectually honest manner that demonstrates, firstly, that the appetite for debt is coming from Kenya. China is not saddling Kenya with debt, the Kenyan government wants the debt. The Kenyan government has prioritised infrastructure and gone through expansionary fiscal policy to finance this priority. Thus, it is hard to conceive that given the financing demands of infrastructure development, the government would turn down credit lines that can finance this priority.

Secondly, if you look at the portfolio of China’s debt to Kenya, it is focused on infrastructure indicating that perhaps the Kenyan government feels it has found a partner that is willing to invest in its focus on building railways, roads, electricity transmission lines, dams etc. Bear in mind that China is still a developing country with a 2017 GDP per capita of USD8,643, and ranked 75th in the world. However, the Chinese view is that despite this, it will continue to provide sizable development loans to Kenya of which almost half are concessional loans or preferential credit lines with a 2 percent interest rate and 20-year maturity period.

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The point is that, once you find a partner that seems to understand where you are coming from and supports your vision, it is likely that the partnership will grow. Further, if other parts of the world are not offering similar debt packages in terms of scale and conditions, they really are not in a position to criticise. So why do some seem surprised by burgeoning credit lines from China?

Finally, beyond debt sustainability, the core problem with rising debt is less related to from whom Kenya is getting debt, but more about how that debt is spent. The first problem is the question of the management of public finances. If debt does not end up in projects that drive growth and rather is diverted to private pockets, then the country is in serious problems. Debt only makes sense when it is economically productive and thus mismanagement of public monies comprises the ability of debt to inform economic development. Second is the issues of absorption of funds. Government at both national and county level have clear problems with absorbing development financing, and debt sits in that docket. So securing all this debt and failing to ensure it is used correctly and that the funding is absorbed in intended projects is the real problem.

It is important that the country have a sober conversation about debt, because no matter where the debt comes from, if it is mismanaged, Kenya will be in hot water regardless.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;

TV Interview: Kenya’s Debt Question

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On November 12, 2017 I was part of a TV Panel with the CEO of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, Phyllis Wakiaga and Alex Awiti from the Aga Khan University analysing the effect of the elections on the Kenyan economy and rising public debt.


Supplementary budget weakens Kenya’s fiscal position

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This article first appeared in the Business Daily on October 17, 2017


A few weeks ago, the National Treasury presented a supplementary budget cutting development spending for the current financial year by KES 30 billion. Additionally, the IEBC has requested KES 12 billion for the presidential election re-run. These developments are problematic for several reasons.

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The first problem is Kenya is in an already compromised fiscal position where recurrent expenditure accounts for 58.8 percent of the 2017/2018 budget. We already have a budget with subpar development spending which translates to less money being channelled to productive spending; instead the bulk of funds sit in non-productive recurrent spending. Thus the cut in development spending will skew the development-recurrent ratio even further pushing Kenya into a position where government spending will have an even more muted effect on contributing to the economic growth.

Secondly, the government’s revenue collection for the fiscal year starting July was behind target by KES 29 billion. As much money as possible should stay in the development docket so it is used to spur economic growth and raise domestic revenue to better manage growing spending and debt needs and obligations. The cut in development spending will mean revenue targets will likely not be hit and government will have to borrow aggressively next financial year to plug the fiscal deficit due to subpar revenue generation catalysed by the cut in development spending.

Thirdly, private sector will be negatively affected. The supplementary budget indicates that development plans in roads, water, power plants, real estate projects and electricity transmission, will be affected. Domestic private sector usually contracted to implement such projects will not get contracts which would have ensured they remain productive. Bear in mind, the cut in development spending occurs in a context of muted economic growth due to a combination of election, the drought and the interest rate cap. Thus the development spending cut will exacerbate an already difficult year for many businesses, further compromising economic growth.

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Finally, there is a real risk that the cut in development expenditure will be shifted to recurrent spending. While National Treasury indicates it also seeks to make cuts in recurrent spending by limiting travel of individuals on the government payroll, they will likely be unable to save enough to finance the KES 12 billion requested for the election. It is likely that the election re-run will be partially or fully funded by money previously earmarked for development spending. This is deeply worrying as the government borrows to meet development expenditure. Thus there is an emerging situation where the country will likely use debt to finance recurrent expenditure; this is untenable. This puts the country on an even more precarious fiscal path.

Government seems to have a habit of using supplementary budgets to shift money from development to recurrent spending making it difficult to track the ratio between the two types of spending and analyse the extent to which debt is financing recurrent expenditure. While this year the surprise election re-run has put the National Treasury in a difficult position by generating expenditure momentum in the wrong direction, the features of this supplementary budget are not new. Greater caution needs to exercised in developing supplementary budgets so that this process is used to strengthen, not weaken Kenya’s fiscal position.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;

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.

(source: 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.

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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;

My Insights into Kenya Budget 2016/17

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with Business Daily on June 12, 2016

Last Wednesday the National Government announced the National Budget for 2016/17. Overall expenditure and net lending for FY 2016/17 will be KES 2,264.8 billion, about 30.6 percent of GDP. Estimated revenue collection is KES 1,295.4 billion or 19.7 percent of GDP by end of June 2016. As a result there is a financing gap of KES 691.5 billion which reduces to KES 603.2 billion if the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) is excluded. Please note that the Treasury Cabinet Henry only gave the fiscal deficit as 6.1 percent of GDP excluding the SGR; the full fiscal deficit was not detailed in the budget speech. The deficit will be financed by net domestic borrowing of KES 225.3 billion plus what was termed ‘other domestic financing’ of KES 4.0 billion. Net external borrowing will be KES 462.3 billion.

There are several points to note with regards to the budget. Firstly, if one has been following the Kenya budget formulation process for several years it is clear that expenditure is ramping up faster that revenue generation is. As a result the fiscal deficit continues to be sizeable, trending towards consecutive expansion year after year. Once again, the fiscal deficit, even excluding the SGR is above the Government’s own preferred ceiling of 5 percent. It seems to have become habit for Government to state that fiscal deficits may be a bit high currently but will come down in the medium term. This year is no different; CS Treasury made the point that Government continues to be committed to bringing the fiscal deficit down gradually to below 4.0 percent of GDP in the medium term. From where I’m sitting it looks like reducing the fiscal deficit is a moving target that Government pushes out another year during each annual budget speech.


The core problem with the fiscal deficit is that revenue generation has been subpar and revenue targets are routinely not met. I think part of the problem is that the rapidly expanding expenditure has led Government to set aggressive and frankly unrealistic targets for the Kenya Revenue Authority. There are several structural constraints in the Kenyan economy that undermine revenue generation a key one of which is a sizeable informal economy that exists outside the formal tax net. Although the CS noted the challenges of the informal economy remaining largely untaxed and undermining revenue generation efforts, no specifics on how this will be addressed were mentioned.

Secondly, in terms of borrowing for the fiscal deficit, the bias is towards external borrowing. This is understandable as Government does not want to crowd out private sector or effect upward interest rate pressure if domestic borrowing preponderated. However, it will be interesting to see how such aggressive external borrowing will play out given the highly publicised Eurobond debacle last year where the political opposition accused Government of embezzling Eurobond proceeds. This event dented the Government’s reputation in international financial markets. It will therefore be interesting to see the types of risk premiums that will be associated with Kenya Government borrowing in pursuit of foreign credit.


Finally, KES 280.3 billion will be allocated to the 47 County Governments as the equitable share of revenue. While Government noted that this allocation is more than double the constitutional minimum of 15 percent of the latest audited revenues, there was no mention of the fact that Counties are having problems absorbing devolved funds, particularly in the development expenditure docket.  According to the Controller of Budget’s latest report, only 19.9 percent of development funds had been absorbed as of mid-year. This inability to spend funds as required may well translate to limiting the extent to which Devolution will deliver the development dividends it was intended to deliver. Thus while it is wonderful to see National Government’s continued commitment to deploying funds to counties, it would be useful for National Government to make suggestions on how County Governments can better absorb devolved funds.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;