Saturday, 6 August 2016

Capping of Interest Rates Is a Parlous Policy

After going through all the legislative stages, the Banking Amendment Bill 2015 now awaits President Kenyatta’s assent or dissent. Many economists, policy analysts and concerned citizens have expressed their varying opinions on this serious policy matter, either in the affirmative or negative.

There is no doubt that the institutionalization of the usury laws or simply the capping/controlling of interest rates within the economy elicits emotions and passions. The subjection of interest rates to legal control(s) is a controversial issue, always debated either with doses of naïveté or with the showmanship of great scholarly discourse on the other side of the continuum.

Two schools of thought are prevalent in this particular economic disquisition. The first school of thought advocates for the capping of the interest rates in order to enable the borrowers to access credit/loans at affordable and reasonable interest rates. The second school of thought is largely diametric to the first one and it argues that controlling interest rates significantly reduces the availability of credit in the market.

For proper understanding, it is vitally important that one is aware of the different interest rate capping regimes. The first regime is known as the interest rate controls where the central bank is tasked with the mandate of instituting a ceiling of the interest rates in the economy. The second regime is known as the usury laws whereby a specific organ of the government is supposed to control the interest rates. In most cases, the organ that normally plays this role is Parliament through the formulation of the respective pieces of legislation. The third regime is known as the de facto ceiling in which the controls are put in place by way of agreement, that is, without formal legislation. This regime is usually as a result of pressure from the civil society or through political pressure.

Kenya’s case, therefore, can be classified as falling under the usury laws regime. Fast forward, the rationale for capping of the interest rates ought to be examined. The rationale, however, is kindred to the two schools of thought. The general agreement is that the interest rate controls are necessary for the following main reasons: protect consumers from excessive interest rates, increase access to finance, make loans to be more affordable.

The key precept underlying the enactment of this policy is to keep in check the financial institutions that charge very high interest rates to the borrowers. In due course, there is a general consensus that capping of interest rates should be based on the advent and prevalence of market failure in the whole economy or within certain sectors of the economy.

The credit market just like any other market (commodity market) can experience market failure. Market failure, in simple terms, is an economic state in which the forces of demand and supply are skewed; in other words, the forces are distorted. Market failure in the credit market implies that the market is unable to “freely” lower the level of the interest rates. The Kenyan credit market has been unable to effectively bring down the interest rates and to an extent, this can be deemed as a form of market failure.

But does the Banking Amendment Bill 2015 take into consideration the fundamentals that have contributed to the relatively higher interest rates in the state? In my opinion it doesn’t because it overrides the two main objectives of controlling interest rates at least according to the global best practice; targeting a definite sector or industry of the economy and being a short-term policy intervention.

This legislation seeking to curb the interest rates is amorphous because it doesn’t target a specific sector/industry of the economy and furthermore it is vague in terms of the time span in which the capping will be effected. It would have been economically sound if the capping of the interest rates would have targeted, for instance, to improve the accessibility of loans for people involved in agricultural activities or even the jua kali sector because they are the largest contributors of employment in the economy.

The problem with majority of the Members of Parliament is that they don’t subject most of the legislative discussions and legislations to logic and rationality. This leads to the passage of populist legislations in the name of protecting the citizens.

Primary Causes of High Interest Rates in Kenya
There are two main causes of the high interest rates in the state; the first one is the oligopolistic nature of the credit market and the second reason is the voracious appetite for borrowing fashioned by the current administration. Kenya’s credit market is perceived as competitive, but just how competitive is it? Out of the forty two commercial banks in the economy, six of them (deemed to be the largest) control 52.4% of the credit market. This implies that the remaining thirty six banks control the remaining 47.6%, with an average share of 1.32% per bank. This is utterly ridiculous. The situation is not rosy for the microfinance institutions. According to statistics by the Central Bank of Kenya, three microfinance institutions control about 93% of the respective market share.

The determination of the interest rates in the market, in view of the above cases, will be subject to the behavior of the dominant financial institutions. The habit of the ruling administration to engage in wanton borrowing is also a significant cause because the government can borrow at any level of interest rate.

Effects of Interest Rate Controls
If the Banking Amendment Bill 2015 will be assented by the president, then the following effects are likely to be witnessed, or otherwise experienced in the economy. First, the access to financial resources by a certain segment of borrowers will be limited as the financial institutions may: establish rigid credit terms, raise the minimum size of the loans, increase and even add other non-interest fees and charges. The borrowers who will be highly affected include the first time borrowers and low-income borrowers. All these measures will be put in place by the financial institutions because of the need to maintain similar profit margins.

Secondly, the overall cost of credit (loans) for all the potential borrowers will go up owing to the expected terms to be instituted by the financial institutions. Thirdly, capping of the interest rates may occasion some of the financial institutions to withdraw from advancing credit to certain areas or sectors due to the imminent high operation costs. Another effect will be reduced investments in new markets by these entities. The other consequence will be the rise of more informal lenders (Shylocks) with the intention of filling the financial vacuum created.

The bottom line, irrespective of the individual effects, will slacken the pace and rate of financial inclusion in Kenya’s economy.

Policy Prescriptions
To address the matter of effectively lowering the interest rates, other policies other than capping of interest rates should be formulated and implemented. The first policy must obviously address the issue of competition. Kenya’s credit market needs healthy competition and this can be made possible through the amalgamation and consolidation of the small banks and the other financial institutions. We can have very few but very competitive financial institutions. The Central Bank of Kenya under the stewardship of Dr. Patrick Njoroge is putting in place measures to facilitate healthy competition and it may take a number of years.

The government should also significantly reduce on the rate at which it has been borrowing from the domestic market. There is need therefore for the Treasury chiefs to effect fiscal policies anchored on absolute austerity so as to create a conducive economic environment with regards to the level of interest rates.

Formulation of laws to control interest rates in the whole economy is illogical because such capping is supposed to spur growth and development in a certain sector/industry. In Kenya’s case, the Banking Amendment Bill 2015 doesn’t address any specific sector and President Kenyatta needs to dissent it. I believe that if Kenya’s credit market will be very competitive and free from control by a few large banks then relatively low interest rates will definitely be a reality in addition to the implementation fiscal measures that promote low levels of government borrowing.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

South Sudan’s Civil Strife in Perspective

Paul Collier, a professor of economics and public policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, documents in his book known as The Bottom Billion that civil war is likely to occur in a country that experiences the following conditions: low income among the citizens, slow economic growth or stagnation or a decline in economic growth and of course outright dependence on primary commodities.

South Sudan has the third largest oil reserves in Sub Saharan Africa. In South Sudan, oil is the largest primary commodity and as a matter of fact, 98% of the country’s revenue stream comes from the oil proceeds. This largely implies that South Sudan’s economy is primarily dependent on oil.

The occasional relapses of South Sudan into civil war, which is now turning out to be a permanent feature of the state, is a function of a series of factors which are endogenous. These factors, however, can be summed up into one; weak institutions. More specifically, such factors include elitism, corruption, unresolved questions about the natural resources (read oil), and negative ethnicity.

Juba began on a wrong footing after its separation from Khartoum following the successful conduction of a plebiscite. South Sudan had not incorporated a strong institutional framework in its system of governance especially in terms of transparency and accountability. Oil was already there even before the creation and formation of the South Sudanese state. Therefore, before its separation from the north, the elites including other power brokers had already begun positioning themselves to illicitly benefit from the oil revenue. The institutional framework of governance that was established after her independence thus seemed to favour the elites; the barons of graft and the barons of ethnicity.

The several factions and rebel groups in South Sudan are motivated by the fact that once you have power, acquisition of wealth through corruption and other voracious means is assured. The fight for the control of the economic resources is the epicenter of the civil strife. In this case, for South Sudan, the main channels for the economic resources is first through the oil revenues and secondly through the foreign aid by donors, the multi-lateral institutions and other governments.

If 98% of the total revenue stream into the country is through the proceeds from oil, then it implies that the remaining 2% is through the financial aid from the mentioned entities. On average, as per the 2015 statistical figures, South Sudan’s net oil income is approximately $1.715 billion. If this represents the 98% then the remaining 2%, which translates to $35 million, comes from other sources. However, these figures only represent the revenue and are exclusive of the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by various units like the European Union, the USA, and China among others.

The bottom line as to why Salva Kiir, Riek Machar and other rebel leaders subject the citizens of South Sudan to unending misery and suffering is the perception that the former leads a corrupt administration and that his cronies are responsible for siphoning the resources of the state. This has of course placed the Kiir-led administration on a defensive mode prompting the government to make huge allocations of the national budget towards military spending.

According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released in April 2015, South Sudan spent $1.08 billion on the military. Compare this against the total revenue of the country at that time at approximately $1.75 billion. This translates to 62% of the total revenue. According to the national budget of the Government of South Sudan, 40% of the expenditure caters for the operations and activities of the military. If in 2014 the military spending was $1.08 billion (40% of national budget) it implies that the total budget was $2.7 billion. This makes South Sudan the state with the highest proportion of its revenue directed towards military spending in the world.

If 40% of the budget and more than 60% of the revenue caters for the military expenditure it means that the capitation for development, specifically infrastructural development, is constricted. For instance, a study carried out by Oxfam International revealed that only 5% of the 2013/14 budget was used on healthcare, education and infrastructure combined. This is a hint that a larger proportion of the budget is skewed in favour of the recurrent expenditure; a huge chunk is devoted towards the payment of salaries and wages.

Again, factor in corruption and you’ll realize that the South Sudanese citizens hardly benefit from the government. And of course going by the Corruption Perception Index prepared and released by Transparency International in December 2014, South Sudan ranks at position 171 out of 175 countries. The survival of the rebels in this state is majorly through two ways: one is through proceeds from a black market in the regions which they control and two, through funding from the communities in the diaspora.

Going Forward
To ensure that South Sudan doesn’t fall into the abyss that encumbered Somalia, certain measures need to be taken. Firstly, the demilitarization of Juba has to be given the first priority. The high number of rifles and other war equipments/machineries has to be effectively reduced because going by the recent happenings assassination of the key leaders is imminent.

Concomitant to the above, the African Union and the United Nation’s Organization need to strongly advocate for the prosecution of Salva Kiir, Riek Machar and any other leader found to have committed crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court should commence its investigations into the atrocities in South Sudan. This is certainly where I find most of the African leaders very dishonest in opposing the ICC. The South Sudanese nationals are suffering and urgent action needs to be taken by prosecuting these despots who have shown no goodwill in actualizing the vision and aspirations of the South Sudanese people.

Thirdly, a three-pronged economic policy approach ought to be implemented. One of the facets of this policy has to focus on addressing the macroeconomic issues including the budgetary structure, the fiscal deficits, inflation, corruption and others. The 2016/17 budget has a deficit of $1.1 billion (25 % of the GDP) which the International Monetary Fund notes that it has to be cut to around $300 million for fiscal sustainability. Another key macroeconomic issue that has to be largely looked at and viable solutions arrived at pertains the distribution of wealth. Institutions and systems have to be established that track the goods and services provided to the public from the resource wealth.

Most importantly, another aspect of the economic policy would be for China to call for better governance in the country by virtue of being the biggest shareholder in the oil industry with 120 oil enterprises. This is the problem with the Chinese developmental policy in Africa; exploration of natural resources without advocating for establishment of efficient governance systems.

The third tenet of the economic policy relates to the admission of expatriates to offer technical services. With a literacy rate of 27% for individuals aged above 15 years, it means that the economy of South Sudan needs a relatively large pool of expatriates. This, however, is a function of the realization of political stability in the state.

South Sudan’s development in reverse can be permanently solved by first addressing the fundamentals; the institutions of governance and consequently issues about resource as well as wealth distribution.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Africa’s Progress Dependent on Strong Intra-African Trade & Efficient Governance

This month, two major conferences took place; the 27th African Union Summit in Kigali and the 14th conference of the United Nations’ Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Nairobi. The discussions at these events will undoubtedly shape the development trajectory of Africa. I will not explicitly delve into the specific outcomes of the conferences but outline the fundamentals that need to be wholesomely addressed for Africa to experience significant socio-economic growth and development.

As I have documented before, the progress of Africa largely depends on the willpower and effort of the Africans. However, the input of the developed economies and the emerging economies cannot be ignored. Fast forward, at the 14th edition of the UNCTAD, the developed economies resisted the efforts of the developing countries to strengthen UNCTAD and make it the main international body with the mandate of addressing trade inequalities and other pertinent issues that revolve around international trade. The developed countries cited that already the World Trade Organization has been tasked with that mandate.

The move by the developed economies to block such an initiative is a hegemonic disposition. To set the record straight, the WTO is an amorphous institution and not as solid and definite as other multilateral institutions in terms of their scope of work and operations. The WTO only serves as a platform for trade negotiations for the member states. This is certainly an impediment fronted by the developed nations of the world.

The progress of Africa should not be tied down by the red tapes created by the developed nations in the disguise of promoting trade discussions through the WTO or the UNCTAD. This leads to some of the fundamental issues that are to be tackled efficiently and effectively by the African countries and the respective trading partners.

The level of intra-African trade which currently accounts for 11.3% of the total trade activities of the continent needs to increase. This implies that 88.7% of Africa’s trading activities are with the other regions of the world. One key step in enhancing intra-African trade is to do away with the extant regional blocs. Africa has 8 regional economic blocs with each having its own trade concessions and agreements. According to a policy paper known as “Regional Integration: Uniting to Compete” by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation published in 2014, at least 28 African countries belong to 3 or more regional communities/groupings and 39 countries are members of more than one regional economic community.

The 8 regional blocs were the fruits of the 1991 Abuja Treaty under the auspices of the defunct Organization of African Unity (OAU) that were considered as the foundation for the African Economic Community envisaged to be established by 2028. This African Economic Community will operate on the basis of a customs and monetary union. The realization of the economic integration of the African states is a function of the free border movement across the African countries. A positive development is that during the 27th AU Summit, the visa-free access services were launched though on a piloting phase.

But caution must be taken in relation to the opening up of the borders and the imminent economic integration of the African states. An expected challenge as a result of the economic integration of African economies will centre either on the advent of convergence or the furtherance of divergence; that is, will the integration promote collective development or it will lead to a wider gap between the slightly well-off African countries and those that are less developed? Research shows that the economic integration of economies that are at nearly the same level especially the developing economies leads to more divergence than convergence; stronger economies and weaker economies producing similar commodities within the same region implies that the former has an edge over the latter (competitive advantage).

The enactment of the free border movement will obviously lead to immigration whose consequences are likely to be: brain drain from the failed states such as Somalia and South Sudan, xenophobic attacks, populist and neo-fascist politics in countries with a relatively larger proportion of immigrants, terrorism, drug trafficking among others. The realization of the intra-African trade is however dependent on the degree of spatial inclusion; infrastructural development.

The question of illicit financial flows from Africa needs a viable and almost permanent solution. The 14th edition of the UNCTAD witnessed a number of advocacy groups calling for the multilateral institutions and the developed nations to pay attention to this issue. There have been a number of initiatives and conventions to tackle the stated matter. But conventions entail mere talk and less action. It has been established that Africa loses about $50 billion annually through illicit financial flows. This translates to about 2% of the continent’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

More startling, however, were the revelations by Curtis Research documented in a research paper entitled “Honest Accounts? The True Story of Africa’s Billion Dollar Losses,” published in July 2014. The report reveals that the total financial inflows (aid, foreign direct investments, loans) to Africa amount to an average of $134 billion annually compared to an outflow of $192 billion thus a deficit of $58 billion. This translates to 5.8% of the GDP for the inflows and 8% of the GDP for the outflows. 

This is a bit skewed because Africa seems to lose more than what it gains from the various trade concessions and negotiated pacts with the other regions of the world. There is need, therefore, for the formulation of international treaties, laws and framework that should guide the economic activities between Africa and the other developed economies and emerging markets to significantly cut on this financial haemorrhage. 

But also the respective African governments have a primary role to play in institutionalizing efficient governance systems and structures. One is to weed out corruption especially in the procurement processes because some of the multi-national corporations (MNCs) seem to be bribing the government officials. The cost of corruption definitely increases the operations cost of these MNCs implying that the more flawed the system of governance the higher the amount of the repatriated profits from the continent. Poor governance creates a fertile ground for tax evasion and the prevalence of the black market.

Therefore, in seeking to address the developmental challenges affecting Africa, priority has to be accorded to the facilitation of intra-African trade and the enabling factors such as infrastructure and governance issues in terms of the illicit financial flows from the continent and generally the financial outflows from the continent.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Namwamba’s ODM Exit Is Nigh Unless.....

If you are in Kenya and you have ambitions of occupying one of the powerful and most coveted positions in the political parties, you better re-think about your machinations. Our political parties are well known to be personal and private property and it is very common to hear the statement that they have ‘owners’.

In the past few days, Orange House has witnessed a storm that was started by Members of Parliament from Western Kenya who have become an unease lot due to their marginalization in the Orange party arguably by the ‘who-is-who’ in the political outfit.

Notable officials who are among the disgruntled voices include Dr. Paul Otuoma who is one of the Vice Chairmen of the party and Mr. Ababu Namwamba, the Secretary General. Of key focus, however, has been Hon. Namwamba apparently because of the position he occupies in the party. Earlier on seen as a personality that could transform the party, Namwamba suddenly disappeared from the public limelight raising eyebrows on what might have happened to the flamboyant Member of National Assembly for Budalang’i constituency located in Busia County.
He resurfaced few weeks ago giving two reasons to justify his absence from the party’s public activities. One, he claimed that his efforts in transforming the party into a vibrant political behemoth have been frustrated by some individuals who are big wigs within the Orange Democratic Movement. Secondly, he stated that he was on paternal leave.

The first reason concerning frustrations has elicited a lot of criticism and accusations directed towards the self-styled General. But in any case his frustrations are very true. In the run-up to the party elections in early 2014, Namwamba orchestrated a very lively campaign under the auspices of Team Fresh, whose other notable member was Governor Ali Hassan Joho. The party elections didn’t take place after a melodramatic scene occasioned by the Men-In-Black who, in my own opinion, were agitating for the status quo. In other words, they were anti-reform and would never allow the Team Fresh to take office.

Fast forward, faced with the stark reality that holding another election would drain the party’s finances, the rival factions that had sprung up during the party campaigns met with the Party Leader the Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga to share the party’s positions through consensus. 

Coming into office as the new Secretary General, Namwamba declared that he was competent and would put in place major reforms especially concerning the party’s primaries that are usually marred with chaos. However, his efforts seemed to have fizzled out as soon as he began swinging his reform axe.

The smartly dressed lawyer was casted into a partial oblivion state and this gave rise to the Secretary for Political Affairs, Opiyo Wandayi and partly Senator James Orengo to assume the role of spokespersons for the party, a role that is reserved for the Secretary General.

Namwamba’s silence and his subsequent claims of being frustrated are signs that perhaps the eloquent legislator is on his way out of the Orange party. With profound hindsight, other political leaders who were in ODM and then departed came up with similar claims before they left the Raila Odinga led party. Recall the Pentagon that comprised of William Ruto, Joseph Nyaga, Musalia Mudavadi, Charity Ngilu and Najib Balala?  Why did they leave? Can you remember how the former Executive Director of ODM, Magerer Lang’at was roughed up and hounded out of office? What did he say days before he was dragged out of office? Frustrations, frustrations and frustrations.

At the moment, some members of ODM are telling Namwamba and the other frustrated officials from Western Kenya to quit but they need to revisit their simplistic thinking in relation to the political costs. These are the same individuals who dared William Ruto and Musalia Mudavadi to quit. The effect: Raila bid fare-thee-well to the presidency. And somebody at Orange House hasn’t learnt any lessons from past occurrences. Already there are rumors that the disgruntled camp is on its way to the Dr. Julia Ojiambo led Labour Party of Kenya. But why do people always leave ODM? Machine politics.

Ababu Namwamba on his part ought to have cemented his control as the SG and fight from within. But who knows may be the ghosts of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) are haunting him because his absence from the face of the party began soon after he was replaced by Engineer Nicholas Gumbo, the Rarieda Member of National Assembly, as the chairperson of PAC. So the machine politics within ODM seem to have discovered the soft belly and Achilles’ heel of the son of Busia and he needs to act like the proverbial cat with nine lives so as to resuscitate his political career.

However, Namwamba’s radical and reformist nature will never be accommodated in ODM lest he establishes his own party. Parties in Kenya are owned by individuals and one’s assertion as a heaven sent reformist can be one’s own undoing and bright political minds will have their wings clipped. In any case which party leader wants to witness a party official who is stronger if not mightier than him or her? It doesn’t just work out in Kenya, at least for now. After all, political parties in Kenya aren’t havens for radicals, reformists and visionaries.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Sustainability Of The Africa Rising Narrative

During the World Economic Forum Africa convention that took place from the 11th to the 13th of May this year quite a number of issues concerning the development and the general socio-economic progress of Africa were put forth. This is one of the several fora that present opportunities to track and evaluate the economic dispensation about the African Rising  narrative and to find out if it is sustainable not just in the short-term but in the long-term.

For over ten years the average economic growth rate for Sub-Saharan Africa has been pegged at 5% which is a relatively robust growth rate in comparison with the other continents in the world. That majority of African countries have made turn-arounds in terms of macro-economic policies among other fundamental economic reforms isn’t something to ignore but rather a fact that needs to be appreciated considering that the number of the chaos occasioned by political and economic turbulence has significantly reduced.

The surge in the economic performance of  various African countries remains questionable due to one particular aspect: and this is the slowness with which the structural transformation has taken place. Many policy analysts thus question just how sustainable this narrative of Africa Rising is. As a matter of fact, poverty levels still remain relatively high although notable progress has been made in the education sector, the health sector and the governance aspect of the various political systems. Such progress in the afore-mentioned areas is largely attributable to the Millennium Development Goals(MDGs) which were formulated in the year 2000. We can therefore partially conclude that the recent positive economic growth that has been witnessed generally across the African continent has been significantly contributed and boosted by the desire to attain the MDGs which were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) in September 2015.

For structural transformation to be effective in terms of poverty reduction and the subsequent sustainability of the Africa Rising narrative, then certain factors that are primordial need to be taken into account. One of the key factors that will enhance Africa’s economic growth rate is undoubtedly the aspect of intra-trade.

To register significant steps in terms of economic development African countries ought to increase the levels of trade amongst themselves. According to statistics by the United Nations Organization the level of intra-trade in Africa stands at around 12% compared to 40% in North America and 60% in Europe. Comparably, it is fair enough to remark that we still have a long way to go though sometimes such comparisons ought to be made with consideration in view of the periods of time that the other regions/continents registered their economic take-off.

The bottom line however remains that an increase in the level of intra-trade in Africa will have highly noticeable multiplier effects in terms of the economic growth and the structural transformation(economic development). For high levels of intra-trade in Africa to be realized attention has to be paid to the hindrances fronted by the numerous regional economic blocs that are in existence on the continent.

It will be delusional to portend that intra-African trade will prosper on the ideals of the various economic blocs that have been established. In due course, the regional economic blocs are diverse with each bloc granting preferential treatment to the commodities that are produced by the member countries. This hence implies that commodities that are produced by the members of the East African Community cannot be freely traded in the member countries of ECOWAS.

These regional blocs in as much as they have been helpful in promoting economic growth it is high time that their existence is put into question because of the high economic potential that they stifle. Establishing a free trade area in Africa or a customs union will be a milestone that will trigger rapid growth and socio-economic transformation.

The foreign aid that Africa has received for many years, the subsequent accumulated debts from such aid and the disadvantageous trade partnerships with the developed countries have created an unbalanced economic landscape in the continent and thus to achieve a balanced one means that more emphasis has to be laid on the establishment of a comprehensive and inclusive framework that creates impetus for the success of intra-African trade.

A balanced economic landscape as a result of robust and resilient intra-trade within the continent will imply the realization of more output and income from such. This will ensure that the levels of per capita income will rise significantly, savings will go up implying more investments. In fact the rising African population is a market that can be tapped and its synchronization with high levels of intra-trade will be a bigger plus. This in the long-run will ensure that Africa’s economic growth rate is sustainable and present just yet another story of an economic miracle in the world.