IMF opposes Kenya proposal to cap lending ratesBy: DUNCAN MIRIRI
NAIROBI – The International Monetary Fund opposes a proposal by parliamentarians in Kenya to cap interest rates for banks because the plan could lead to a credit squeeze, its resident representative in the east African nation said on Friday.
Ragnar Gudmundsson said if the plan were adopted into law, it would risk undermining recent financial sector gains, including widening access to financial services and limiting the development of financial markets.
“The biggest concern is that those measures might lead to credit rationing. If we have caps on lending rates, there is clearly a risk that banks will simply be inclined to extend less credit,” he told Reuters.
Parliament is set to debate a motion brought by Martin Ogindo, a legislator from western Kenya, who is seeking a law to set the minimum deposit rate at 70 per cent of the central bank rate and cap lending rates at no more than 400 basis points above the rate.
The proposal has some populist support, and businesses and officials have long complained of high commercial lending rates, which they say hinder economic growth. Analysts say other lawmakers could latch onto the issue especially in an election year. In Uganda there have already been strikes over the high cost of credit.
Gudmundsson said promoting competition and enhancing consumer protection measures and empowering credit reference bureaus could lower borrowing costs.
Credit to the private sector has surged in recent years, reaching 1,161 trillion shillings (US$13,54 billion) at the end of last year, up from 888 billion shillings at the end of 2010.
But an aggressive tightening cycle since October last year to stabilise the exchange rate and fight inflation, now at 18,9 per cent, has given rise to concerns about what will happen to the quality of credit. Kenya’s benchmark interest rate is at 18 per cent.
“The financial system in Kenya is in a strong position but because of the high interest rate environment there are some concerns linked to credit quality,” he said.
Non-performing loans as a proportion of gross loans in the sector fell to 4,9 per cent by September last year from 10,6 per cent at the end of 2007.
While the plunge in bad debts was good news, the very rapid credit growth was partly blamed for a steep weakening of the shilling last year that was accompanied by high inflation, and this is still a cause for concern.
“A key priority is to bring domestic demand under control and to contain inflation,” said the resident representative.
Lending to the private sector grew by 30 per cent in December from a year earlier, slowing only slightly from 36 per cent growth in September despite the start of aggressive monetary tightening.
“Growth in credit to the private sector should be coming down to 20 per cent by June 2012 and this is a much more reasonable and sustainable rate of growth,” said Gudmundsson.
The IMF expects Kenya’s economy to grow 5,6 per cent in 2012 after expanding by an estimated 4,5-5,0 per cent last year.
Growth this year would be driven by the agriculture and services sectors, including tourism, trade and the financial sector, he said.
The outlook assumes the implementation of tighter monetary and fiscal policies, good rains, global growth staying on course and a stable security situation. Kenyan forces are pursuing al Shabaab rebels in neighbouring Somalia and there are concerns that the rebels could retaliate and disrupt economic activity.
It is also dependent on the election, scheduled for late this year or early 2013, running smoothly, following deadly clashes after the last poll that was disputed in 2007.
Gudmundsson said the IMF was optimistic the election would go smoothly due to constitutional reforms that are being implemented. Kenyan polls have been marred for years by tribal violence, stemming from long-standing land disputes, although the blood-letting after the 2007 vote was by far the worst.