Kenya caps bank interest rates

KENYA’S president Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law a bill limiting how much interest banks can charge for loans, despite assertions by top government officials that the legislation would damage access to credit in East Africa’s biggest economy.

Lawmakers in the nation, which eliminated interest-rate limits in July 1991, voted for an amendment to the Banking Act that would require lenders to peg credit costs at 400 basis points above the benchmark central bank rate.

The law also compels financial institutions to pay interest of a minimum of 70 percent of the so-called CBR on deposits.“I have consulted widely and it is clear to me from those consultations that Kenyans are disappointed and frustrated with the lack of sensitivity by the financial sector, particularly banks,” Kenyatta said in an e-mailed statement. “These frustrations are centered around the cost of credit and the applicable interest rates on their hard–earned deposits. I share these concerns.”

Kenyan lenders extended loans at a weighted average rate of 18 percent in June, according to the most recent statistics from the central bank, compared with 15,7 percent a year earlier.In comparison, the central bank has cut the CBR by one percentage point to 10,5 percent this year. It also lowered the Kenya Bankers’ Reference Rate, or KBRR, by 97 basis points.The decision is negative for Kenya’s banking industry, Alistair Gould, CEO of African Alliance Ltd’s Nairobi-based unit, said by phone.“The new law will cause a decline in net interest margins by at least 200 basis points, causing banks to charge other fees to customers to make up for the lost income,” he said. “We expect reduced earnings growth from banks in the medium-term, which could further dampen sentiment towards the listed banks on the Nairobi Securities Exchange.”

Central bank governor Patrick Njoroge had opposed the move to cap rates, saying it would harm the US$61 billion economy, though he has repeatedly asked lenders to reduce what he termed as “remarkably high” loan costs.Kenyatta’s decision comes a year before he will seek a second term in elections set to take place next August and signal that electoral politics has taken center stage in the economy, Teneo Intelligence senior associate Ahmed Salim said in an e-mailed note.

“Kenyatta has his eyes firmly fixed on the upcoming polls,” Salim said. “Kenyatta’s signature under the banking bill enables the president to make good on his promise to bring down interest rates.”Two previous attempts by lawmakers to legislate borrowing costs failed and lenders didn’t “live up to their promises” to cut rates and reduce the spreads between deposit and lending rates, Kenyatta said.Commercial banks say the government’s insatiable appetite for funds from the domestic market was the main reason their lending rates have remained high.Since the central bank’s July 28 decision to cut the reference rate for Kenyan banks, lenders including HF Group Ltd. and National Bank of Kenya Ltd. have said they would reduce lending costs.— Bloomberg

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