I recently dined with a European diplomat who asked the ubiquitous question that foreign residents in this country like to do: “What do you think will happen at the next Kenyan elections?” Before I tell you what I answered, I have to state categorically and most unequivocally that I am neither a political analyst nor commentator. I do, however, occasionally comment on the confluence of politics and economics as often happens invariably. That confluence is particularly necessary in the banking industry, where I spent many happy years, when analyzing credit risk of a customer for a term loan of not less than five years.
Within the duration of that loan such a customer is bound to cross the Kenyan election cycle. Depending on the nature of the customer’s business, the company is likely to have difficulties in loan repayments due to cash flow constraints occasioned by poor sales, deplorable debt collections or, heaven forbid, destruction of the company premises therefore impacting on the ability to produce the goods and services that are being procured. My answer to the diplomat saw him imperceptibly swallow and he leaned forward in interest.
“There will be bloodshed in 2017 as the historical patterns demonstrate it.”
“What do you mean?” he whispered.
“In banking, we look at historical behavior as a strong barometer of what future behavior is likely to portend. To understand our history of political violence, you have to start in 1992 when the first multi party elections were held,” I began. “In that year, you had an incumbent who was running against a very strong and credible opposition. That was when Kenya endured the first of several bloody episodes of tribal clashes.” I went on. “In 1997, the same incumbent was running for his second and last term as president. He had the benefit of the state machinery behind him, as well as a fragmented opposition. This time, the political waters were muddied in the coast region, where the pre-election clashes were largely centered. The coastal tourism economy very nearly collapsed and the hotel industry underwent massive bankruptcies.”
“Well what do you make of the peaceful election in December 2002?” the diplomat asked. “Doesn’t that destroy the pattern of electoral violence?”
“Actually, therein lies the pattern,” I responded. “Every time an incumbent is stepping down, there has been a peaceful transition in Kenya. It happened in 2002 and in 2013. But whenever there’s been an incumbent fighting to maintain the status quo, there has been bloodshed; ergo 1992, 1997 and 2007. The 2017 elections are a status quo event. The pattern will be the same.” My lunch partner mulled over this for a few minutes and promptly changed the subject.
In 2008, a few banks took advantage of the politically instigated clashes in the beginning months of the year to blame the growth in non-performing loans. Some of this was not entirely true and was a slick way of reporting previously suppressed bad loans. But you’d think that the regulator would have cottoned on to the games being played. It didn’t. It is not difficult to see why, when you look at the kind of pedestrian analysis the banking supervision department at the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) undertakes. In the recently released 2014 Bank Supervision Annual Report, the Central Bank dedicates the monumental amount of three sentences to analyze the 2014 asset quality of the entire banking industry. I will pick two of the three sentences as an illustration:
“ The lag effects of high interest regime in 2012/2013 and subdued economic activities witnessed in the period ended December 2014 impacted negatively on the quality of loans and advances. As a result, non performing loans (NPLs) increased by 32.4% to Kshs 108.3 billion in December 2014 from Kshs 81.8 billion in December 2013.”
When your non-performing asset book increases by a third, it requires a fair amount of explaining beyond the vanilla high interest rates and subdued economic activities reasoning. There should be a fairly robust amount of granularity around the specific industries driving the poor performance of loans. It is an open secret that the central government endured inordinate cash flow challenges in 2014 that impacted key suppliers of services, particularly in the construction industry. This would invariably have a knock on effect to the suppliers of construction companies such as cement, cable and ballast for example. But this is what should be of concern as we hurtle towards an election cycle in the next two years. The retail loan book across the banking industry is the single largest loan segment with 3.6 million accounts grossing Kshs 516 billion and accounting for 26.6% of total loans in the market. This is ahead of trade at Kshs 375 billion (19.3% of total loans) and manufacturing at Kshs 237 billion or 12.2% of total loans. Retail loans, codified by the CBK as personal/household loans, are consumer loans and in this market represent the largely salary check off loans that pepper many banks’ unsecured loan offers. It’s highly likely that the bulk of these loans are used to purchase consumer items such as cars, furniture and electronics rather than investment in income generating activities. A political event such as post election violence, followed by an economic downturn caused by reduction in productive capacity of Kenyan companies will lead to retrenchments. You can also never underestimate the capacity of cheeky borrowers to take advantage of politically volatile environments to stop repaying loans due to destruction of work places and such like sob stories. I saw it happen in 2008.
A notable risk therefore sits in the banking industry come 2017: any delays in government payments (partly occasioned by tax collection difficulties on the part of Kenya Revenue Authority) together with probable election related violence will negatively impact bank loan books. Don’t be surprised if you find difficulty getting an answer on your loan application that year. Your bank is just not that into you in an election year.