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Companies find it difficult to strike the right footing

TALKING to many business owners today, the major impediment in their way is the lack of working capital and long term loans to re-structure their balance sheets after a decade of negative physical capital formation. That granted, they see a bright future where productive capacity utilisation levels will increase.

Notwithstanding the current predictability of the broad pricing mechanism, many fail to understand why the domestic debt markets have remained tight for those seeking transformative loans. Isn’t it so strange that easy bank overdraft facilities used to be largely one year during the chaotic hyper-inflationary environment fraught with fever-pitch uncertainty, yet with the current stability, many borrowing corporates would be lucky to be extended an overdraft facility beyond three months today?
It appears strange indeed! However, looking deeper will reveal much bigger sectoral challenges in the adjustment phase of the economy.
Inasmuch as there is predictability in general pricing, with forecasts not as wild and wide as before, economy-wide, liquidity has remained tight, forcing banks to cling to deposits cautiously. The absence of risk-free liquid assets which banks can hold for trading purposes has compounded the problem further, pushing the banks to manage potential liquidity risks through managing the duration of the loans.
Which bank might have cared to manage liquidity during the hay days of excessive government spending in 2008? There is an about turn, and sober realities of the steady normal economy are bringing about change in the way business is done. Dollarisation and the accompanying cash budget have brought crippling fiscal discipline to government behaviour. The government has lost the fiscal leverage to print money, and cannot be the source of liquidity glut that intoxicated the markets of yester-year. This is therefore a bigger challenge to the banks, with each having to keep liquidity close to its chest, more so when the “lender of last resort” function of the central bank is almost non-existent today.
The speculative days of yester-year associated with easy wealth are gone. The deep and steady currents in the sea of economic activities gravitating towards normalcy can result in excessive bad loans on bank balance sheet from borrowers misjudging the market dynamics. Therefore prudent restraint on credit creation being exercised by the banks is normal, more so when the world is just coming out of a mess created by reckless banks whose appetite for lending was foolish.
Considering other challenges facing the financial markets and the economy as a whole, it is therefore not surprising to find that the average cost of capital is quite high in Zimbabwe today. Annualised costs of borrowing are rocketing above 80% per annum in extreme cases.
In a market where price controls and other experimental administrative policies have proved disastrous, regulating the cost and duration of debt instruments today outside the ordinary moral suasion will not work, and therefore the only feasible and sustainable policy framework would be attracting lines of credit at both government and private sector levels to thaw the market. The market rigidities in Zimbabwe, as in Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania, are largely to blame for high cost of debt.
In Zambia, notwithstanding the stable inflation and an outlook that is not as gloomy, the lending rates remain so high around 30% per annum. The fact that the government securities to loans ratio for the banks stand at 41% points to more worries about credit risks in the Zambian economy. Attaining efficiency in Zambia’s monetary policy transmission mechanism has proven difficult, with the disparity between the annual risk-free rate of 16% and the lending rates at 30% pointing more towards the challenges of limited liquidity and shallow dept in the economy where bank deposits are only 28% of GDP. The politicians in Zambia have started on the moral suasion route, with the government pleading with the banks to reduce the high lending rates that are viewed to be hindering the rate of economic growth.
The policy challenge associated with poor transmission of monetary policy to influence real activities in the economy continues to haunt many countries in Africa today. Tanzania’s bank lending rates above 20% per annum versus the 8% yield on risk-free government TBs reveal similar policy challenges in an economy where bank deposits are only 44% of GDP. The absence of a secondary market for credit instruments will likely continue to strengthen the discord.
Zimbabwean corporates are therefore not outliers on the continent. Being buffeted already by weak domestic demand and power challenges, Zimbabwean companies will find it difficult to strike the right competitive footing against South African producers who, amid all the other advantages, can interrogate their debt markets at reasonable costs.


By Brains Muchemwa

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