> Posted by a Nairobi-Based Consultant

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Kenya and Nigeria are often heralded as two of the most dynamic economies in Africa. They could soon have something else in common: interest rate caps.

Banks in Kenya have urged President Uhuru Kenyatta to dismiss a new bill which caps loan interest rates and provides for sanctions (fines and prison) directly to the CEOs of banks that fail to do so. This is not the first time such a proposal has come forward; the last one having come at a time the incumbent president was Minister for Finance. Should the President sign off on the bill it will become law, and lending rates will be capped at 400 basis points above the Central Bank discount rate which now stands at 10.5 percent.

Understandably, the prospect of such limits has caused anxiety amongst lenders. Through the Kenya Bankers Association, Kenya’s bankers immediately lodged appeals to the government arguing that capping interest rates is counterproductive and against the free market economy premises Kenya enjoys. We are yet to see how the financial markets react.

For their part, politicians are perturbed that banks have not done anything to reduce their lending rates in spite of the current low cost structures brought about by the benefits of disruption and instead have continued to reap “obscene” profits, seemingly insensitive to complaints from customers on the burden of high interest rates. The current average lending rates are about 18 percent although some borrowers pay as high as 24 percent and more for short-term as well as medium-term loans (and generally more for loans from online lenders and microfinance institutions).

Obviously, the timing is not innocent, but rather coincides with the elections coming in the next year. The President might be pressured to sign the bill to appease the lower customer segment, who are the majority voters.

One cause of public frustration over rates may stem from poor transparency, as many lenders disguise their prices to keep customers from recognizing what they are actually paying. Kenya’s consumer protections are not as well developed as they could be – as shown by Kenya’s poor scoring on this dimension in the Global Microscope 2015.

Kenya is not the only country to be actively contemplating interest rate caps. Similar proposals emerged in Nigeria a few months ago. In Nigeria the lending community strongly appealed to prevent the caps. The outcome is not yet clear. Rumors exist that the government in Nigeria has been considering reversing their proposal, but there is no formal feedback yet posted to this effect.

From the perspective of the participants in CFI’s Africa Board Fellowship Program, such as a former bank executive in Nigeria, caps are not conducive for business and indeed sometimes harm the very customers that governments are trying to protect.

Back in Kenya, we are yet to hear the clear stand of the Central Bank, and we expect that the President will not sign without listening to the Governor. On Wednesday, the Central Bank received a delegation of Kenyan banks led by the Kenya Bankers Association, committing in a good will gesture to reduce interest rates as well as eliminate some non-interest rate charges. In response, the Central Bank stated, “The CBK welcomes the move. It is a step in the right direction.”

On Friday, the Speaker of the National Assembly announced that the bill was being reviewed by the Attorney General and himself. It is expected that the Speaker will forward the bill to the President today. Once the President receives the bill, he has 14 days to accept or reject it.

It seems to me that we have not seen the last of interest rate caps and regulations in this industry, in Kenya and Nigeria – and indeed in Africa and elsewhere.

Have you read?

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