China, officially the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), is a country in East Asia and is the most populous country in the world, with a population of around 1.4 billion people. It is also one of the world’s first civilizations.
With over 34,687 species of animals and plants, China is the third-most biodiverse country in the world after Brazil and Colombia. It is home to at least 551 species of mammals, 1221 species of birds and 424 species of reptiles and 333 species of amphibians; most of which are consumed as food.
On December 31 last year, Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organization, WHO, of an outbreak of a novel strain of coronavirus causing severe illness. It was subsequently named SARS-CoV-2 and is now known as the causative agent of COVID-19. The origin of the virus was the city of Wuhan in China.
The disease, that has flu-like symptoms, has so far infected over 2 million people and caused over 140,000 deaths across 209 countries around the world. The effects it has left in its trail have caused different countries to take extreme measures in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.
This is, however, not the first time China has been the origin of a viral outbreak.
In February 1957, the Asian flu (H2N2) virus emerged in East Asia, triggering a pandemic. It was later traced back to China with a stop in Singapore. It then spread to Hong Kong and to coastal cities in the United States in the summer of 1957.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, the number of deaths caused by the virus stands at 1.1 million people worldwide including 116,000 in the US. A vaccine was developed and the flu tapered off in 1958.
Though the cause is still not known, some authors believe the virus originated from a mutation in wild bucks combining with a pre-existing human strain. The strain later evolved, causing a milder pandemic between 1968-69.
The Asian flu was characterized by symptoms similar to many other strains of influenza, including fever, body aches, chills, cough, weakness, and loss of appetite. It is a respiratory illness, so a dry cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing are all widely reported among flu sufferers. Other complications include pneumonia, seizures and heart failure.
Hong Kong Flu
The Hong Kong flu (H3N2) outbreak occurred in Hong Kong, China, between 1968-1969, killing an estimated 1 million people globally. It is said to have evolved from the H2N2 strain of influenza that had caused the Asian Flu.
It occurred in two waves, and in most places, the second wave caused more deaths that the first. A vaccine was later developed against the virus but it became available only after the pandemic had peaked in many countries.
Infection caused upper respiratory symptoms typical of influenza and produced symptoms of chills, fever and muscle pain and weakness. These symptoms usually persisted for between four and six days.
The H3N2 virus is still in circulation today and is considered to be a strain of seasonal influenza. In the 1990s, a closely related virus was isolated from pigs.
In 1997, human infections with Bird flu (H7N9) were first reported in China. It is a zoonotic disease (one that passes from an animal or insect to a human), which infects humans after exposure to infected poultry or contaminated environments. Rare instances of person-to-person spread were been identified in China.
Since then, annual sporadic infections have been reported outside of Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao, but all the cases have occurred among people who had travelled to China before becoming ill.
The current risk to the general public’s health posed by the virus is low but exposure to infected poultry pauses the risk of it spreading to neighbouring countries. There have been 6 waves of the epidemic over the years with the last one being in 2017.
Early symptoms included fever, headache, coughing that produces sputum, muscle pain breathing problems and general malaise. In later stages, other symptoms include pneumonia, multi-organ dysfunction, septic shock and brain damage.
In 2002, a viral respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV), was reported in Asia. It is thought to be an animal virus from an as-yet-uncertain animal reservoir, perhaps bats, that spread to other animals (civet cats) and first infected humans in the Guangdong province of Southern China.
According to National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, NFID, coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that cause diseases in animals and humans. They often circulate among camels, cats, and bats, and can sometimes evolve and infect people. They are named for the crown-like spikes on their surface.
Human coronaviruses were first identified in the mid-1960s. The CDC states that there are 7 coronaviruses that can infect people.
The SARS epidemic from China affected 26 countries and resulted in over 8000 infections in 2003. Some of the affected areas included Toronto in Canada, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China, Chinese Taipei, Singapore and Hanoi in Vietnam.
SARS also had influenza-like symptoms including fever, malaise, muscle pain, headache, diarrhoea, shivering, coughing (initially dry) and shortness of breathe. Severe cases often evolve rapidly, progressing to respiratory distress and requiring intensive care.
So Is China Fertile Ground For Future Pandemics?
Given the history above and the current situation the world is experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic, what does China hold in terms of future outbreaks?
Dr Eddy Okoth Odari, a senior lecturer and researcher of Medical Virology in the Department of Medical Microbiology at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), points out several factors.
“Potential for a pandemic would depend on various socio-economic and geopolitical factors attributed to a country or region. Most pandemics that have emanated from China have been viral in nature and have occurred as a result of such viruses crossing species from animals to humans. Viruses’ crossing from animals to humans is not a strange phenomenon. However, we have to appreciate that most of these viruses, which eventually end up in pandemics, have been traced to the “Wildlife Markets” (wet markets) in Southern China. The activity of trading in wildlife is unique to that region. China being an economic hub where a lot of businesses take place, many people travel to and out of China and therefore I would imagine that any outbreak occurring in China would easily and quickly spread to other regions compared to if such an outbreak would occur for example in an African country.”
In late January, China imposed a ban on trade and consumption of wildlife meat acquired through illegal trading activities, as cases of COVID-19 surged in Wuhan. The city of Shenzen went a step further to extend the ban on cats and dogs. This new law will be enforced on 1st May.
There have been 81,802 cases, 3,333 deaths and 77,279 recoveries since the outbreak (see our tracker for the most up to date numbers), numbers whose veracity continues to be heavily criticized after Chinese authorities reportedly suppressed the news of the outbreak when it first began.
However, for the first time since January, Wuhan reported no new deaths on April 7, joining the rest of China, which has reportedly seen no deaths since March – even though questions have been raised about the veracity of China’s claims. This sharp decline has been attributed to aggressive testing, quarantines and social distancing. Authorities have begun to ease restrictions on lockdowns though still taking precautions to fully resume normalcy in the country.
As to what the future of pandemics holds, Dr Okoth says it is not that easy to tell.
“It may not be possible to predict where a future pandemic may come from, but it is worth assessing such socio-economic and geopolitical factors when trying to generate a model to predict future pandemics.”
He, however, has a warning for African countries.
“Although so far tropical Africa is not recording very high cases as compared to the temperate regions, seasonal variations may work against us. For example, the cold season starting in June through to the end of July (in the case of Kenya) and other southern African countries may make these regions become the epicentres of infections (if not controlled in time) in the coming months.”
This article was originally published by Africa Uncensored. Graphics by Clement Kumalija.
The Drivers of Inflation During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The drivers of inflation during the COVID-19 pandemic period resulted from demand-pull inflation, cost-push inflation and money supply.
Jane Muthoni can still put together a tasty ‘ugali-madondo’ dish, a local specialty of Makongeni composed of maize flour and beans in a savory stew.
Trouble is, the dish and other tasty delicacies cost a lot more to make now than they did back in 2015 when she started the business, thanks to the hidden economic forces.
To operate her popular cafe, known by locals as a “kibanda”, Muthoni says she has to pay three times as much for charcoal, and 30 percent more for kerosene, her primary cooking fuels. On top of that, the price of food ingredients is also up – maize flour is up more than 12 percent.
While not all items in the Kenyan economy are experiencing this price inflation, the rising costs are putting extra pressure on businesses that are already struggling with losses related to the health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Inflation generally refers to the upward price movement of goods and services in an economy. It represents the overall loss of purchase power of money. The more prices soar upwards, the less each Kenya shilling is worth.
The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) measures inflation using the Consumer Price Index (CPI). CPI is measured by a weighted average cost of a basket of selected goods and services such as food, housing, health, transport and so on. The inflation rate is typically the average change in the CPI over time, say year to year.
Muthoni, like many other Kenyans, does not necessarily understand why the prices of the items change over time.
This article assesses three drivers of inflation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Demand-Pull Inflation
When the market demand for goods and services, such as flour, beans, charcoal, transport and others that Muthoni needs to run her çafe, outgrows the market supply, it causes demand-pull inflation.
It starts with an increase in demand by consumers, and sellers will react to that demand by increasing their supply. This leads to pressure on the scarce supplies making sellers raise their prices. This is one of the scenarios that result in inflation.
A marginal increase in inflation is observed between March and April in the graph above. This can be attributed to the demand-pull inflation as Kenyans were driven to panic buying and stocking of essential supplies such as food in anticipation of what would happen following the confirmation of the first COVID-19 patient in the country. The growth in aggregate demand resulted in a reduced availability of these goods causing higher prices hence the slight increase in the inflation rate.
Muthoni grappled with this increased cost on food supplies for her cafe which raised her expenses – cutting into her profit margins.
Another reason for demand-pull inflation could have been the depreciation of the Kenya shilling which in turn would increase import prices and reduce prices of exports. This meant fewer people had capacity to import while exporters would earn more. Since Kenya relies heavily on imports, this resulted in a growth of the total demand of goods and services in the economy
To mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to the Kenyan economy, the Government approved tax reduction and relief measures that were effected from the 25th April 2020.
This meant that taxpayers had more disposable income. It would be expected that the tax reduction would have raised demand, which would drive the price of goods and services upwards.
However, the reverse is observed on the chart above as the inflation rate steadily decreased from May onwards. This can be explained by the fact that some Kenyans lost jobs (estimated at 1.7 million by the KNBS), some received pay-cuts whereas others, in informal employment, were not eligible.
2. Cost-Push Inflation
When supply costs of goods and services rise due to increasing cost of production or raw materials, and demand remains the same, prices will rise. This will cause cost-push inflation.
Cost-push inflation can be attributed to the expectation of inflation where people foresee prices for goods or services rising. The marginal increase in inflation observed between March and April can be attributed to the uncertainty of the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This could have affected Muthoni’s business as the increased cost of food supplies was transferred from the farmers to producers, from wholesalers to retailers and finally borne by customers like her.
The depreciation of a currency rate can also cause cost-push inflation as it leads to an increase in the prices of imported goods such as raw materials for production. In return, producers transfer this growth in prices to consumers, which results in inflation.
3. Money Supply
All the currency and other liquid assets in an economy is referred to as money supply. It includes both cash and deposits that can be used almost as easily as cash. When there is more money supply in circulation, it will increase market demand. This in turn can lead to more domestic (local) production or an increase in prices. If domestic production is fixed, then any increase in market demand of goods and services will cause a rise in prices leading to inflation.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) reduced the Central Bank Rate (CBR) to 7.25 percent from 8.25 percent and Cash Reserve Ratio (CRR) to 4.25 percent from 5.25 percent to avert a severe economic and financial crisis. This resulted in more money supply, of Kshs 35.2 billion. This offered banks additional liquidity and funds to lend.
While this offered Muthoni a chance to secure a bank loan, she was not confident that her cash flows would sustain its repayment as her customers kept reducing by the day.
The chart above reveals that the increase in money supply did not cause an increase in inflation. This could be attributed to growth of domestic production at the same rate as money supply, implying that the money is absorbed in production.
It could also be attributed to low circulation of the money in the economy. When the average number of times that money is spent on goods and services is low despite an increase in money supply, the prices are likely to remain low as observed at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic period.
Was the inflation rate uniform for all the basket items though?
The change in Basket Consumer Price Index was different across various categories.
The main driver for the decline in the inflation rate is consistent decrease in food and non-alcoholic beverages prices from May onwards. This can be linked to the reduction of VAT from 16 percent to 14 percent.
In contrast, the cost of transport increased sharply between June and July. This is attributed to an increase in demand for people travelling following the lifting of the cessation of movement into and out of the Nairobi Metropolitan area, Mombasa county and Mandera county on the 7th of July, 2020.
The cost of alcoholic beverages, tobacco and narcotics remained relatively stable until June when prices started to decline owing to reduced demand as a result of the suspension on the operation of bars.
Muthoni and colleagues dealing in restaurants and food businesses were allowed to remain open only for take away services. However, the demand for restaurants and hotels is seen to dip during the peak period of the COVID-19 pandemic, but things seem to be looking up from the month of August as prices for their services have gone up by close to 3 percent.
Since schools and learning institutions have been closed since March, the prices for education services have barely changed.
The drivers of inflation during the COVID-19 pandemic period resulted from demand-pull inflation, cost-push inflation and money supply. Despite the almost consistent decline in the inflation rates, the change in the Consumer Price Index did not depict a similar trend for all the goods and services.
Additional contribution by Purity Mukami.
This article was first published by Africa Uncensored’s Piga Firimbi
Kenya Transactions in FinCEN Files Raise Suspicions Around Coffee and Ivory Trade
Twenty-four Kenyan financial institutions were named in the reports as either beneficiaries’ banks or banks through which companies and individuals made suspicious payments from countries that include the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, British Virgin Islands and China.
At least 53 Kenyan companies and individuals appear in a leak of banking records submitted to the US Department of Treasury as suspicious financial activity, according to an analysis of leaked bank documents by Africa Uncensored.
The documents, submitted by some of the world’s largest banks to the US Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, also known as FinCEN, were obtained by BuzzFeed News. BuzzFeed News shared the documents with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) which coordinated 110 media partners around the world.
The size of the leak, 2,100 suspicious activity reports filed by U.S. banks, or SARs, is unprecedented. While the documents are not evidence of wrongdoing, they provide a unique, bird’s-eye view of global illicit money flows often obtained through corruption and other crimes.
Twenty-four Kenyan financial institutions were named in the reports as either beneficiaries’ banks or banks through which companies and individuals made suspicious payments from countries that include the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, British Virgin Islands and China.
“Banks are at the heart of the finance industry. Both legitimate and illegitimate finance moves through financial institutions. Big money is not carried in suitcases but through very respectable banks and other international financial institutions”, says Alvin Musioma, executive director of Tax Justice Network Africa.
Additional reporting by Africa Uncensored also linked shareholders of Commercial Bank of Africa — now named NCBA Group — which is co-owned by Kenya’s first family, to a company that received millions of US dollars in potentially suspicious payments for coffee and DVD players.
The Coffee Case
The New York branch of Standard Chartered, which acted as an intermediary bank, flagged payments sent to a company called SMS Ltd which the bank identified as having addresses in Kenya, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and Bulgaria.
In the reports, the bank described SMS Ltd as being “in [the] pharmaceutical and medical products” industry. However, the bank noted, the companies sending the payments were in completely different lines of businesses, including commodities trading, vegetable oil production, and coffee exports.
Of the $14 million that SMS Ltd received between 2005 and 2013, $3.3 million was paid by Kenyan entities. More than $2 million of that was from two coffee Kenyan dealers, East African Gourmet Coffees Ltd and Servicoff Ltd. In fact, the companies are connected to each other and share company officers with companies linked to the Kenyatta family.
According to company registration documents, East African Gourmet Coffees’ directors include an obscure company with no online presence, New Start Nominee Limited, and two individuals, Kibet Torut and Peter Kimathi Kinyua, who also owns Servicoff Ltd.
One of the shareholders of Servicoff Ltd is Ropat Nominees Ltd, the second-largest shareholder of NCBA Group, co-owned by President Kenyatta’s family via their company Enke Investments Limited.
The two Ropat Nominees’ directors co-own other companies, including one with John Stuart Armitage, who appears in numerous companies owned by Kenya’s first family. The company, Southbrook Holdings, was recently at the centre of a contentious land sale deal involving the president’s mother.
Contacted by journalists, Peter Kimathi Kinyua said that Servicoff Ltd’s payments to SMS Ltd (registered in Kenya as Sustainable Management Services Limited) have been for the purchase of coffee. He declined to comment on the involvement of Ropat Nominees Ltd except to confirm that the company is part of the nominee shareholders.
“We normally deal with SMS – Sustainable Management Services, a coffee marketing agent at Nairobi Coffee Exchange,” said Kibet Torut while denying knowledge of SMS Ltd and the transactions quoted from the suspicious activity report, in an email response.
Kinyua was appointed by President Uhuru Kenyatta as board chairman for Kenya Forest Service in 2018.
Both Kinyua and Kibet Torut denied having any business ties to the president.
According to their website, Servicoff Ltd, has been growing, processing roasting and blending coffee since 1969. The company shares an email domain name with East African Gourmet Coffees Ltd, the other coffee dealer named in the bank’s report.
Import records confirm that Servicoff has been shipping Washed Kenya Arabica AA coffee since 2007, mainly to the U.S.
The bank report also noted that SMS Ltd had received $1.3 million from Louis Dreyfus Commodities Kenya, listed as a commodity broker in the SAR, the local branch of a global trade firm headquartered in Switzerland that deals in the coffee business too. Africa Uncensored has identified that one of the directors behind the Nairobi branch of Louis Dreyfus is Alexander Mareka Dietz, who is also a director in a company with Udi Mareka Gecaga, a one-time brother-in-law to President Kenyatta.
Reporters were unable to reach Dietz, and automated replies to emails sent to the company address indicate that only approved senders are able to email the company.
Company records obtained by Africa Uncensored reveal that Sustainable Management Services (SMS) Limited is wholly owned by East Africa MM Co. LLC, which is registered in the US state of Delaware, a recognised haven for shell companies due to its reputation for corporate secrecy and tax breaks.
On a US coffee seller’s website, SMS Ltd markets Kenya AA coffee that is handpicked by many small-holding farmers in central Kenya.
According to the Kenya Biogas program website, the company is “one of the partners working with coffee farmers through targeted capacity building on climate change through projects.”
A snapshot of their website in 2016 reveals that SMS Ltd is a group company of Ecom Agro-Industrial Corporation Limited, which is registered in Switzerland with the Esteve family its ultimate beneficial owner. Ecom’s website lists an office at Tatu City coffee park in Ruiru, Kenya where SMS Ltd is located, according to its Facebook page.  The Esteve family also runs ECOM Coffee, a leading global coffee miller and coffee trader.
However, according to the FinCEN files, of the 201 transactions SMS Ltd received totalling over $14 million, more than half came from a Dubai-based vegetable oils production company for the purchase of television and DVD player.
When asked by journalists to comment on why a Kenyan company with a Delaware-registered shareholder markets coffee from Kenyan farmers to Kenyan companies exporting to the US, Musioma, the Tax Justice Network Africa executive director, had this to say:
“The fact that we are talking of companies being registered in tax havens and coming in, speaks of the lax laws we have when it comes to beneficial ownership. You might find that there is a conflict of interest here emanating from the directors of these companies being the ones that are involved in those transactions”.
Reporters were unable to reach SMS Ltd. Emails to the parent company in Switzerland went unanswered.
Victoria Commercial Bank and Middle East Bank (MEB) Kenya Ltd did not respond to questions concerning these transactions, some of which were processed by the banks.
Standard Chartered Bank, whose New York branch filed the suspicious activity report, did not respond in time for publication.
“No More Bullshit”
In another set of transactions in a separate suspicious activity report reviewed by Africa Uncensored, a would-be fashionista named Joyce Oweya Anyumba — a 33-year-old with addresses in Buruburu, Nairobi, and Mombasa — held an account with the Barclays Bank of Kenya from 2015.
Her industry included interior design, curio and African wear, according to Barclays’ report.
However, between July 2015 and October 2016, the account sent and received about 63 wire transfers totalling to $197,094.51. Anyumba received funds from banks in Qatar, the US, Australia, China, Germany and Sweden; she also wired a total of $1234.45 in small payments to individuals in the US, Australia, Canada, Sweden, China and Singapore that the bank could not verify.
The transactions were flagged by the bank because of unidentified sources of funds, unclear economic purposes of the transactions, and potentially being third-party payments.
The justifications for the payments included descriptions such as “bill settlement”, “construction of house” and “consultation fees”, according to the bank’s report.
Other payment details included “government first payment”, “gift finalization of matters discussed”, and “supplier invoice payment to be forwarded”.
One sender from Australia made 13 transfers worth almost $12,000 to Anyumba within a year. The payment details included the mysterious notes: “supplier invoice the money better come back” and “supplier invoice make good on your promise no ivor no more bullshit.” The bank noted in its report: “ivor probably meaning ivory.”
Anyumba denied knowledge of these transactions in an email.
“Am sorry sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Anyumba when we asked her to confirm the above transactions. She did not reply to our follow up emails on her age, address and whether she is in the business of selling clothes and interior design materials.
There is no legal trade in ivory in Kenya, according to Dr Richard Thomas, the head of communications for TRAFFIC, a UK-based wildlife trade monitoring organisation. “It doesn’t come as any surprise to hear you say there’s essentially no record of [the parties]”, Thomas told reporters.
“Wildlife is like any other commodity that’s traded: there’s buyers and sellers and money changes hands. International commercial ivory trade is banned under CITES, but the trafficking of it takes place, run by largely Asia-based organised criminal syndicates. One effective strategy to targeting such networks is through following the money”, said Thomas.
Other senders of money to Anyumba include an American man with a history of shoplifting and bankruptcy, according to the bank’s suspicious activity report.
The account was expected to have an annual turnover of about 16 million Kenya shillings ($160,000), according to Barclays, but the customer received significant transactions whose real economic purposes could not be identified.
“Barclays Kenya has filed a SAR on Anyumba with their local regulator and is in the process of exiting the relationship,” the report noted.
The Kenya branch of Barclays Bank — now known as ABSA Bank Kenya PLC — had not answered our questions regarding the specifics of the transactions by the time of publication.
Musioma listed some general concerns of suspicious trade through Kenya because the country serves as a hub for drug smuggling and illicit trade in all kinds of goods, including ivory and smuggled minerals.
“All these monies are not carried in suitcases or wheelbarrows. The banking sector is at the centre of it. And I don’t think that both the Central Bank and regulators are doing enough to stretch banks in terms of punitive measures,” said Musioma.
Many of the transactions flagged as suspicious by banks in the FinCEN Files involve recipients and originators from Kenya and other high-risk jurisdictions, including Cyprus, Mauritius, Moldova, Latvia, Afghanistan, Russia and Turkey.
Musioma likened banks to providers of “getaway cars” in crime and corruption in the country — the so-called intermediaries in terms of them providing the oil to enable corruption. “So, the fight against corruption, illicit financial flows and money laundering and all these other crimes can never be won without bringing in the central role banks play”.
Much more could be done to address the role of Kenyan banks in money laundering and other financial crimes, according to Musioma. For example, increasing the punishment for banks who break regulations designed to prevent illicit flows, improve due diligence in the banks’ compliance procedures, and address the issue of the revolving door.“ We have seen people moving in from the banking sector to become regulators and that will create a conflict of interest in the banking industry,” he said.
With Kenya working on being a regional financial centre, through the Nairobi International Finance Centre (NIFC) the regulation and enforcement of the financial sector must be tightened, the tax expert concluded.
Additional reporting by Juliet Atellah, data journalist at The Elephant.
John-Allan Namu, Martha Mendoza of AP and Kira Zalan of OCCRP contributed to this article.
COVID-19: Why It Might Get Difficult to Access Bank Loans
Local banks are seeing a growing percentage of their borrowers falling behind or ceasing making payments on their loans. This is making it increasingly difficult for these lenders to issue new loans at a time when struggling businesses need all the help they can get.
Small businesses account for the vast majority of employment and job growth in the Kenyan economy. But these firms have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and are now facing a credit crunch.
Local banks are seeing a growing percentage of loans fall into the “non-performing” category – meaning that borrowers have fallen behind or ceased making payments.
This is making it increasingly difficult for these lenders to issue new loans at a time when struggling businesses need all the help they can get.
According to the KNBS Economic Survey, the informal sector provided approximately 83% of total employment in the country and created 91% of the new jobs last year.
The Capital Markets Authority (CMA) estimates that 86% of the total demand for the Small and Medium Enterprises’ (SMEs) funds is obtained from bank financing.
As such, most banks in Kenya have tailored loan products targeting these SMEs.
The demand highlighted above led to the launch of an unsecured loan, Stawi, by the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) in collaboration with five other banks, targeting SMEs. However COVID-19 pandemic has posed challenges to these efforts.
The measures put in place to contain the spread of the pandemic such as restricted movement and curfews have impaired the operations of SMEs. This has, in turn, negatively impacted revenue streams for many. This poses a challenge to banks who have heavily lent to these businesses. When the affected SMEs cannot repay their loans, it impacts the bank’s loan portfolio whose quality is dictated by the creditworthiness of the borrowers.
This article focuses on examining the loan quality of local banks during this pandemic period by analyzing their non-performing loans. The loan portfolio quality is an extremely important component of a bank’s profile because loans are considered an asset out of which a bank produces the bulk of its profits.
A bank that is able to maintain satisfactory quality will make sufficient profits to generate capital for expansion. However, not all of a bank’s customers will pay back what they borrowed. Some will make repayments for a period of time and then default on the full payment of interest and principal. In a nutshell, Non-Performing Loans (NPL) represent loans in which the interest or principal is more than 90 days overdue.
We analyse the banks’ loan portfolio quality between the first quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020 for three publicly listed banks that are offering the Stawi loan product, namely: KCB, Co-operative Bank (Co-op) and Diamond Trust Bank (DTB).
Non-Performing Loans (NPL) Ratio
The loan portfolio quality of banks is measured by their NPL ratio -the amount of non-performing loans as a proportion of the total loans issued to customers; popularly known as the banks’ loan book.
The ratio reveals the extent to which a bank has lent money to borrowers who are not paying it back.
Both KCB and Co-operative Bank experienced an increased NPL ratio between the first and second quarters of 2020. This indicates a deteriorating loan portfolio quality within the period that SMEs’ revenue generation streams have been strained due to the measures put in place to contain the COVID 19 pandemic.
Indeed, KCB moved from an NPL ratio of 7 % to an NPL ratio of 10% during the pandemic; meaning they were losing 3 more shillings for every 100 shillings they issued as loans to defaulting borrowers.
A look at the rate of growth of the loan portfolio in the chart above reveals that the three banks experienced a sharp dip in the amount in loans they advanced to their respective customers. This shows that banks shied away from issuing more loans to their customers within the period the pandemic peaked.
“Borrowers rushed to seek moratoriums on their loan repayment. For banks, this is a loss of interest income, while it’s crucial so as to avoid these loans [from] falling into the NPL category which would reduce profits through provisions,” CPA Alex Muikamba, a financial expert affirms.
Interest Income versus Non-Performing Loans
Since margins on bank loans are usually low, the complete loss of a single non-performing loan can wipe out the profits generated from dozens of performing loans. We now compare the interest income from the loans with the amount of Non-Performing loans.
It is observed that the total non-performing loans exceeded the interest income from loans and advances in most quarters for the three banks.
When loans are classified as non-performing, banks are compelled to stop accruing interest on those assets. This implies that their net interest income will fall as their funding costs remain unchanged.
Banks usually set aside an allowance for uncollected loans from customers to cover for any losses that may be occasioned by the Non-Performing loans. This allowance is referred to as the loan-loss provisioning.
During the peak period of the pandemic in the second quarter of 2020, banks are seen to have increased their loan-loss provisioning in response to the declining loan portfolio so as to remedy the situation before it gets out of hand. The KCB increased their loan loss provisioning to a greater extent as compared to the other two banks that were analyzed. This is because of the higher increase in its non-performing loans as observed in the sharp rise of its NPL ratio.
These increased provisioning costs will be charged against operating income and will fall through to the bottom line, reducing net income attributable to shareholders.
As uncertainty surrounds the time it will take for the economy to recover from the effects of the pandemic, so is the recovery of affected SMEs borrowers.
What happens to the Non-Performing Loans though?
Muikamba suggests that to mitigate NPLs, banks will have to restructure the loans to make it easier for borrowers to repay by extending the loan terms and hence reducing the instalment.
In a circular on the measures to mitigate the adverse impact of COVID-19 on loans and advances, the CBK recommended loan restructuring where a bank may negotiate with the borrower to work out revised terms to enable the borrower to make payment under more relaxed terms. This relief, however, was granted only to those borrowers whose loans were performing as at 2nd March 2020. For borrowers who were already struggling to make their repayments, they would have to contend with foreclosure which involves the recovery of any collateral used to secure the loan.
For unsecured loans, banks would be obliged to write-off the loans by removing them from their balance sheet.
In the extreme event where write-offs exceed existing loan-loss reserves and available profits from other sources, shareholders’ equity will have to be written down.
This would in turn affect capital levels which could necessitate new funding to ensure the banks meet the regulatory minimum capital requirements. The banks could also strengthen their capital levels by reducing loan growth so as to shrink its loan portfolio. In such a scenario, it would mean that you would have a difficult time accessing a bank loan.
Additional contribution by Purity Mukami. This article was first published by Africa Uncensored’s Piga Firimbi.
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