The Politics (and Varied Experiences) of Interest Rate Caps

Two Africa Board Fellowship alumni--Jacqueline Musiitwa and Ivan Mbowa--sit down with CFI to impart their wisdom

The following is part of a blog series spotlighting views from participants in the Africa Board Fellowship (ABF).

Two experiences with interest rate caps – in Kenya and Zambia – demonstrate the power of political forces to shape financial inclusion policies and may hold lessons for MSME lenders in other countries.

In a recent unpublished study, the Partnership for Responsible Financial Inclusion (formerly the Microfinance CEO Working Group) examined commonalities in the origins of interest rate caps in these two countries. In both cases, signs were clear that the general public was upset about the current state of loans and interest rates. Approaching elections increased the will among political leaders to make regulatory changes that would appeal to the public.

In Zambia, a populist president, Michael Sata, was the surprise victor in 2011’s elections. In his first days in office, Sata announced his priority of cutting the cost of credit for Zambians, a move in opposition to the country’s dominant banks. His remarks sent the domestic currency into a spiral. Inflation soared, and interest rates rose. These events helped create a sense of urgency for both consumers and legislators, propelling the caps through the legislative process. In 2012, Sata led the government in successfully passing his proposed law, which capped commercial banks’ loan interest rates at 18.25 percent.

In 2013, the interest rate caps were also imposed on microfinance lending. The maximum rate was set at 42 percent for a select group of microfinance institutions and 30 percent for other non-bank financial institutions. Following Sata’s death in 2014 and the election of his replacement, the interest rate caps were removed in 2015. The government’s approach in this area now focuses on pricing transparency.

Zambia’s interest rate caps were not particularly effective. To compensate for lower interest income, the banks began to charge more fees, keeping effective prices more or less the same for consumers. The caps did not create an effective solution, and ultimately banks, microfinance institutions and regulators agreed on ending the caps. Instead, strong regulations on pricing transparency were put into law.

A similar story has been unfolding in Kenya, which introduced an interest rate cap of 4 percent above the Central Bank of Kenya Policy Rate for regulated financial institutions in September 2016. The measure was viewed as a populist move. However, in the short time since the law’s enactment, signs suggest it is doing more harm than good to the overall economy, including the exclusion of “higher risk” borrowers like MSMEs, decreased levels of lending, and lower profits and stock values among banks. It seems the government is now looking to remove the caps given the impacts on the economy and financial services sector.

However, there have been some positive outcomes for the Kenyan financial inclusion industry – such as more innovations, especially in digital lending, because the banks are restricted in lending, creating an opening for non-bank lenders. Some Kenyan banks have also started to buy MFIs in order to lend through them in smaller amounts. The caps have caused banks to diversify their product offerings more – to insurance and leasing.

We interviewed two alumni of the CFI’s Africa Board Fellowship (ABF) to share their experiences about the politics and practice of interest rate caps.

Jacqueline Musiitwa is the Executive Director of FSD Uganda and a board member of Microcred Zimbabwe and the Central Bank of the Republic of Zambia. 

ABF: Can you share your perspective on the decision to implement, and subsequently remove, the interest rate caps in Zambia?

Jacqueline Musiitwa: “The Zambian experience seems to be similar to Kenya’s case – a populist approach with the hopes of encouraging lending to the masses. Then, quickly learning that the opposite actually happens: interest rate caps cause banks to stop lending, and the people don’t benefit. The first thing the current governor of the Central Bank did in office was reverse the caps. Increasing lending was a top priority. The Central Bank also had conversations with banks at that time about keeping interest rates low. The Central Bank learned that rate cap regulation hasn’t worked well historically, so they wanted to figure out how to work together with banks to find a solution.

Stepping back, the question is: how do banks charge interest in a way that makes sense for the population being served? Some people are unbanked for fear of charges. The Central Bank in Zambia is looking at how to get banks outside their comfort zone to serve new clients. How can they create a system of mutual trust?

Ultimately, you take a few steps forward and then a few steps back. Public trust in banks has everything to do with the safety of savings. In Zambia, the numbers were going well in terms of signing clients up at non-banking financial institutions and then in December 2016, a bank closed for three months during which time shareholders injected money into it. Clients reacted with: ‘You see, this is why we are going to put our money under the pillow’. The bank is now back but now there is still a fear of depositing in banks, so it is hard to get people to increase savings.

Regulators wrestle with how to communicate market stability when there is even just one weak link. You saw it with banks in Kenya. Dubai, Imperial, and Chase banks all went down in Kenya, and the reaction was the same. People either don’t trust banks or move to the biggest banks. Zambia is pushing through a law for a deposit protection scheme.”

The full interview with Musiitwa can be read here.

ABF Alumni Ivan Mbowa, CEO of Umati Capital, offers a perspective on interest rate caps from his experience in Kenya.

ABF: Kenya’s government introduced an interest rate cap for banks, but not for non-bank financial institutions like Umati. How has Umati been affected?

Ivan Mbowa: “At Umati we’re seeing a lot more interest in our services. About half of our clients are new to formal finance. They could never get money from a bank in the first place. The other half are coming to us for additional financing, because they don’t have the collateral to get more from banks.

The funny thing is that the clients don’t always understand the nuances between a non-bank financial institution and a bank, so when they see our rates, the first impression is, ‘You guys are just flouting the law—it’s supposed to be capped.’ We have to explain that the cap doesn’t apply to Umati. A good outcome has been that there seems to be a lot more awareness and questioning from clients on, ‘What is the cost of your product?’

It’s also been easier to make the argument that even if you can access bank credit, it’s good to be multibanked, so that the next time there’s a freeze or a crunch, you’re not fully exposed. Savvy clients understand that working with Umati can be a hedging mechanism.”

The full interview with Mbowa can be read here.

In one more example, the West Africa Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) implemented more stringent caps in 2015, reducing the cap from 27 percent to 24 percent for MFIs and from 18 percent to 15 percent for banks. In the time before the new cap was implemented, the trend in bank interest rates had been downward, as a result of competition. According to reports from ABF Fellows on the ground, the lower caps did not have a very big impact on banks, especially considering all the fees they were generating. However, caps have inhibited lending to micro and small enterprises because, for the most part, banks were already limited in their lending to this customer segment. Private investors who are interested in serving micro and small enterprises have avoided the region, given that the caps lengthen the time to break even for a fledgling greenfield financial institution. Several studies indicated that many MFIs have been unable to achieve adequate scale and efficiency in their respective business environments to be profitable and sustainable.

Given the diverse outcomes interest rate caps can have, we’d love to hear more from our readers about their experiences with interest rate caps.

Have you read?

Are Banks the Future of Banking? Africa Board Fellows Deliberate

The Board Should Not Be the Last to Know: Why MFIs Need Independent Internal Auditors

How Can Microfinance Institutions in the Middle East and North Africa Manage Risk and Meet Client Demand? Governance Is Key!



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