The National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE), the central bank, announced that, despite the foreign currency shortage, there have been significant reforms in the financial sector. Yinager Dessie, governor of NBE, said that since he came to NBE there have been many changes.
“About eight months ago our situation was very difficult. The reserve had significantly dropped and the situation regarding settling foreign debts was dire. We were at the edge of defaulting on our external loan settlements,” he said.
“The coming of Abiy has led to new bilateral and multilateral partners who have provided hard currency. This will provide short term relief and enable us to think about further reform plans so that we can solve structural economic problems, hard currency earnings and exports,” he explained.
He added that even though there have been delays in payments the government is now settling its loans properly, and providing hard currency to the manufacturing industry, although not as much as needed.
The foreign reserve has also improved, according to the Governor, but he declined to give a specific amount of available forex.
According to the central bank leader, the economy was on the brink of a bad fate when the new government came in, but now things have improved. He stated he expects the country’s economy will register a similar rate as last year.
“If we can provide what the manufacturing industry demands and the agriculture sector is able to meet its targets then economic growth will reach double digits,” he said.
He stated that the government is doing its best to provide foreign currency to the manufacturing sector but it is still less than they need. He amplified that the manufacturing sector also faces other problems like power and skilled labour.
“We have worked on several things, and we are undergoing transitions, for instance in the past few months we have worked hard on remittances,” the governor said. Remittances are the country’s highest source of hard currency amounting to USD 5 billion. One idea is allowing the diaspora to be part of the financial sector. Another is using mobile banking in the remittance business. In comparison, exports brought in USD 2.8 billion in the 2017/18 budget year.
The central bank is in the process of allowing non fixed assets as collateral for loans in addition to applying a financing scheme for those who come up with business ideas but don’t have collateral.
According to the governor the volume of loans in local banks has become quite high. “Due to the instability in the past few years some investors were unable to settle their debt properly so to do so, NBE has been working for extension of the loan settlement period with banks,” he said.
In the past seven months 10 directives have been amended relaxing business activity in the financial sector and four proclamations have also been drafted.
New studies have also been undertaken to commence new businesses in the country, including the capital market.
He said that the bank is improving the capacity of staff and establishing groups of experts from local and external professionals for applying several new businesses like bonds and capital markets in the financial sector. They are also working on a ten year roadmap.
Suppliers’ credit, 1st come 1st serve
The suppliers’ credit scheme, which is only allowed for foreign investors is related to the hard currency problem in Ethiopia.
In the past year or so, the government has allowed foreign investors to access the suppliers credit scheme to import input for their manufacturing business. However, Ethiopian investors who engaged in similar businesses said the NBE scheme created a problem.
Yinager said that local investors are supposed to be given priority but the foreign investors believed the country’s law and they have also invested a huge sum so it would be bad if they are not able to make their products because of a hard currency shortage, which can affect the country’s image. Experts are arguing that the directive goes against the investment proclamation amended in 2012.
“It is not against the country’s forex law,” Yinager said.
For local investors we are doing our best to help the manufacturing sector get hard currency via a letter of credit (LC), he added.
Legal experts argued that the 769/2012 investment proclamation erroneously mentioned on the central bank directive FXD/47/2017 as ‘679/2012’ on its part one article 2/4 stated that investor means a domestic or a foreign investor that invests in Ethiopia.
“The proclamation indicated that it has not divided local and foreign investors in relation to acquiring external loans,” a business consultant said, “but they claim the central bank directive goes against it.”
He said that he is informed about the selling of hard currency by exporters via banks that is illegal. “The basic problem is the shortage of foreign currency but to tackle illegal activities we are working our hardest and we are also meeting with banks’ presidents to improve the financial sector. If we find someone involved in an illegal act in the foreign market, the actors and the bank will be punished,” he added.
“We have suspicions on illegality in hard currency allocation but have not been able to prove it and we will solve problems if we see any,” the governor explained.
“Regarding first come first serve we have not gotten a better option than applying,” he said, regarding the allocation of foreign currency at banks. In the past NBE had freed banks to manage the hard currency by themselves but problems were observed in that system which pushed the central bank to apply the first come first serve.
In the past banks wanted the regulatory body to ease the new directive that controlled the way banks handle hard currency. They asked the central bank to give them the responsibility of managing the LC process.
During a meeting between NBE leaders and bank officials in November 2018 bankers expressed their concern about the directive which they claim does not benefit banks or customers.
They said illegal actors are still accessing the hard currency and distributing it unfairly. The central bank leaders argued that they applied the directive to create fairness. “NBE has told bankers to come up with a proposal to replace the directive.
The demand for LC at banks is very high, some importers are lining up at banks but actually they are not real importers/exporters.
“We are working with relevant body that gives licenses to the importers or exporters to solve the problem and identify the real market actors,” the governor said.
He confirmed that there is a high burden at banks to provide foreign currency.
Business actors and some bankers told Capital that individuals who are not seeking hard currency for legitimate reasons, lined up at banks to access foreign currency based on the directive, then they sell their place in line to others.
Debt interest rate
The loan interest that is open for lenders is growing at banks, which is about a quarter of the loan amount. Experts and the private sector expressed their concern regarding this. The interest rate on loans at banks has been growing significantly since the birr devaluation in October 2017. The sector actors said that the interest rate has gone up to 25 percent on some types of loans; while the minimum rate which is mainly given to the export business is not small, according to experts in banks. They expressed their concern that it may have lead to inflation and pressure borrowers into debt stress.
“Even though it is free for banks and a free market scheme, we shall see if it becomes a problem. But the issue will be answered after a relevant and adequate study,” Yinager said. “In this regard we have to speak with banks,” he added.
He said that banks, mainly private banks are now providing loans without any challenge. However, the private sector stated that loans particularly from state owned financial firms is lagging.
The governor stated that loan approval from Development Bank of Ethiopia (DBE) is not as much as is being requested.
“The problem at DBE is very high in relation to debt given for investors mainly for those engaged in rain fed farms,” he said.
He said that agriculture loans amounting to 6.3 billion birr could be repossessed but NBE has ordered DBE to settle the matter legally. Currently DBE is undertaking reform work so until it finishes its changes it won’t get money that it has asked for in order to lend to its customers.
“We did not allow the birr or foreign currency that it wants until it normalizes non-performing loans,” the governor said.
The agriculture loans that DBE gave is taken purposely and in an organized network, according to Yinager. “Even though they received the loan legally, they took it in an organized manner even calculating how they will not settle the loan,” he added.
The new priority
In the agricultural sector the government has focused on irrigation development. The government is considering that the major share of the budget goes to the agriculture sector since it may be a solution for overall problems including the manufacturing industry besides solving some food item imports like wheat.
Yinager said that in the coming year vast irrigation mainly in low land areas will be applied in the coming years. He said that the manufacturing sector like textiles and agro processing is growing in the country which will be fed by local input. “The government has given serious attention to developing the agriculture sector to support the overall economy including solving the hard currency shortage,” he added.
In 2010 before the beginning of the first Growth and Transformation plan (GTP) the government introduced the so called Agricultural Growth Program (AGP) that was targeted to be implemented in 86 selected and best performing woredas of Oromia, SNNP, Amhara and Tigrai regional states as example to boost the agriculture sector.
The program that was supported by global multilateral bilateral actors like the World Bank and USAID had a goal of boosting the agriculture sector in different dimensions including investing in irrigation, training of farmers and providing quality seeds for more production besides supporting the country in reducing its food insecurity, vulnerability and environmental degradation.
However, the actual performance was poor not only in the past five-year program but in the second GTP as well. Abiy is currently focusing on expanding irrigation development. In his meeting with government leaders and prominent international businesspeople, he spoke about the support with irrigation development. Ethiopia has enough rivers and irrigable land to produce crops throughout the year. The governor has hinted that irrigation will be a priority for the coming budget year.
Ethiopia, which started as a farming state, is allocating scarce hard currency to import agricultural products including fresh food items that cost a lot of hard currency. For instance, the country is importing USD 1.6 billion worth of wheat and USD 650 million worth of edible oil. Last year edible oil was being produced locally.