11 October 2012

Zimbabwe: Banks Must Be At the Forefront of Economic Recovery Efforts

Photo: Antony Kaminju/IRIN
A woman sells vegetables at a food market in Harare


The banking sector plays an intermediary role in mobilising savings and onlending to productive sectors to keep the economy ticking. While both local and foreign banks have largely played this role effectively, the last few years have seen their efforts compromised due largely to challenges in the economy.

However, what is now becoming apparent is that in the midst of all this, some banks, whether consciously or inadvertently, seem to be working against the grain, charging high interest rates on loans and exorbitant service fees on depositors.

What has emerged this week is an even worse scenario where some banks have chosen to play a pedestrian role in raising money to fund the economy.

Reports that some foreign banks have ignored efforts by the central bank to raise US$15 million through Treasury Bills floated last week make sad reading.

It would not have been coincidental for big foreign banks to have failed to participate in this noble initiative. We smell a rat.

We are reading undercurrent efforts to sabotage the economy in one form or the other. Of course investment is always out of choice but we expected banks, the major targets for Treasury Bills, to come out in full support of this initiative.

Treasury Bills -- short term paper issued by Government to raise funds -- were last floated in this country in 2008 hence we would have expected the appetite for such to be quite high. We were, however, surprised to hear that these banks, though wielding the financial muscle, chose to be by-standers in the process.

Only one foreign bank, MBCA, subscribed the minimum amount of US$100 000, which is quite small given the funds that needed to be raised.

Eventually all bids were rejected because some subscribers were asking for a 10 percent return, deemed too high by the central bank. TBs are low interest instruments by their nature so the 10 percent was certainly on the high side.

Government is in dire need of money for recurrent and capital expenditure. So many projects are lying idle while most ministries are presently handicapped because treasury does not have adequate resources to fund them.

Only this week we carried a story in which social ministries were failing to cushion the poor in education and health because of lack of money.

Firms such as Air Zimbabwe are presently grounded due to the unavailability of funds to bail them out while infrastructure is generally deteriorating because the money to finance such projects is just not there.

Under such circumstances, it would only be logical for banks to subscribe to Treasury Bills and help Government raise funds. Banks are corporate citizens that should aspire to improve the operating environment through massive resource mobilisation.

Zimbabwe has been promised billions of dollars by its external partners but the funds have not been coming. Therefore, local initiatives in the mould of Treasury Bills need to be supported.

The country's debt is now more than US$10 billion.

The economy is faced with challenges and maybe the terms and conditions for the bills might not have been as attractive as they should be ordinarily but these are times when banks should take risks to get the country going.

One gets the sense that banks, particularly the foreign ones, have been spoiling for a fight with authorities given their largely truant behaviour in the last few months.

This is not helpful at all. Why not do the best they can in an economy in which they operate? Why not assume ownership of a process that is expected to make a difference in its own small way.

A look at the profile of these banks shows that they have millions of dollars kept offshore. We would thus expect them to direct some of the funds to help Government raise money but this has not been the case.

Flimsy excuses that some banks have committed resources elsewhere do not hold water because they have the capacity to subscribe to more than one instrument.

Granted, the illiquid market has compromised their capacity but only to a certain extent. The financial wherewithal to subscribe to the Treasury Bills is there.

Finance Minister Tendai Biti and Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Governor Dr Gideon Gono have stood in defence of banks particularly on the issue of indigenisation of the financial sector but the banks seem to be failing to meet their end of the bargain.

But we should look both ways. In some instances the banks may have had genuine reasons for shunning the Treasury Bills if they find them unattractive.

If it is proven to be a genuine case then the central bank will need to review the subscription terms and relaunch the bills. At the end of the day it is not about victimisation of one institution or the other but it should be the desire for every citizen, both corporate and individual, to do the best they can for this country.

Banks should not stand in the way of revival but should actually be at the forefront to mobilise the resources required to oil the economic engine.

Confrontation is not known to produce good results so the named banks and others should not set the stage for such action but should instead seek to act responsibly in all instances. Only then can Zimbabwe be guaranteed of sustainable recovery and growth.

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