Kenya’s High Debt to Slow Down Long Term Development

The country finds itself in a tight spot following years of successive borrowing, coupled with the inability of the private sector to create sufficient jobs

Kenya risks missing its economic growth targets in the medium term as the country grapples with high debt and a deteriorating macroeconomic operating environment. According to the Institute of Public Finance (IPF) in its latest Macro Fiscal Analytical Snapshot Report, the country finds itself in a tight spot following years of successive borrowing, coupled with the inability of the private sector to create sufficient jobs for millions of young people entering the job market annually.

The report notes that since 2014, persistent high fiscal deficits have resulted in a swift escalation of public debt, now standing at 70% of the GDP. The recent depreciation of the Kenya shilling against the US dollar signifies a downgrade in the country’s economic outlook. Furthermore, the elevated risk of debt distress as highlighted by the IMF poses challenges in effectively managing external debt servicing.

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Speaking during the official launch of the report, the Institute of Public Finance (IPF) CEO James Muraguri noted that for Kenya to maintain robust economic growth, it must put in place the necessary fiscal levers to promote faster private-sector-driven growth.  Other impediments include Kenya’s vulnerability to climate shocks such as drought and floods which may derail growth over the long-term.

“Revenue optimism has been a persistent problem in Kenya for several years which in the past has tended to result in higher-than-planned fiscal deficits financed by additional borrowing. More recently, rising global interest rates and a subsequent decline in inward foreign investments have caused the Kenyan shilling to depreciate steeply, significantly increasing the cost of external debt servicing and further putting pressure on Kenya’s foreign exchange reserves,” Mr Muraguri noted.

In addition, just like many African countries, growth in Kenya has been led by nontradeable services and exports have halved as a share of GDP, whereas external debts have increased. Kenya’s external debt service as a proportion of exports is significantly above the level that the IMF considers sustainable for a country such as Kenya. Even if the IMF reclassified Kenya as a country with “high” debt-carrying capacity, it would still be in breach of the upper limit until at least 2027.

While fiscal consolidation undertaken by the government over the past two years has relied on adjustments to expenditure, revenues are yet to fully recover to their pre-pandemic level. Revenue mobilisation fell sharply in 2019/20 as a direct consequence of the measures implemented to reduce the tax burden on businesses during the pandemic.

Despite a variety of reforms having been undertaken since then, revenues have been slow to return to pre-pandemic levels and have lagged previous projections and targets.

On the expenditure side, fiscal consolidation in the past two years has led to a decline in real per capita spending, impacting development and fiscal transfers to counties, which heavily rely on national fiscal grants, constituting 91% of expenditures, with limited own-source revenue (OSR) at 9%.

Mr Muraguri said until 2020/21, fiscal deficits were regularly higher than planned – the result of revenue optimism – and were financed by additional borrowing rather than corresponding cuts to expenditure. However, from 2021/22 onwards, this changed as Kenya’s debt dynamics started to bite as revenue shortfalls were matched by a comparable reduction in expenditure to ensure the deficit remained as planned.

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“Given the limited room for borrowing to address revenue shortfalls for the foreseeable future, it is likely that revenue and expenditure will be more closely linked over the intervening period,” Mr Muraguri added.

While the government expects expenditure to rise, particularly in debt interest and development spending, this is contingent on revenue performance. The evolving fiscal dynamics emphasize the delicate balance between managing debt vulnerabilities, revenue generation and maintaining service delivery.

The fiscal landscape at both the national and county levels require a holistic approach to address revenue shortfalls, control expenditures, and foster economic resilience.

As Kenya navigates a complex economic landscape, sustaining robust growth and
addressing fiscal challenges are imperative. The government’s dedication to fiscal
consolidation and the mitigation of domestic and external risks will play a pivotal role in shaping Kenya’s economic trajectory.

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