The Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) on Tuesday raised the bank rate by 31.25 percent, or five percentage points, confirming analystsâ€™ fears that monetary authorities would succumb to inflationary pressures.
The new rate, now at 21 percent, will trigger reciprocal hikes in base lending rates by commercial banks and other lenders, a move likely to shrink individual incomes and hit business output as the cost of borrowing climbs and inflation hits real earnings.
Market players on Tuesday said following the bank rate adjustment, base lending rates are likely to range from 27 to 30 percent from the current average of 24 percent.
The move to raise the bank rateâ€”the rate at which commercial banks borrow from the central bankâ€”comes almost a month after the rate was raised by three percentage points, or 23 percent, to 16 percent from 13 percent on May 11 soon after the 49 percent devaluation of the kwacha on May 7.
The hike also comes a month after the RBM on June 1 2012 opened a collateral free discount window accommodation for commercial banks to borrow at 18.5 percent to help financial institutions to cope with the liquidity squeeze currently hitting the banks.
Because of this facility and in view of the tight market liquidity, the commercial banks, two weeks ago, were also forced to raise their base rates to 23.5 percent from 17.5 percent, twice since the devaluation.
In a letter addressed to heads of commercial banks on Tuesday, the RBM said at its meeting held on Monday, the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) resolved to adjust the bank rate upwards to 21 percent with immediate effect.
â€œIn reaching this decision, the committee took into consideration rising inflationary pressure on account of a number of factors, including the recent adjustment of the kwacha exchange rate and remaining exchange rate risks, the continuing excessive monetary growth as well as increasing interbank market rates as a result of the tightening of liquidity in the banking system,â€ said the statement signed by Governor Charles Chuka.
The committee is hopeful that the measure will help to stabilise the economy, restore balance in the money market, as well as help to improve the foreign exchange situation during the lean season.
The inflation rate has been rising sharply, with the May figure standing at 17.3 percent, according to the National Statistical Office (NSO).
The RBM in April also adopted inflation targeting method, which analysts warned at the time could result in another bank rate hike because they intend to align interest rates to match inflation targets.
Finance Minister Ken Lipenga, in the 2012/13 budget, has forecast an annual average inflation of 18.4 percent in 2012 from an annual average of 7.6 percent in 2011.
On Tuesday, commentators said the hike will have dire repercussions on individuals, companies and the economy as a whole.
University of Malawiâ€™s Chancellor College economics professor Ben Kaluwa said the bank rate raise was expected, taking into account the movement of economic variables such as inflation and exchange rates.
â€œRBM has been under pressure to raise the bank rate. Inflation has been going up and this means that interest rates will have to take the same direction as inflation,â€ said Kaluwa.
But he said the private sector borrowing will be affected and also that lending to government will attract higher yields.
A sad turn
Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) executive director John Kapito described the move by the RBM as sad.
He said the interest rates are going in the direction of the early 2000s when the rate of borrowing reached as high as 70 percent, which crowded out the private sector.
â€œThat is not the direction we want to take. This move will create a lot of challenges. This means consumers will have to be paying more for borrowing which will greatly affect their well-being,â€ said Kapito.
He said the RBM should not hide under the guise of mopping up excess liquidity because that will create â€˜enormous challengesâ€™ for Malawians.
The private sector will also be hit the hardest, with Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI) president Matthews Chikankheni saying this is sad for businesses.
â€œThe cost of borrowing will obviously go up and businesses will be hit the hardest. The cost of doing business will also go up and Malawi will not be an attractive destination to do business,â€ said Chikankheni.
In its economic review for June 2012, Nico Asset Managers Limited predicted that RBM will raise the bank rate, but said this will have implications.
â€œHigh lending rates could result in reduced private sector investment and growth. High borrowing costs may also result in increased risk of defaults of existing liabilities,â€ said the investment advisory firm in the report.
It said the increase in rates on the money market may result in investor shift from stock market to money market as rates become attractive, adding that new debt offers will also decline due to increased cost of borrowing.