Dr Patrick Njoroge: CBK ‘monk’ who puts fear of God in the financial markets

Dr Patrick Njoroge, Central Bank of Kenya Governor

His deceptive demeanour of calm, measured words and soft voice can make you think he is a pushover until you are on the receiving end of his wrath.

You may not hear the Yale University-educated economist in a room of 20 unless you pay very close attention or he is on a loudspeaker.

When challenged to a fight in a boardroom, the tall, slim bespectacled Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) sits upright, his voice rises a note higher as it trembles.

The 56-year-old, whose diction includes some English slang such as you ‘wanna’ when he wants to say you want to or ‘gonna’ when he means you are going to, struggles to control his indignation while picking the most appropriate words in the heat of the moment.

All the while, he will be sizing you up with his pair of piercing eyes, and as if on purpose, let them burrow right into yours, like someone who is seeing the deep end of your soul.

Currency traders

Somehow, he always regains his composure in time, just as swiftly as he lost it and just before things get completely out of hand.

Nevertheless, not many players in the financial markets want to meet an angry Dr Njoroge.

It is worse when he is defending the currency, one of the main functions of the bank of last resort.

One morning, a top executive of an investment bank got an unusual call from the CBK head office in Nairobi.

He was to come with one of his currency traders for an urgent meeting with the Governor. The instruction was that he should try and go in person.

The ‘poor’ trader had broken what had now become an unwritten rule of never speculating on the Kenyan currency.

His biggest mistake was, however, to let his opinion be quoted verbatim in the press.

In his entire career, the chief executive of the investment bank had never had to explain himself to anyone on something like a quote given to the media by one of his currency traders. 

He also had never known that an opinion must be backed by some solid and sound research and not just a gut feeling or experience on the job.

This was about to change.

At this explosive meeting, it is understood that the trader received a serious dressing down and was asked to keep his opinions to himself unless he had solid research to back them up.

Dr Njoroge, who believes that decisions must be based on data and consultations, wanted answers.

As he breathed fire, he wanted the trader to share with him the basis of his opinions on the currency, so that as the policy maker, he could factor them in.

“His argument was simple: What did the trader see that the regulator could not see?” a source who narrated the encounter said.

As he walked out of the room, crashed and defeated, the trader realised that currency speculation had officially become a dangerous trade.

It was the last time he was been quoted in the local and international media. He has shut up ever since unless his comment will be completely off the record. 

The list of traders who can now freely give their opinions on the economy and the currency in specific has been shrinking by the day since no one wants to meet the wrath of Njoroge. 

Instilling discipline

As bankers and investment analysts are quickly learning, you do not want to be on the receiving end when he is in pursuit of instilling discipline in the financial markets. 

Players in the financial markets have now nicknamed him ‘the monk’ or ‘pope’, perhaps from his high moral standing as a numeracy in the Roman Catholic faith group, the Opus Dei.

In its ordinary definition, a Monk is a member of a religious community of men typically living under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Dr Njoroge did not come first in the interviews. He came second. He was beaten by a former insider at CBK Dr Haron Sirma who got one more mark ahead of him.

When the Public Service Commission team of eight that conducted the interviews finally did the average tally, Njoroge had a score of 77 marks, slightly behind Dr Sirma who garnered 78.25 marks.

But the panel wanted someone new.

Someone who would bring fresh ideas and decisively tame rogue banks who were at the time seen as the only business entities that still made billions despite the economic environment by loading exorbitant interest on loans and paying too little to the depositors in return.

There was something about this man that dazzled even the Parliamentary Committee which later vetted and cleared him for the job. It was not just his honesty and independent-mindedness that saw him start off as a small celebrity.

It was not for the fact that he had never shown signs of accumulation of money and capitalism. In fact, he had never invested any money directly in the country.

He took a student loan through the Higher Educations Loans Board to fund his undergraduate studies.

This loan was fully repaid by 2015.

He had a sparkling credit record abroad. Dr Njoroge’s credit rating ranges from very good to exceptional as given by at least three different foreign rating firms.

The ratings known as Fico Scores were given as 782, 790 and 806 which means that he was well above the average of US consumers and clearly demonstrated to lenders that he is an exceptional borrower. 

He was never attracted by the trappings of power that came with his new office. So there was nothing to worry about him, at least not until the second bank was placed under receivership within months of his taking of office.  

The question on conflict of interest never came up. 

He was willing to take a pay cut from his Sh3 million a month salary that he earned at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).Unlike his chairman, Mr Mohammed Nyaoga whose net worth was estimated at Sh250 million, Dr Njoroge held no financial assets other than what was in his bank account.

The only concern for the departmental committee on Finance, Planning and Trade that vetted him in Parliament was that the candidate, who had flown in from Washington DC for the interview, may not be conversant with the Kenyan working environment considering that he had been working abroad for almost his entire life.

“He will, therefore, have to create a good working rapport with his team and the stakeholders to help him govern,” the committee recommended in its report.

But he eventually got the job. Though no one would immediately predict how his style of leadership would be different from his predecessors, it was clear that there was something more about him.

Fear of victimisation

Not many people have seen him in private.

His reputation that has seen him clamp down on analysts and investors has spread as far as South Africa where a senior bank executive also declined to be quoted on the record, for fear of victimisation.

“I would rather remain anonymous but Kenya is the only country I have seen this level of intimidation. Our investment bankers cannot speculate. They cannot also attempt to explain what they think is happening in the financial markets. They simply are not allowed to think,” he said.

Even as far off as South Africa, he would not be willing to be quoted directly for the sake of his colleagues in the country.

For a long time, currency trading was the place to make quick cash for banks.

Almost every bank has a currency trading department, which would always be banked on to deliver quick returns in a day just through speculation. But this is no more. The crackdown has now been expanded to include scrutiny of suspicions forex trades.

If not satisfied, his officials would go as far as grilling bank treasurers to explain their currency positions. Njoroge lamented during the interview that the local currency had been left to depreciate against the major world currencies.

He said the only way to address that depreciation of the shilling was through market-based solutions, observing that his role at the CBK will be to provide the right environment to address the depreciating shilling.

Worst position

But it appears he found another serious problem when he got in: speculation. This sent him on a warpath for the most part of his first four-year term, which is now halfway done.

This was to deal with any non-market based factors that once drove the shilling to its worst position in the last decade when his predecessor, Dr Njuguna Ndung’u was in charge.

The worst turbulence to hit the Kenyan currency was in October 2011 when it hit a record low of Sh107 trading against the dollar.

Two years later, it was ranked as the third worst performing currency in Africa after it failed to fully pull out of the crisis.

Unlike Dr Njuguna who appeared powerless as banks profiteered from the situation, Dr Njoroge chose a different path. Ironically, Njoroge listed Dr Njuguna, his immediate predecessor, as one of his three referees during the job application.

Through his intimidation tactics, he has scored where his predecessor failed by allowing opinions that often caused panic buying of foreign currency from the markets, then sit back and reap the fruits of speculation.

Not even media houses have been spared from this clampdown.

Dr Njoroge is understood to have invited top executives of an international news agency to Nairobi to agree on how their platform mostly used by banks for trading will be used.

The main news agencies in Nairobi who run trading information platforms used by banks are Reuters and Bloomberg.

He has at times asked journalists from particular media houses out of his press conferences if he felt the outlet had misrepresented his version of facts.

At times he would just give them a good lecture before allowing them to sit in.

Bloomberg, which has a worldwide database used by forex traders, reported last month that the CBK was cracking down on traders and analysts selling, hedging and even making bearish predictions. You were either to ‘talk up’ the shilling or ‘shut up.’

These efforts seem to be working. The Kenyan shilling has remained steady for the last two years, mostly trading between Sh100 and Sh103 against the dollar.

Even when the Nairobi Security Exchange (NSE) lost more than Sh130 billion in the two days after the Supreme Court ruling last month, the local currency remained almost unchanged, only weakening marginally and recouped the following day. 

But it is banks that are facing their worst nightmare for a long time. Despite the interest rate cap, the monetary policy has resisted falling for the temptation to increase the base rate, albeit to cushion banks from the shrinking returns.

Former managers of Imperial Bank, through their lawyers in court, paint a picture of a Governor who cannot be swayed once his mind made up.

Though he has remained opposed to the interest rate capping law, he agreed that the rates charged by banks were way above the acceptable standards.

When he took over the job at the CBK, Njoroge said he was concerned, like everyone else, how Kenyan banks continued to charge high interest rates.

He said it is a puzzle that had defied all economic explanations considering that such high rates were normally witnessed in economies that had just undergone a banking crisis.

Kenya was not such an economy.

Besides implementing the painful policy that forced banks to pump billions of shillings into provisions for bad loans, he has caused several changes in executive suites of at least three banks.

Equity Bank, which continues to refuse to make public its succession plan, made a sudden about-turn recently and replaced its long-serving board chairman billionaire Peter Munga.

It is understood that the regulator wants all banks that have regional businesses to appoint a substantive Kenyan managing director who will be attending CBK meetings to explain the Kenyan operations. 

Investor briefing

Banks are no longer getting approvals to publish their financial statements as swiftly as they used to. “In the past, we never worried about getting approvals and we would organise an investor briefing in advance knowing we will get the approvals on time.

Today things are different. We are told ‘not to wait on the corridors’ since it will take a while,” a source at one of the top five banks said.  

But these actions have not gone without a fight. At some point, players in the sector realised that they needed a second ear to turn to if their points were not being heard.

This saw a law brought to Parliament that required that the CBK would consult with the National Treasury before placing any bank under receivership, essentially clawing back some powers from DrNjoroge.

This slowed him a little but is yet to deter him. He has also been sued at least five times in the past two years.

Most of the cases have been filed by depositors and investors in the banks that have been placed under receivership.

Dr Njoroge says he believes in taking his time to allow for in-depth investigations into each case, and only go to court when he has an indisputable evidence to prove his case so that he is not ‘tossed out’ at the first instance.

The Jury is still out.

But Dr Njoroge has two more years before his first term comes to an end, enough time to show if he is indeed the Governor of the Central Bank that Kenya really needed.