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Alarm bells as public debt rises by almost Sh500b in 120 days

 National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Prof Njuguna Ndung'u. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

Kenya's public debt grew by nearly Sh500 billion in the four months to January this year, pointing to a sustained borrowing appetite by the new government.

This is amid growing concerns that the country could be headed to a full-blown debt crisis.

It also comes at a time when the National Treasury is trying to balance its debt portfolio, which is fast approaching the allowed Sh10 trillion limit, with expensive commercial debts now taking up more than 60 per cent of tax revenues.

Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) data shows that Kenya's debt grew by Sh481 billion between September last year and January this year to stand at Sh9.182 trillion, edging toward the Sh10 trillion borrowing cap set by Parliament last June.

The sharp rise in public debt coincides with a steep increase in servicing outlays.

CBK, however, issued a disclaimer, saying the January data compiled by the banking regulator and the National Treasury is provisional, pointing to possible higher debt levels when the months of February and March are taken into account.

Significant debt repayment has exposed Kenya to higher interest rates at a time the global loan market conditions have tightened, limiting the country's borrowing window as the shilling continues to depreciate against the dollar and major currencies.

State House's top economic adviser David Ndii over the weekend hinted the government is facing an acute cash crunch amid the steeper debt obligations.

To demonstrate the magnitude of the crisis, Dr Ndii revealed that President William Ruto's administration avoided a default on its sovereign debt obligations without divulging additional details on the economic risk.

A default is a failure by a country's government to pay its debt and has grave financial implications for the economy.

 State House's top economic adviser David Ndii. [Esther Jeruto, Standard]

The government has delayed paying March salaries for most of its public sector workers, signalling a major cash crunch. Civil servant unions are now threatening to ask their members to down their tools from next week.

Dr Ndii said the cash-strapped government has now been forced to prioritise other crucial State expenditures like honouring debt obligations over salaries.

"Is public finance that difficult?" he posted on his verified Twitter account. "It's reported every other day debt service is consuming 60 per cent of revenue. Liquidity crunches come with the territory."

Dr Ndii continued: "When maturities bunch up, or revenue falls short, or markets shift, something has to give. Salaries or default? Take your pick."

President William Ruto's administration, which came into office in September last year, has laid out plans for Parliament to replace the current public debt limit of Sh10 trillion with a debt anchor hinged on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

"In keeping with the global best practice on Debt Limit Policy, and in furtherance of the Administration's quest to realise inter-generational equity through sustainable debt management, Cabinet considered the legislative proposal to harmonise the definition of 'Public Debt' in the Public Finance Management Act, 2012 and the attendant Regulations with the spirit and letter of Article 214 (2) of the Constitution of Kenya," said a Cabinet brief from State House recently.

"In that regard, Cabinet approved the transmittal to Parliament of the legislative proposals replacing the nominal debt ceiling of Sh10 trillion with a debt anchor set at 55 per cent of GDP in present value terms."

The Commission for Revenue Allocation (CRA) recently warned the country is set to breach its Sh10 trillion debt ceiling - with Kenya's financial stability at stake.

 Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) Governor Patrick Ngugi Njoroge during a past presser in Nairobi. [File, Standard]Caption

CRA had said Treasury's projections show the country's total stock of public debt to be Sh10.133 trillion in the financial year 2023/24.

The Sh10 trillion debt ceiling, which Parliament established, is the maximum amount the government can borrow. It's a limit on the national debt.

If the debt ceiling isn't raised after it's breached, further borrowing will not be possible, dealing a blow to the new government's plan to raise debt to fund national programmes.

The Kenya Kwanza administration targets to borrow Sh3.6 trillion in its first five-year term.

National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Prof Njuguna Ndung'u earlier maintained the State would opt for direct concessional budget funding from multilateral lenders instead of expensive domestic and foreign commercial debts.

For new loans, Treasury will strive to borrow at "favourable rates, negotiate repayment periods that are not stressful, and invest in enterprises that give good socio-economic returns."

Prof Ndung'u said recently reliance on institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the medium term to bridge the budget deficit would help reduce debt vulnerabilities.

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