Monday, May 2, 2016


Last week Standard Chartered Bank got a court order to put Steel Rolling Mills under receivership for their failure to honour their debt obligations.

The Jinja based industry became only the latest casualty in a hostile environment that has been buffeted by rising lending rates, shilling depreciation and an underachieving economy.

The steel manufacturer is facing closure following refusal of the commercial court to issue an injunction temporarily stopping the bank from shutting it down pending the main suit. In the main suit the company is challenging StandardChartered’s bid to put it under receivership.

In 2014 Steel Rolling Mills borrowed two loans of sh18b and $10m (sh35b) to purchase a sponge iron plant, which turns iron ore into steel. However, last year the bank recalled the loan in its entirety but the company argued that the loan was for 96 months and that the 45 days’ notice to repay was unreasonable.

Company officials argue that unforeseen developments in the economy have made it difficult to service the loan properly but point out they have already paid about sh26.5b of the loan.

“A combination of things – a drop in demand form the construction industry, falling steel prices, rising interest rates, currency depreciation and increased cost of production, all unforeseen at the time of taking out the loan have made it difficult,” Steel Rolling Mills’ Sami Alam told Business Vision.

Economic growth is expected to come in at five percent, down from the projected 5.8 percent. The shilling has stabilised in recent months but last year peaked at a historic high of sh3,700 to the dollar from below sh3000 at the beginning of the year. The shilling has since clawed back some value and is now trading in the ranges of sh3,300 to the dollar on the open market.

Lending rates also jumped following the central bank’s raising of its key Central Bank Rate, which serves as a benchmark for commercial lenders. The CBR peaked at 17 percent in February this year from 11 percent twelve months prior, this had the knock on effect of raising lending rates to as high as 25 percent for prime borrowers.

The Bank of Uganda felt it necessary to raise the CBR to head off potential inflationary pressures.
The enterprise under threat is the only one in Uganda which converts iron ore from a company owned mine in Kabale and from artisan miners into steel at their Jinja plant.

The company, which also trucks 250 tons of iron ore daily from Kabale and produces 4000 tonnes of steel a month, also employs about 4,000 people directly and indirectly.

Industry leader Roofings Ltd produces about 350,000 tons of steel products a year from imported semi processed steel.

But the multi-million dollar investment is not the only one creaking under the weight of hard economic terms.

"According to a senior businessman small businessmen who owe sh40b and are failing to pay are in danger of losing up to sh120b in assets pledged as collateral for the loans...

Everest Kayondo the boss of the Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA) could not confirm the figure but said the pain was real.

 “The high interest rates in a situation where business is declining means many of our members have seen their businesses going into receivership,” Kayondo said.

“It is particularly painful when as we predicted the banks are showing healthy profits, but at the same time they are treading on dead businesses.”

Banks, which have released their results recently, have shown that they are bringing their bad loans under control, provisioning less for them last year than the previous year, while profits have mostly come in higher in 2015 than in 2014.

A closure of these businesses would put thousands out of work and compromise the ability of local businessmen to create more jobs.

Already big names like supermarket chain Uchumi have been placed under receivership and WBS TV has been taken over by URA. Meanwhile the classified pages are inundated with properties being auctioned to redeem bad loans as numerous small operators have sunk quietly out of sight in recent months.

Inevitably when such economy wide distress arises calls for government intervention are not far behind.

“This is not a normal situation,” agroprocessor Andrew Rugasira told Business Vision.  “When you are in a situation of recession pressures government has an important role to play in assessing distressed loan portfolios to reduce the stress either by having the financial sector restructure these loans or by injecting liquidity into the economy.”

He argues that the cost to the economy in terms of jobs lost, loss of business to support companies and a general lowering of demand make the case for government intervention important.

Politics will always be a factor in how government intervenes in the economy, benefiting some who may not be deserving of government help to the detriment of those who are but who might be at odds with the establishment or not have the correct connections.

“There will always be politics. There is no perfect scenario. But the discussion must be had and systematic, orderly way for government to lend hand come out,” Rugasira said.

Opponents of government intervention are hard to find.

"The classical argument is that companies should be allowed to fail, that to intervene is to distort the market’s ability to allocate resources efficiently and only serves to perpetuate the inefficiencies that led to the collapse in the first place...

Governments around the world are having to rethink this orthodoxy.

During the global financial crisis that started in 2007, the US, European and Japanese governments pumped money into their respective economies and partially nationalised some of their biggest financial institutions as a way to climb out of the crisis.

Only last week The Financial Times reported that the UK government was going to re-nationalise up to a quarter of distressed Tata Steel and lend them hundreds of millions of pounds to the firm which had threatened to close down after suffering substantial losses  for years.

The UK government cited the 40,000 jobs under threat and the strategic importance of the steel industry to the economy as the reasons for interventions.


Last week Uganda decided that the oil pipe line from the western oil fields will go south through Tanzania rather than through Kenya, as was earlier expected, a decision that served to open up old wounds and threatens to shift the region’s economic center of gravity.

The Kenyan route through Lokichar and onto Lamu, was discarded on account that it would be more costly to develop due to expensive land compensation claims, its passing through environmentally sensitive areas and the state of unpreparedness of the Lamu port, which was deemed too shallow and exposed to high tides, less than ideal conditions for oil tankers to operate in.

The route through Tanzania to Tanga port was shorter – though not by much 1500 km through Kenya as opposed to 1,410 km through Tanzania. This would be factor though as the waxy nature of Uganda’s oil which solidifies below 40 degrees centigrade necessitates heating plants every so many kilometres. In addition because all land belongs to the state in Tanzania compensation would be kept to a minimum and leases secured faster.

It also helps that Tanga port is already up and running unlike Lamu. This would mean Uganda’s first oil exports have a better chance of being realised before 2020 using the southern route.

"And it did not help that Kenya has not established commercial viability of their oil finds in the north...

This was important for both countries but more so for Uganda, because if Kenya didn’t have viable quantities to ship out Uganda would find itself carrying a disproportionate portion of the piping costs.

While Tanzania has no oil deposits of its own to share the pipeline there gas reserves are convenient as heating fuel for the length of the pipeline. In addition the development of infrastructure through southern Uganda as a plus given the unexploited iron ore deposits in the region.

Of course Kenyan officialdom and the business community were left unamused at the latest development. Some commentators went as far as to accuse Uganda of playing off its neighbours against each other, sticking it to Kenya over some unresolved and unclear past slights and threatening to jeopardise the joint multi-billion dollar Standard Gauge Railway(SGR) project.

The Mombasa to Nairobi leg of the SGR is already underway and will cost about $5b while the $8b has been earmarked for the Malaba-Kampala leg.

The economics of the project were lost in the hysterics.

It is understandable that Kenya Inc should be concerned.

"Fashioned as a colony the British never saw themselves ever leaving, like South Africa or Zimbabwe, the other territories around it were fashioned to feed into Kenya’s industries, leading to its regional economic dominance, a situation that persists to date...

However with Uganda’s economy finding its feet over the last three decades and Tanzania’s embarrassing wealth in natural resources – natural gas, gold and other minerals, means Kenya is increasingly having to see itself as first among equals rather than the 800 pound gorilla straddling the region.

Channelling Uganda’s oil, the fourth largest reserves in sub-Saharan Africa, through Tanzania threaten to redress historical regional economic imbalances. Uganda’s reserves are estimated at 6.5 billion barrels of which about 1.5 billion are recoverable.

It is not unreasonable to believe too that the accompanying improvements in infrastructure along the pipeline will make the much neglected Tanzanian route to the sea more attractive for Ugandan, Rwandan and Congolese commerce, a worrying situation for Kenyan transport interests.

And finally with tensions in South Sudan beginning to ease off -- rebel leader Riak Machar was sworn in as Salva Kiir’s  vice-president, the issue of an oil pipe line to the coast will be revived, only this time there will be an alternative through Tanzania to the Kenyan route.

"It is safe to say that when history is written the events around the evacuation of Ugandan oil to the sea will be seen as an inflection point in the region’s geopolitical alignment...

It is not only about the oil, but then again it is.