Uhuru and Ruto wrote in the Jubilee Manifesto that they plan to establish a development Bank to “prop up the private players”. Although nobody is talking about it, and although we have no idea if that will happen anytime soon, this could be a huge deal for the future of Kenya. What is a development bank? And is it a good or a bad idea for Kenya?

A traditional definition of a development bank is one which is a national or regional financial institution designed to provide medium-and long-term capital for productive investment, often accompanied by technical assistance, in less-developed areas. Development banks fill a gap left by undeveloped capital markets and the reluctance of commercial banks to offer long-term financing. [full “primer on development banking” here]

We have to keep in mind is that UhuRuto provided no details about how a development bank fits into their grand scheme for economic development in Kenya. For example, we don’t know if the objective is to promote small businesses (like the informal sector or SMEs), whether they want to finance large infrastructural projects, agriculture or large manufacturing industries.  However, the sure thing is that whenever the plan is to increase the government role in the economy, you attract both huge praise and criticism:  that’s the difference between the “industrial policy view” and the “political view”

According to the industrial policy view, development banks do more than just lending to build large infrastructure projects. They also lend to companies that would not undertake projects if it was not for the availability of long-term, subsidized funding of a development bank. Furthermore, development banks may provide firms with capital conditional on operational improvements and performance targets. In such circumstances, we would expect to see the firms who borrow from development banks increasing capital investments and overall profitability after they get a loan.

According to the political view, on the other hand, lending by development banks leads to misallocation of credit for two reasons. First, development banks tend to bailout companies that would otherwise fail (this is the soft-budget constraint hypothesis, e.g. Kornai, 1979). Second, the rent-seeking hypothesis argues that politicians create and maintain state-owned banks not to channel funds to socially efficient uses, but rather to maximize their personal objectives or engage in patronage deals with politically-connected industrialists.

So, whether a development bank is a good idea or not for Kenya entirely depends on your opinion on the current political class: will they be committed-to-development or good-old rent-seekers? For now I want to keep on the optimist side.

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