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Sudan Bank-Lending Ban Stirs Risk as Oil Revenue Dwindles

Sudan risks storing up trouble for itself by slapping lending curbs on banks amid soaring inflation and a slump in oil-pipeline revenue.

The central bank, led by Abdelrahman Hassan, this month announced a ban on loans toward homes or imported cars as part of measures to shore up the Sudanese pound and tame price increases. The move may do little more than encourage banks to lend to less creditworthy borrowers to compensate for the loss of income, according to Colorado-based consultants IHS Inc.

“Down the line the central bank’s restriction on lending for construction or vehicle purchases risks increasing vulnerabilities in the banking sector as banks move into less well established areas in search of yield,” Alyssa Grzelak, a banking economist at IHS, said in e-mailed comments from Washington on June 27.

Three years after the country broke up in a bid to end a civil war that claimed more than 1.5 million lives, the government in Khartoum relies on the income from land-locked South Sudan sending crude through its pipelines to the Red Sea. Renewed fighting reduced oil flow and sparked a funding shortage, causing the Sudanese pound to weaken below the central bank’s target level, and pushing inflation to more than 40 percent as import costs soared.

Protest Deaths

Keeping price increases in check is a priority for the country. More than 200 people were killed in September during a week of protests after a cut in fuel subsidies caused public transport tariffs to increase, according to Amnesty International.

Hassan used the central bank’s website on June 5 to warn banks against any attempt to circumvent the bans. He called on lenders to invest in agricultural funds like those that support cotton and gum arabic production instead.

“This method of curbing inflation is not guaranteed to work,” Florence Eid-Oakden, the London-based Arabia Monitor chief economist, said in a June 26 e-mail. “If there aren’t high returns in other activities, as opposed to real estate, there is no basis to conclude that other sectors would benefit.”

Inflation accelerated to 41.2 percent in May, the highest level since December, from 37.7 percent in April, according to Sudan’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Rebel No-Show

South Sudanese oil production has fallen by at least a third to about 160,000 barrels per day since fighting erupted in mid-December between factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. Peace talks held in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa adjourned on June 23 after the rebels failed to show up.

Sudan’s pipeline revenue was $857 million in the 12 months through May, compared with International Monetary Fund expectations of $1.4 billion for all of 2014.

The dollar was trading at 9.50 pounds on June 25, compared with about 8.20 pounds on March 31, according to two traders. The official rate is about 5.75 pounds, according to central bank data.

“To the extent that it reduces demand for foreign exchange, the lending restrictions would also slow down the Sudanese pound’s depreciation, and hence the impact of foreign prices on domestic prices,” Eid-Oakden said.

Sudan converted its banking industry to a Shariah compliant system in 1983, according to the central bank’s website. The nation is under international sanctions over accusations that President Umar Al-Bashir’s government is committing human rights violations in the western Darfur region.

While it’s too early to gauge the impact of the lending restrictions on the economy, an immediate result was to stem a source of funding for the middle class, according to IHS.

“Banks are reluctant to lend to all but the most qualified borrowers, primarily large corporations and to a lesser extent middle-to-high-income households,” Grzelak said. “Middle-income households that do not have alternative funding channels will be impacted the most.”

Jamal Zarif, the owner of a gift shop on Abdallah El Tayyeb street in Khartoum, agrees. The 52 year-old father of three bought a Hyundai Elantra with a five-year murabaha from Bank of Khartoum, one week before the ban was implemented. The Shariah-compliant loan is being repaid at a rate equivalent to 9 percent, he said by phone on June 25.

“The rich dont need to take loans, they buy cash,” he said. “The poor don’t have access to bank loans anyway. It’s those in the middle that are hurt.”

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