The Central Statistical Office in its October press release announced an increase in inflation of 6.6 percentage points. The October inflation of 14.3 percent is almost double the September inflation of 7.7 percent. The sharp increased has been blamed on the depreciating Kwacha. To many Zambians, the increase is not a surprise but a confirmation of the escalating commodity prices most of which have more than doubled in the last few weeks.
The October Basic Needs Basket for a family of five living in Lusaka as measured by the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) exhibited a very similar trend reflecting an increase of K302.1 from K3, 957.46 in September to K4, 249.56. Costs contributing to this was almost all of the food commodities (i.e. 12 out of the 15 food items had seen a rise in cost, the highest being that of Kapenta that saw a K50 increase). In comparison to the Lusaka October 2014 BNB (which stood at K3, 635.83) there has been a rise of over K600 (16.8% increase). It is also the first time that the Lusaka Basic Needs Basket has breached the K4, 000 barrier and thus a cause for concern to JCTR. This development is of great concern especially that the depreciation of the Kwacha continues unabated. The continued deficit in energy supply and the resultant decline in productivity will make recovery in cost of living even more difficult.
In response to the rising inflation Bank of Zambia has raised the policy rate from 12.5 percent to 15.5 percent and also lifted the cap on lending rates by commercial banks. This monetary policy instrument is meant to curb the rising inflation and keep it within the single digit target for the year. This raises one key concern in the midst of rising cost of doing business and declining productivity. While the policy may slow down inflation in the short run, it may further stifle productivity as investors hold back their investment due to increased cost of credit. Reduced productivity may in turn result in inflation through reduced supply of commodities. The Bank of Zambia should therefore balance well the need for low inflation and sustaining productivity. The move to raise interest rates will also hurt individuals with personal loans that have flexible interest rates as they will be required to repay their loans at the new rates.
At a time of crisis like this the JCTR urges government to combine well its policy response to the current economic situation and not always trying to find quick fixes. Recently Government offloaded its reserves on to the market to protect the Kwacha from further depreciation but the Kwacha continues to depreciate and is currently trading at 14.02 (as noted on BoZ website). While these measures may yield temporal relief by way of dealing with the symptom of the problem and not the cause, Government needs to look at the bigger picture by devising long term solutions that lie in diversifying the economy. Raising of interest rate does not seem to be a good recipe for this long term approach to addressing the country’s current economic challenges such as improving value addition and growing our manufacturing industry.