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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 March 2003, 08:22 GMT
Uganda seeks help in saving
By Orla Ryan
Kampala, Uganda

Floating market
The savings regime is failing Uganda's informal economy
From his high rise office in Kampala, Geoffrey Onegi Obel gestures at the buildings under construction on the city's horizon.

They are all being built through savings, he says - money put aside by ordinary Ugandans.

This money is becoming concrete on the changing Kampala horizon.

Mr Onegi Obel, chairman of Uganda's National Social Security Fund (NSSF), argues that this cash is the missing ingredient in the recipe for the country's economic development.

In an economy which relies on donor funding and taxes reaped from imports, something else is needed - and the missing link is savings.

These savings could be channelled into Uganda's small but growing stock market, representing an injection of adrenaline into the economy.

With this aim in mind, the 19 members of the country's strategic committee for social security reform will come up with a report by the end of March, to be presented to President Yoweri Museveni's office.

Real reform may not take place for a few years, but no one doubts its importance.

Exclusion problem

What will reform mean?

For Mr Onegi Obel, it will mean more NSSFs offering a diverse range of products.

The abolition of the NSSF monopoly would be good for capital markets as well as employers
Candy Wekesa, Capital Markets' Authority

He anticipates a handful of providers being licensed by the government to offer competing products.

The extra choice of savings vehicles will stimulate demand.

Currently, all firms employing five or more people have to pay contributions to the NSSF.

This cuts out businesses in a large swathe of Uganda's informal economy, which could be encouraged to save by higher returns and more choice.

Rates of return - at about 4% - are low.

Property loss

PricewaterhouseCooper's tax expert Francis Kamulegeya says that, given the low rates of return, reform would be a good thing.

"Nobody would put any more money into the NSSF than they would have to," Mr Kamulegeya says.

"The abolition of the NSSF monopoly would be good for capital markets as well as employers."

He points to Kenya, where liberalisation led to greater development of the stock market.

At most privatisations, it is the NSSF which emerges as the buyer, says Capital Markets' Authority (CMA) Candy Wekesa.

The CMA says the supply side of one of Africa's smallest stock markets (with five listed companies) is developing - now the demand side needs to grow.

Hence the authority's enthusiasm for social security reform.

But some scepticism exists among ordinary Ugandans.

Not least because it emerged earlier this year that the NSSF had lost 20bn Ugandan shillings (6.59m; $10.4m) in property investment and faced heavy criticism from Ernst and Young in an audit report.

Foreign role?

Does Uganda have the calibre of fund managers who could protect and nurture Uganda' savings?

There are private pension funds in Uganda, but most of them are subsidiaries of a parent company, and pension fund expertise lies back at head office.

Mr Onegi Obel foresees some four or five companies - some of which could come from South Africa - being licensed by the government to offer services.

But, when even countries such as the UK, with more sophisticated financial markets run into problems with pensions regulation, surely there are many hurdles ahead?

Too much red tape

CMA's Candy Wekesa said that regulation is an issue, but also warns that overregulation could strangle a growing industry.

An earlier World Bank report looked at regulation efforts in South American countries such as Chile.

Nerves about the inexperience of fund managers and the birth of what was effectively a new industry led to heavy regulation.

With limited choice, fund managers mimicked each others' decisions, and the promised higher returns did not initially materialise for savers.

Watchdog possibilities

Mr Onegi Obel is confident the right regulator can be found.

The central bank - Bank of Uganda - is being considered as a regulator.

He adds that Uganda could learn from regulatory efforts in countries such as Singapore and Mauritius.

Whichever option is chosen, the path to savings reform could be a long one.

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