A maize plant is seen among other dried maize at a field in Hoopstad, in the Free State. South Africa suffered its driest year on record in 2015. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko

Johannesburg - Farmers have their highest-ever debt with South African banks of more than R125 billion ($7.5 billion) at a time when a drought, caused by the lowest rainfall on record, is withering cornfields and discouraging the planting of crops.

FirstRand, Africa’s biggest bank by value, has the largest proportion of total loans extended to agriculture among the four main lenders at 3.6 percent, Harry Botha of Avior Capital Markets said on Thursday. Barclays Africa Group has 3.4 percent, Standard Bank Group has 2 percent and Nedbank Group 1 percent, said Cape Town-based Botha, the second- ranked bank analyst by South Africa’s weekly Financial Mail magazine.

“Dry conditions would have an impact on profitability because of lower yields, and for some producers it would be a total crop failure,” said Nico Groenewald, head of agri-business at Standard Bank, the continent’s biggest lender by assets. “We expect to see some producers under pressure.”

Rainfall last year was the poorest since records began in 1904, the South African Weather Service said on Thursday. El Nino, a movement of warm water in the Pacific Ocean that typically leads to a rise in temperatures and a drop in rainfall for South Africa, has left farmers with what’s expected to be the smallest corn crop since 1995. They will also probably sow the smallest area with the grain since 2011, according to the government.

The strain on farmers’ finances comes as South African banks, which have total lending exceeding R3.29 trillion, contend with increasingly indebted consumers. The strain on households has worsened because of accelerating inflation and rising interest rates, caused partly by the more than 40 percent slump in the rand against the dollar since the start of last year.

‘Devastating impact’

Nedbank, which said in October it had lent R8.96 billion to the industry, out of total loans and advances of almost R649 billion, “is concerned about the drought impact on the economy, agriculture industry and society at large”, said John Hudson, a divisional manager for agriculture at the Johannesburg-based lender. The “devastating impact” of the drought “will place many agricultural producers under financial and cash flow pressure”, he said.

While the drought could lead to “additional distressed debt”, for Standard Bank, its lending is diversified across a number of agricultural industries - from timber to wine - that could cushion the effect of any increase in bad debt among livestock and grain farmers, Groenewald said. The spread of Standard Bank’s lending book across industries and countries would also enable it to absorb any drought impact, he said.

“The drought will have an impact on bad debt levels,” said Adrian Cloete, a banks analyst at PSG Wealth, the Cape Town-based firm that manages more than R300 billion. “Some farmers will probably find it difficult to fund their interest service costs as their income levels will be lower as less maize is planted,” he said, using the local term for corn.

Non-performing loans as a percentage of advances at South Africa’s four biggest banks were 2.8 percent by the end of June, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. The banks have boosted provisions and had a combined total capital adequacy ratio of 15.4 percent by the end of June, higher than required by the global Basel benchmark. They haven’t forecast how much bad debts linked to farming loans may rise this year. PSG’s Cloete was among analysts who said he lacked the data from banks to make accurate estimates of what proportion of the loans extended to farmers could turn bad.

The effect of the drought is only likely to be felt toward August, once some crops are harvested, said Ernst Janovsky, a senior agricultural economist at Barclays Africa. The Barclays unit’s diversified loan book will soften any blow from the weather, he said.

Both Barclays Africa and Standard Bank said they will continue to lend to farmers.

“2016 will be a challenging year because of a number of deteriorating economic fundamentals, slow growing economy, high unemployment rate, a volatile rand that reached record low levels recently, increasing inflation and interest rates,” Groenewald at Standard Bank said. “The drought conditions will add to those challenges.”

Bloomberg