Nigeria: Still delicate

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

The Nigerian economy exited recession in the second quarter of 2017 to much applause. Readers of my column would recall my earlier expectations of a positive recovery in the first quarter of 2017. When that did not happen, I took a more cautious view that a recession exit was likely in Q3 but almost certainly in Q4. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised that it finally happened in Q2. A particular client, I thought, would at least be already ahead of its competitors if they acted on my recommendation that the recession was going to be shortlived. But now that the economy is recovering, how sustainable is it likely to be? That would depend on a few things. Government policy for one. Agriculture proved to be resilient during the slump and yet despite stimulus efforts by the authorities in the sector, growth has been slowing. This must be a little frustrating for the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), which has been at the forefront of encouraging banks to lend to the agriculture sector. It may very well be that one is being a little hasty: there are indications the CBN is beginning to succeed. Recently, Stanbic IBTC Bank signed a 50 billion naira agreement with the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk-Sharing System for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL), an agricultural credit guarantee scheme that used to be a unit within the CBN. Should the partnership succeed, more than 90 thousand jobs are expected to be created. And that is just one bank. Also, power generation has begun to improve, rising to about 7,000 mega watts (MW) lately; albeit only about 96 percent can be transmitted and just two-thirds reach consumers. In any case, it would likely remain a while before there is ample electricity to spur the type of industrialization needed to employ the country’s teeming jobless youths.

High food prices weighing on inflation 
Annual consumer inflation has been slowing; 16 percent in August from almost 19 percent in January, although the price index accelerated by the same monthly pace in both months. So, price pressures remain persistent. High food prices are majorly why, with food inflation – about 51 percent of the consumer price index (CPI) – at 20.3 percent in August from 17.8 percent in January. There are myriad reasons for this. Floods in the agricultural belt states of Kogi, Benue and environs mean this year’s harvest has likely been jeopardized. Incidentally, these are areas that have also been barraged by Fulani herdsmen attacks, leaving damaged crops in their wake. Continued insecurity in the northeastern parts of the country also means a significant portion of the farming community remains idle. Never mind that at least 5 million people in these parts are reportedly in need of food aid. Additionally, exporting food is now very lucrative. So what should ordinarily be sold in local markets are increasingly ferried to neighbouring countries and further abroad, where they can be sold at a premium. Some of the food inflation is imported, however, about 13 percent of the CPI. So, a still dear foreign exchange rate is also a factor. There is much to cheer about in this regard, though. Above US$50 crude oil and relative security in the oil-producing Niger Delta area means rising production volumes have been improving the authorities’ finances. These would likely be constrained still, as the authorities’ 2.2 million barrels per day (mbpd) target for 2017 now seems highly unlikely. Because even if that much could be produced, there are indications the oil exporting countries’ cartel the country belongs to would not allow output above 1.8 mbpd.

Burgeoning debt
There is growing concern about the government’s debt burden, rising to US$64.2 billion (16 percent of GDP) in June from US$63.8 billion two years earlier. Ordinarily, there should not be much worry at this relatively benign accumulation rate. But in the period, foreign debt has increased by almost half. And debt servicing is beginning to weigh overmuch on tax revenue, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) put at more than two-thirds. Also, the authorities have not been as successful as they would have liked in securing foreign concesssionary debt. There are a couple of reasons for this. It held on to a costly fixed exchange rate regime for too long, haemorrhaging much valuable hard currency. Had the government been more prudent, floating the naira early on that is, it would not have needed to borrow as much. A populist political leadership also meant the CBN lost a great deal of its independence, to the dismay of investors and development partners. Consequently, multilateral financial institutions were relunctant to lend money while such a sub-optimal policy regime subsisted. There is reason to be optimistic now, though. A new FX market platform now allows foreign portfolio investors to trade at market-determined exchange rates. Hard currency inflows have surged consequently, with at least US$9 billion in volumes recorded in the first 6 months of the platform’s operations.

Do not rock the boat
The best the CBN can do at this time – its monetary policy committee would be deciding on interest rates on 26 September – is thus to maintain its current policy stance; one that has engendered naira stability and brought a new lease of life to the equity and fixed income markets. For those who desire that interest rates be lower (the monetary policy rate is currently 14 percent), the fundamental question remains whether they would buy government securities if yields were not high enough. When the authorities recently sought to test if they would, subscriptions were unsatisfctory. So, until market participants are willing to accept lower yields, it would not make sense for the CBN to start reducing interest rates. And that would not likely be the case until inflation is much lower, in the third quarter of 2018, say, when it is likely in the single-digits. Until then, the CBN would do well to do nothing.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/nigeria-still-delicate/

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