Bank of Uganda should seize the day

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Recent political developments in Uganda are sobering, but not surprising. Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, is pushing through parliament, legislation that would allow him stay in power another 5 years, and perhaps for life. He has already been in power for 31 years. There are indications some citizens may no longer be passive about such autocratic tendencies: contentions about the controversial law seeking to remove age limits on contestants for the presidency caused a brawl during at least two recent sittings of the Ugandan legislature. Security operatives, allegedly from President Museveni’s special forces, were immediately deployed to eject the erring lawmakers. Of course, a downside is that instead of the security agencies putting more time to closing the many unsolved murder cases in the country, they are busy going after perceived enemies of the president. Never mind the bizarre mandate they recently added to their primary remit: policing indecent dressing and pornography. There could not be greater evidence of misplaced priorities. More likely is it, though, that the authorities seek to distract the populace from more pressing problems. Be that as it may, there have been some positive happenings on the back of having a relatively secure political leadership.

Bright future
The authorities recently agreed terms with a consortium to build a much desired crude oil refinery; after a number of failed talks with previously interested investors. Their persistence has clearly paid off, though. Because not only have they agreed what seem like quite good terms, the investors are of great standing. The consortium, which includes American industrial giant, General Electric, would build and operate the country’s first refinery, hopefully processing a greater part of the country’s recoverable oil reserves of 1.4-1.7 billion barrels; a feat that has largely eluded other African oil producers. So even as Mr Museveni’s longrunning rule deserves much criticism, it is highly unlikely the refinery feat would have been achieved if his position were not so secure. A fragile political leadership could have easily succumbed to pressure from global industry giants who harped about the weak economic case of the project. Earlier botched negotiations were with Russia’s RT Global Resources (which then put the project at about US$2.5 billion) and a subsequent one with South Korea’s SK Engineering. It is not all done yet, though. A project framework agreement is yet to be signed, but is expected to be endorsed soon. Better still, this new agreement involves regional neighbours, Kenya and Tanzania, which have committed to 2.5 percent and 8 percent stakes respectively. Additionally, construction has started on the US$3.5 billion joint crude oil pipeline with Tanzania, expected to be completed by 2020, about the same time first oil is expected. An ambitious Uganda now envisages membership of the oil producing countries’ cartel, OPEC, then. If all goes according to plan, growth could be in the high single-digits in just half a decade from now, when as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates, the crude oil economy could account for at least 4 percent of output; albeit it is not likely to match pre-global financial crisis growth of above 10 percent. Growth would likely still be decent in the short to medium term, though, about 5.7 percent in 2018, the IMF reckons, from an estimated 5 percent in 2017.

Last chance
I made a call to my clients for an additional interest rate cut by the central bank in August, after one by a 100 basis points to 10 percent in June. The Bank of Uganda (BoU) thought otherwise and kept its benchmark rate unchanged. I am reiterating my call for at least a 100 basis point rate cut to 9 percent. With inflation slowing, and likely to slow further, I think the monetary policy committee (MPC) has a chance to ease policy at its October meeting; lest it misses the chance to do so for the remainder of the year. At 5.3 percent, annual consumer inflation was largely unchanged in September; only a basis point higher than the earlier month’s headline of 5.2 percent. But this was still great progress from a year-to-date high of 7.3 percent in May. That said, prices accelerated quite significantly on a monthly basis in September, by 1 percent, after barely 0.2 percent in August. The increased price pressure is likely fleeting, though. Monthly core inflation last month was just 0.1 percent, from zero percent earlier; pushing annual core inflation by about the same pace to 4.2 percent from 4.1 percent in August, well within the authorities’ 5 percent target. My forecasts put annual consumer inflation at about 4 percent by year-end. The committee should seize the day.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/bank-uganda-seize-day/

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