By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian president, presents his 2018 budget statement to the legislature on 7 November. He reportedly wanted to do it in late October; to allow ample time for the spending proposals to be considered and passed by December. Some lawmakers have expressed reservations about this. BusinessDay, the newspaper which publishes this column, found out why. There are at least three executive proposals currently under consideration by the lawmakers. First is the 2018-2020 Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) and Fiscal Strategy Paper (FSP). Second is a N135.6 billion virement proposal. And third, a US$5.5 billion foreign borrowing request. My view is that the lawmakers can get them all done on or before 31 December. And they should. Considering how much they get paid, it would not be too much to ask that they go into overdrive, consider and pass them all before heading for their Christmas break.
In the MTEF, the 2018 spending estimate is put at N8.6 trillion, up by about 16 percent relative to the 2017 budget of N7.4 trillion. Oil production is assumed at 2.3 million barrels per day (mbpd), which would probably be no more than 1.8 mbpd if a likely OPEC production cap in November is sanctioned. But even this level of production may be weighed on by imminent militant attacks on oil and gas infrastructure by agitators in the Niger Delta region. Additional tax measures are planned. A 15 percent tax on luxury goods from 5 percent currently, for instance. An ongoing tax amnesty programme till March 2018 should also boost the government’s finances. Tax revenue performance this year has been quite impressive, with respect to VAT at least; N797.5 billion was realised between January and October 2017, up about 20 percent from the same period last year.
It is not news that the 2017 budget was only partially implemented; never mind shortfalls here and there even for the parts that were. As the authorities likely plan to issue a US$5.5 billion eurobond imminently, it would help a great deal if investors are able to see how things are beginning to indeed change for the better. There have been some positive developments lately. The World Bank recently affirmed the authorities’ ease of doing business reforms are working, raising Nigeria’s ranking 24 places to 145th out of 190 countries. Central bank governor Godwin Emefiele was also recently conferred with an award by Forbes magazine. And in late October, Nigeria kept its place in the MSCI Frontier Markets Index (country weight of 8 percent); attributed to a rebound in the foreign exchange market. So, imagine how truly positive the Nigerian investment narrative would be if the authorities are able to also demonstrate they are succeeding with fiscal policy.
Concerns have been raised about the supposedly planned US$5.5 billion eurobond, though. The country’s historical pains with indebtedness make Nigerians naturally wary. Public debt of N19.6 trillion (US$64.2 billion) in June, about 16 percent of 2016 GDP of US$405 billion, should ordinarily not be concerning. But electioneering for the 2019 polls has started in earnest. And President Buhari, hitherto thought might not be seeking a second term in light of his fragile health, recently signalled he has decided otherwise. So there is the risk that new borrowings might not be spent wisely. In response, finance minister Kemi Adeosun is taking pains to explain the rationale behind the plan. Of the US$5.5 billion they plan to borrow, US$3 billion would be used to refinance the authorities’ current debt portfolio. The remaining US$2.5 billion, which would be new borrowing, is intended to in part fill a hole in the 2017 budget; already appropriated for. It seems like a good plan, if you ask me.
Feelers that came out initially were that the planned foreign borrowing would be done in two parts. I do not believe this to be wise. Interest rates are rising in the developed world, with the American Federal Reserve expected to hike rates again in December. And only last week, the Bank of England raised its benchmark rate by 25 basis points to 0.5 percent, the first time since 2007. What this portends for African sovereigns looking to issue eurobonds is that potential subscribers are going to insist on higher yields; albeit they would by far still not be as dear as those in their domestic debt markets.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/2018-budget-passed-year-end/