By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Last week, I was part of a brilliant panel at the 2017 Bonds, Loans and Sukuk Nigeria Briefing event in Lagos that discussed the Nigerian economic outlook for the coming year. With the economy largely looking upward, the panel was naturally upbeat about the future; no doubt helped by the release of better than expected Q3 GDP data just about 30 minutes earlier. The forecasts one had just before the data release had to be momentarily revised upwards, for instance. Above 1 percent GDP growth rate for 2017 is beginning to look feasible certainly; from earlier projections of below 1 percent. More importantly, earlier estimates of about 2 percent for 2018 seem somewhat conservative now. With planned ramped-up public spending, because of the political cycle no less, expected lower inflation and interest rates, likely appreciation of the naira on the back of likely high for longer crude oil prices, 3 percent GDP growth next year would not be farfetched at all. One veteran company board guru in attendance agreed as much in private.
Amid this optimism, however, an experienced foreign portfolio manager rightly asked a so-called disconfirming question. What if oil prices go south again? Of course, recent events suggest that scenario is not likely for another year, at least. But if one were to learn from history, sometimes all it takes for things to go awry can be no more than a single event. For example, if anyone said previously that Russia would be crucial to solving the Syrian and North Korean crises and indeed be germane to whether the oil producers’ cartel OPEC (which meets on 30 November) would be able to sustain the efficacy of its production cuts, you would have been sceptical. But that is exactly the case now. No one could have envisaged the radical anti-corruption move by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia or that his power would be formalized so quickly, for instance. Incidentally, the Saudi royal’s youthful exuberance is already becoming writ large: while the Yemeni war is still ongoing and the cold shoulder towards Qatar persists, MBS virtually held hostage the head of government of a sovereign country; and with the benefit of hindsight clearly forced him to read out a resignation letter that was intended to instigate a conflict with Iran. Otherwise there is no other explanation for why Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri would, following summons from the Saudis, quit office in Riyadh on supposed intelligence of plans to assassinate him and then suddenly change his mind after what is believed to be an internationally brokered “release” from their watchful eye. (Upon returning to Beirut, Mr Hariri announced he would not be leaving office after all.) And since then, MBS has been unrelenting in his acerbic rhetoric towards the Iranian leadership. At this rate, it is beginning to seem like the bad blood between the Arabs and Persians might be a better trick for keeping the price of crude oil above $50 than any coordinated production cuts could ever do; albeit the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers have been largely speaking with one voice on an expected extension of the period for the production cuts. Besides, both countries need oil prices to remain high.
Political tune dictates
So what was my reply to the portfolio manager I referred to earlier? The problem with the Nigerian economy has never been about its structure. An economy that is 90 percent non-oil is not any sense of the word a mono-economy. It has always been the policy response. Unlike the popular perception, there is not so much a fixation on the exchange rate by foreign portfolio investors as there is on the crude oil price: they know to fly to safety the moment it seems like it would sustainably be below $50. Without saying so explicitly, what he really meant to ask about was the likelihood of capital controls if oil prices tanked again. And my view is that irrespective of the very nice commentary coming from the lips of officials at the central bank about the many lessons they have learnt during this most recent foreign exchange crisis, if another one comes about in the coming year, they would likely respond in a similar or worse fashion. Why? Electioneering ahead of the 2019 elections has begun in earnest. So, we are already in a political cycle. Within such a context, does anyone really think the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) would simply hands off if crude oil prices go back to the $30-$40 area? Bear in mind that even at the current above-$50 price levels, the CBN is believed to still participate actively in the buoyant investors’ and exporters’ (I&E) FX window; albeit on both the demand and supply sides. Thus, should crude oil prices fall again, I doubt very much the CBN would behave any differently; especially under a government that is keen on a second term and is led by a president that is very sensitive to the level of the exchange rate. To be fair, it would not be because the CBN does not know the right thing to do. And its officials were definitely not dumb in the past. They simply did not have the political space to do the smart thing. In the coming year, that space would become even smaller.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/diversified-nigerian-economy-still-oil/