By Paul Wallace
History is repeating itself in Nigeria, where the more President Muhammadu Buhari is urged to devalue the naira, the more he digs in his heels. Investors are beginning to surmise that politics — rather than economics — will determine the currency’s immediate future.
Even as growth slows, inflation rises and investors flee Africa’s biggest oil producer, analysts in a Bloomberg survey are backing away from estimates a devaluation will take place before the third quarter. Buhari, 73, has made it clear that he, not the central bank, has the final say on currency policy — and that he is against taking that step, just as he was during his first stint in power in the 1980s. The former general is loath to be seen by voters as capitulating to foreign investors and the International Monetary Fund, both vocal critics of his stance, according to New York-based Teneo Intelligence.
“Changing his position would make him seem like a spineless leader,” said Manji Cheto, an analyst at Teneo, a global advisory firm, who predicts there won’t be a move on the currency until at least the second half of this year. “Buhari is seen as the man who will stand up to foreigners. He ran a campaign as a strongman, someone who would put Nigerian interests ahead of foreign ones.”
Central bank Governor Godwin Emefiele has pegged the naira’s official rate at 197-199 against the dollar since March 2015. Buhari has backed that policy since he became president in May, confounding analysts who thought he would have caved in by now and let the naira fall, as other oil exporters from Russia to Kazakhstan and Colombia have done with their currencies. Foreign-exchange trading restrictions and import curbs have led to shortages of goods from gasoline to milk and sent the naira plunging to 320 on the black market.
Buhari and Emefiele, who meet at least weekly, say that the naira is fairly valued on the official market and that letting it drop would only harm poor Nigerians by pushing up prices. That’s already happening, with inflation accelerating to an almost four-year high of 12.8 percent in March as manufacturers struggled to pay for imports. Growth slumped to 2.8 percent last year, the slowest pace in 17 years. It will slow further to 2.3 percent in 2016, according to the IMF, which called for a “speedy unwinding” of the currency controls to help revive the economy.
It’s not the first time Buhari, who said in February a devaluation would “murder” the naira, has resisted the IMF. When he last ruled Nigeria from 1983 to 1985, a time when, like today, oil prices had just crashed, he ignored advice to depreciate the currency and refused financial assistance from the Washington-based lender.
After Buhari was ousted in a coup amid a worsening financial crisis, his successor Ibrahim Babangida started an IMF-led structural adjustment program, which included a devaluation. It was the first of many that saw the currency’s value drop from roughly parity with the dollar to today’s rate of near 200. Politicians still say the IMF program failed the country.
“I’ve lived through several rounds of naira devaluation and I have seen very little benefit to the Nigerian economy and people,” Nasir el-Rufai, the 56-year-old governor of Kaduna, a northern state of about 7 million people and a senior figure in Buhari’s All Progressives Congress party, said in an interview in Lagos. “I supported each of them as a solution to the challenges we faced at the time. I regret that support because I have seen very clearly it brought nothing to Nigeria.”
For investors, such thinking makes little economic sense. Many businesses are already trading at the black-market rate since the central bank’s policies are choking off dollars in the official market, according to Exotix Partners LLP, a London-based investment bank focusing on frontier markets. PZ Cussons Plc, the Manchester, U.K.-based soap maker, said last week its Nigerian unit is forced to pay a 50-70 percent premium on the official rate to source foreign exchange.
Foreign investors are avoiding the country until there’s a devaluation. Nigeria’s local government bonds are the only ones to have made losses this year among 31 emerging markets tracked by Bloomberg. Nigerian average yields have risen 202 basis points to 12.71 percent since the end of 2015, whereas Russia’s have fallen 29 basis points to 9.26 percent and Colombia’s 27 basis points to 7.77 percent. Nigeria’s stocks have dropped 13 percent this year, the most in Africa after those in Zimbabwe.
Buhari “just doesn’t get it,” Kato Mukuru, the London-based head of equity research at Exotix Partners LLP, said in an interview. “When he was last in power in the ’80s he was also told to devalue the currency. He refused until he was sent out in a coup. Clearly he didn’t do the same economics as I did. There comes a point where you need to understand that the whole country has already devalued.” (Bloomberg)