By Walter Lamberson | New York Times
The collapsed price of oil is putting pressure on oil exporters around the world, from Canada to Kuwait. But perhaps no country is less prepared to survive prices at about $30 a barrel than Nigeria, which until a few years ago relied heavily on petroleum exports for its revenue. While countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia have saved past oil profits for rainy days, Nigeria has no such insulation. What’s worse is that Nigeria is especially dependent on imports of basic goods.
The cracks are starting to show: While the official rate doesn’t reflect it, Nigeria’s currency, the naira, is the world’s worst performing this year.
The economic troubles could hardly have come at a worse time. Last year, Nigerians elected Muhammadu Buhari as president after he ran on a zealous anti-corruption platform. Unfortunately, Mr. Buhari’s insistence on maintaining the peg at the current official exchange rate is not only crippling production, it is also encouraging corruption. He should abandon it as soon as possible and allow the naira to devalue.
Nigeria has pegged the naira to the dollar for decades, adjusting the exchange rate according to international supply and demand. But even as Nigeria’s economy has faltered, since last spring the peg has remained fixed at around 198.5 naira to the dollar. This rate is being maintained at the president’s insistence, undermining any notion of central bank independence.
To keep the rate fixed, the central bank has to preserve its foreign currency reserves, a difficult task as oil export revenue has fallen. How does it do that? By making it more difficult for Nigerians to obtain hard currency at the official rate. Primarily, the central bank has restricted access to foreign currency to importers who can demonstrate that the goods they’re bringing into Nigeria are necessary.
But Nigerians are innovative. A large parallel currency exchange has taken shape, in which importers trade naira for dollars at up to twice the official rate. The trade is too blatant to be called a black market. Last month, for example, I saw several currency exchange businesses at the Lagos airport that offered 380 naira to the dollar. Nigerian newspapers even include reports of the unofficial exchange rate.
The Buhari government hopes that the fixed exchange rate will prevent inflation. Yet inflation has risen sharply to the highest rates in almost five years. The prices of many imported goods have almost doubled, suggesting that they reflect the black market exchange rate rather than the official rate.
I recently saw this problem firsthand when I visited one of the country’s largest manufacturers of cardboard box packaging. Its production lines were either slowed or shut down. Thousands of employees were seeing their hours, and wages, cut back. In some cases, the company had been unable to import materials like labels. In other cases, the company’s customers had run out of items to box.
This is how bad policy turns a currency crisis into a recession.
What’s more, rationing foreign currency creates the wrong type of competition. As imports become more expensive, Nigeria’s companies should be looking for new ways to produce with fewer imports. They’re not. Instead, businessmen are trying to use their political networks to compel the central bank to sell them dollars at the low official rate, to deny dollars to their competitors, or both. The Economist recently reported that bank officials levy a 30 percent charge for the favor. Not only are these schemes a bad use of entrepreneurial cunning, they also undermine hopes for the corruption-free Nigeria this president promised.
Buhari says that devaluing the naira would hurt too much, that the imports on which Nigerians depend would become expensive, and rising prices would damage households across society. Usually, the pain of devaluation comes with a silver lining of promoting exports. But Nigeria hardly exports anything other than oil and gas. In fact, it often can’t produce what it needs for itself, even goods it should be exporting, like cereals and gasoline. In other words, as Mr. Buhari notes, devaluing the naira would bring about the worst effects of a weak currency, inflation, and provide none of the best, like increased exports.
Buhari must be frustrated. His predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, enjoyed oil prices over $100 for most of his presidency and oversaw some of the highest government revenues in Nigeria’s history. He also issued three bonds on international markets in favorable global capital markets. Conditions at the time were excellent for building Nigeria’s domestic production capacity.
Mr. Jonathan also presided over a systematic looting of the public coffers swollen by borrowing and the oil surplus. In his presidency, over $20 billion is said to have vanished from the national oil company. The rest of the surplus expanded government payrolls, especially in the run-up to elections, and funded questionable building projects, often never finished.
Buhari’s administration has proposed a sensible budget, issued plans for incentives to invest in agriculture and mining, and is seeking investors to build more energy infrastructure. But none of these plans will be possible if the government maintains an artificial exchange rate. If Mr. Buhari really wants to build credible and transparent institutions, he should start by giving the central bank the independence to manage the currency and foreign reserves and get it out of the business of deciding what goods can and cannot be imported, or which firms can obtain foreign currency.
Buhari has loudly proclaimed his commitment to fighting corruption. But his view that he can protect Nigeria’s economy from global macroeconomic headwinds through an exchange rate peg borders on superstition. He has been told that his anti-corruption campaign is not an economic policy, but he may be more interested to hear that his economic policy is a petri dish for corruption.
Walter Lamberson is a senior project manager at Dalberg Global Development Advisors and an adviser to emerging market businesses and governments.