10, 2021 / 05:53 AM /OpEd by Tosin Ige, Proshare Research /
Header Image Credit: Ecographics
Past governments in Nigeria have sought to respond to the country's balance of payments challenge by creating a legal parallel (or dual) foreign exchange market to avoid the short-term effects of a depreciation of the Naira on domestic prices while retaining some degree of control over capital outflows and international reserves. However, as the situation turns in the wrong direction, the government begins to trade blames on the market players.
In January 2016, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) cut sales of FX to BDC operators and revised their operational guidelines for similar reasons stated as in the last two MPC meetings. On March 24, 2020, the CBN also suspended the sales of FX to BDC operators to avoid excess liquidity in the system due to a reduction in travels and demand for foreign exchange by travellers at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two instances were transitory as the CBN soon returned to the status quo. Nonetheless, these instances show the CBN has long been in the business of chasing the symptoms instead of the causes.
Given the consistent depreciation of the naira against major foreign currencies since 2015 and its recent sharp decline, the CBN essentially trailed the same route as was done in previous instances with the BDC operators and as the FGN did when its clampdown on telephone business centres during the 80s and 90s when there were shortages of telephone lines in Nigeria. The CBN is currently hunting the channels, speculators, and platforms rather than the root cause.
My fear however is that what started as an FX Conundrum has morphed into a currency crisis that could lead into a financial crisis; if remedial measures and forward looking strategies are adopted. We have quite a lot of empirical evidences to back this up and the 1997 Asian financial crisis comes to mind.
Sadly, from what we saw from the most recent CBN press conference, their actions continues to accelerate and hurtle us towards the blowout point. It's almost like a death wish on their parts. The higher rate of decline will attract more sellers and the the rate of decline accelerates even more and goes through the roof.
So, what then shall we do?
Much as we would love to do something, my personal take is that the macro forces are now in play and there's very little individual forces can do, except for those individuals still with some semblance of "power" - whatever hue that may take. I think the trigger point will be around the N700/$ mark, which then makes a N1000/$ rate inevitable and happen faster; by which time the CBN will be overwhelmed. The tsunami will now move towards other nodes of the system and they too will be overwhelmed one after the other. Sadly, our worst fears may be about to be ealized. I pray I am off-target with theses probable model outcomes. So, lets take a look at the arguments from actors.
The CBN Argument
On July 27, 2021, the CBN argued that gross external reserves have remained strong even though there was a decline from 34.18 billion dollars in May to 32.78 billion dollars in June 2021, providing adequate cover for up to 6.13months of imports of goods and services against short term shocks in the foreign exchange market. The CBN noted that the naira exchange rate at the I&E window has somewhat been supported by its noteworthy policy adjustments to preserve the value of the naira, ensure stability in the foreign exchange market, and boost the external reserves. It observed that the naira exchange rate has only depreciated marginally by 0.02 percent from N410.00/US$ at the end-May 2021 to N410.10/US$ at the end-June 2021 at the official window but depreciated significantly on the other windows. The depreciation, according to the CBN, was driven mainly by the rising dollar demand from both genuine commodity importers and illegal hoarders using the Bureau De Change (BDC) and parallel market windows. Such activities often overwhelm the supply of dollars (CBN Communique 137, 2021).
Thus, given that the naira may remain under pressure in the medium term as the global economy reopen and the illegal activities of the unofficial windows continue, the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, stated that the CBN would discount the sales of FX to the BDC, and would also no longer approve BDC license applications (Proshare Research, 2021). According to the CBN, the apex bank has been having running battles with the BDC operators who were unwilling to yield to the rule of the game. The bank also noted that the BDCs have consistently frustrated its effort and policy to strengthen the naira against the dollar. According to the CBN, BDC Operators' illegal dealings account for 80% of the Nigerian FX problem (AbokiFX, 2021).
With the CBN's decision to discontinue weekly FX sales to BDC operators, it expected more stability and transparency in the FX market. The CBN advised commercial banks to sustain the implementation of policy measures aimed at sanitizing the FX market and also vigorously enforce FX regulations to ensure that all legitimate demands for FX are met. The CBN also directed the commercial banks to set up FX Teller points in all branches to ensure the direct sale of FX to buyers.
Before the CBN decided to halt FX to BDC operators, the CBN sold $20,000 weekly to over 5,000 BDCs amounting to over US$100m weekly and US$1.57bn annually.
On September 17th, 2021, the CBN in recognition that the discontinuation of weekly FX sales to the BDC operators had no significant effect on the FX rates at the unofficial windows, the apex bank went further to clamp down on the sources of the parallel market rates. The parallel market rates posted on an online FX platform - Aboki FX.com showed that the rate opened at N565/US$ and closed N562/US$ on September 16, 2021. Whereas the official rate posted on the FMDQ Security Exchange website opened at N412.64/US$ and closed at N412.06/US$ on the same day. This represents an opening spread of N152.36 and a closing spread of N149.94, which was too large for the CBN to ignore.
Therefore, the CBN referred to the online platform- AbokiFX.com as an illegal FX dealer, endangering the Nigerian economy. According to the CBN Governor, "The CBN act section 2, does make it clear that only the Central Bank can determine the value of the naira, and yet a single individual living in England continues to manipulate the exchange rate and make a huge profit..." The CBN Governor said they at the apex bank had in the last two years launched an investigation into the illegal trading and economic sabotage of AbokiFX and its owner-Mr Olusegun Oniwinde. The apex bank governor said their investigation revealed that the players on the platform get naira loans, use them to purchase dollars, take a position, change the rate over a given period, sell the dollars they purchased and make a profit. The CBN Governor also alleged that Mr. Oniwinde is an illegal forex trader with over 20 bank accounts in eight banks, filled with money from the speculative activities which he sell to Nigerian companies, thereby violating the country's foreign exchange laws.
The CBN believes AbokiFX posts arbitrary rates without contacting the BDC operators and uses the platform for forex manipulations and speculations. The CBN argued that this deliberate manipulation of the rates by the platform is spreading the gap between the official rate and the parallel rate which creates room for arbitrage by the platform owners and other players in the parallel market.
The company, AbokiFX founded in 2014, is a research and information service company, that conducts research and gathers data on the parallel market rates.
According to the company, "AbokiFX does not trade FX, which we have always maintained in our emails and social media platforms. Neither do we have the power to manipulate the rates, we do not create the rates."
The company maintained that they simply collate and post data on their website, citing companies using their data for internal and external audits as well as planning and budgeting. They noted that the rates are sourced and carefully collated, thereafter reviewed and the mean rates posted from the data pool. The company recognised that a similar situation had played out in the Nigerian FX market in 2017 where the naira depreciated to over N500/$1, and they were accused of manipulating parallel market rates.
Following the decision of the apex bank to halt the sales of FX to BDC operators, a development which has led to a significant depreciation of the naira against the dollar, the body of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of banks on July 30, 2021, stated that the banking industry was in full support of the CBN directives and are committed to selling foreign exchange to all legitimate customers as directed by the CBN (TheCable, 2021). In essence, the bankers commended the CBN move as a means to make the dollar available to customers in different channels.
The Neutral Argument
Some analysts argued that the depreciation of the Nigerian naira against the dollar may not be too bad due to the differential in costs across product mix in Nigeria against the USA (at $1 for N500): One analyst argued that:
1. N500 can buy 2 square meals in Nigeria but $1 cannot buy a meal in the US.
2. N500 can buy 1.6GB worth of data in Nigeria but $1 cannot a 250MB of data in the US.
3. T-Mobile charges N32,500 for 30GB of data, AT&T charges N37,500 for 30GB of data, and Verizon charges N40,000 for 30GB in the US whereas Glo charges N10,000 for 50GB and MTN charges N10,000 for 40GB of data.
4. A 75cl bottle of water in Nigeria costs an average N100 while a 55cl bottle of water in the US is $1.45 (which is equivalent to N725).
5. A single room costs N400,000 per month in Aso Drive, Abuja, N350,000 in Lekki, Lagos, and but the same room in Manhattan, New York City goes for N1.8 million per month.
6. N500 can buy one Dudu Osun bathing soap and a Vaseline for the harmattan season, $1 cannot buy the same in the US.
7. N500 can buy 3 litres of fuel in Nigeria, $1 can only buy 1.3 litre of fuel in the US.
8. It costs an average of N180 daily to earn a degree in Nigeria, it cost an average of N1,650 a day to earn the same in the US.
The Opposing Argument
Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Godwin Emefiele, has no basis to finger AbokiFx.com. According to Abimbola Adelakun of Punch, the CBN Governor was long on allegations and emotionalism and short on actual substance. Nothing in his argument indict AbokiFX.
First, with over 2 years of investigating AbokiFx, yet Emefiele has no accurate knowledge of the operations and activities of the platform. The analysis he gave was mere speculation. So, he was calling on AbokiFX to come and explain their mode of operation.
Second, the CBN Governor was merely speculating on the number of bank accounts owned by the owner of AbokiFX and he assumed it was easy to get multiple loans from Nigerian banks.
Third, the CBN Governor did not give specific instances and channels with which the AbokiFX dealers get the hard currencies. He was allegedly being careful not to indict many of his paymaster, who is also known as forex billionaire dealers. This attests to Chief Anthony Ani's position of massive foreign exchange laundering in the Nigerian banking system.
Fourth, the daily reporting of the official rate and parallel market rate as done by AbokiFX is what newspapers used to do in the past.
Lastly, speaking from experience, Abimbola Adelakun argued that the difference between the rate posted by AbokiFX and the rates by the BDC agents differs by N3-5, which makes sense considering the claims by the AbokiFX that the rate they posted is an average rate complied for each day.
Abimbola Adelakun concluded that the CBN Governor in his position should have known better than to ascribe the power to determine the exchange rate to a single website.
Factors Affecting / Weighing on the Naira
The most important determinant of the value of the Naira is whether or not the Nigerian economy is productive and competitive in international trade. Simply put , that is whether it has a diversified base of complex, value-added products it exports and earns forex from those exports. In essence, the current exchange rate crisis in Nigeria was triggered by the foreign exchange supply shortfalls, especially due to the mono-product structure of the economy now accelerated by the pandemic-induced global lockdown in 2020.
1. The basic factor of supply and demand. If too much Naira is chasing scarce dollars, the dollar gets stronger relative to the Naira, and vice versa. Currently, there is excess demand for dollars against the naira to import products (such as petrol, gas, power sources, and automobiles) and for foreign services (such as school fees, medical services, foreign holidays, and foreign loans).
2. The amounts of external reserves to back up the international value of Nigeria's legal tender is always under pressure due to the volatility and uncertainty of crude oil prices (a primary product, which unfortunately is Nigeria's main forex earners).
3. Non-diversification of the economy away from crude oil continues to worsen the naira crisis. Yet, diversification of a resource-dependent economy like Nigeria requires a high level of knowledge, political will, and consistency in economic policy and takes decades to achieve.
4. Inflation affects naira value. A high inflation economy such as Nigeria weakens the value of the legal tender.
5. High government indebtedness also weakens the legal tender. Nigeria's indebtedness relative to its revenues and ability to pay weigh-in on the naira.
6. Speculation also affects the naira value, as there are currency traders around the world for whom the weakness of a currency is their very good fortune.
7. A decline in net goods exports inflow from 2005 to 2020 weakens the foreign exchange. The historical negative balances on Nigeria's trade in services and income also weaken Nigeria's foreign exchange.
8. The MPC decision to hold MPR at 11.5% means the cost of credit is too high and businesses will shy away from borrowing to fund their operations to grow the economy. In comparison, the UK base rate is at 0.1%, the US at 0.5%, and South Africa at 3.5%. This continues to contribute to the pressure on naira against the dollar as productivity is impaired in the economy.
9. Nigeria's tax law support that dollar remittance is retained abroad and is laundered by Nigerian banks (Chief Anthony Ani, 2021). For instance, tax laws in India accommodate its citizens living abroad who wanted to send money in foreign exchange to India. However, in Nigeria, Nigerian banks and Western Union/MoneyGram has an arrangement that is not favourable to dollar remittance to Nigeria. Nigerian banks pay the recipient account in naira from their excess naira liquidity in Nigeria while the Western Union/MoneyGram retains the dollars abroad, which normally should have been remitted into Nigeria (Chief Anthony Ani, 2021). This is against the law regarding Nigerians repatriating remuneration from abroad in foreign currency instituted in 1996 under Chief Anthony Ani's watch as Minister of Finance.
10. The CBN on August 14, 2014, introduced the Outward Money Transfer Service which authorized MoneyGram and Western Union to re-export, in tranches of $5,000 per transaction, to Nigerians abroad, payment of naira equivalent at the CBN rate of exchange. Thus, Nigeria is re-exporting its remittances abroad (The only country in the world doing that).
According to Chief Anthony Ani, "The fact is that the Diaspora remittances are not retained in Nigeria and there is a collaboration between the CBN, Nigerian banks and Western Union/MoneyGram; in such an event, the government must investigate the infraction, punish the money launders, and recover all past Diaspora remittances retained abroad!"
Interests of Speculators
Wherever governments try to cover up supply shortfalls by pegging the official exchange rate at a value that does not equate supply with demand, gaps, spreads, or premiums emerge between rates in official and parallel market segments. These premiums, on one hand, are very informative when the market is out of equilibrium as they largely reflect the size of the supply shortfalls or the distance of pegged exchange rate from market realities. On the other hand, these premiums give speculators the incentive to profit therein.
The Naira against the US dollar has been on a free-fall after the MPC meeting held between July 26, 2021, where the CBN cut FX supply to the BDCs, and September 17, 2021, when AbokiFX was clamped down. The value of naira fell significantly in the parallel market compared with a marginal fall in the official market. At the parallel market, the naira depreciated by +12.10% from N504/US$ on July 26, 2021, to N565/US$ on September 17, 2021. On the BDC FX window, naira depreciated by +13.00% from N500/$1 on July 26, 2021, to N565/$1 on September 17, 2021. Meanwhile, data on the FMDQ securities exchange window showed that naira depreciated marginally by +0.34% from N411.5/US$1 on July 26, 2021, to N412.88/US$1 on September 17, 2021 (Source: FMDQ; Proshare; AbokiFx). In essence, there is a wide gap between the parallel rates and the NAFEX rate which was recently adopted as the official rate.
Currency speculators profit from this differential between the parallel market rate and official rates through round-tripping and other forms of currency manipulation practices that negatively affect the value of the local currency.
Speculation "attacks" weak currencies for profit, especially where the currency is using a fixed, official exchange rate determined by the central bank instead of the market. For instance, as the Naira is effectively pegged officially to the dollar, euro, or pound sterling, speculators can attack naira for profit if Nigeria is perceived to have insufficient foreign reserves to meet demand. Because the inflation rate at 17.01% is higher than those of the reserve-currency countries, Nigeria is exposed to possible currency attacks. If reserves are weak, and demand for dollars massively outstrips supply, currency devaluation is inevitable, and currency traders who mount speculative attacks profit from the devaluation.
The uncertainty in the Nigerian economy and FX market also triggers speculative demand for FX to seize external investment or portfolio optimization opportunities.
Nigerian Naira as Store of Value
Many investors and corporate entities are saving their money and treasures in foreign currencies and other viable commodities as a preferred store of value as against having naira in a bank account. The Nigerian naira is currently experiencing depreciation and high inflation which both mean a loss in the value of the naira. In essence, the depreciation of naira at the official window by about +8.79% from N381/US$ in January 2021 to N414.50/US$ as of 5:00 pm on September 28, 2021, implies that a dollar equivalent of N50,000 in January will only be worth N45,605 in September 2021. The implication is that it no longer makes sense to invest or save in naira as such savings/investment results in capital depreciation rather than capital appreciation. The real returns on the savings/investment would also be negative given the higher inflation rate above the rate of returns. Thus, considering the state of play, particularly as naira continue to lose value, it makes sense to rather save money or other treasures in foreign currency or appreciable commodities such as gold.
Resolving the Challenge
Option 1: Increasing foreign exchange supply to narrow or close the premiums. It may be futile to try to curtail demand for forex just as it is futile to control the price of forex. The supply of forex may be the only variable that Nigeria can boost. The CBN should substantially boost foreign exchange supply in Nigeria, through balance-sheet-related foreign exchange inflows that are fueled by the unprecedented global liquidity glut, rather than transactions-related foreign exchange inflows that are adversely affected by weakening global commodity prices, the better. Nigeria should create special purpose vehicles for packaging infrastructure assets for big-ticket interest-free financing through asset-linked non-convertible or convertible bonds.
Option 2: The value of the Naira may continue to depreciate (fall) against the dollar and other global currencies until the Government takes steps to deal with the fundamental causes (issues fueling demand for FX as highlighted in the factors affecting Nigeria FX) that are stifling the Naira simultaneously. The Central Bank supplying dollars to the forex market will only grant temporary relief because it is not a sustainable solution. The CBN fighting speculators will also have little impact on the exchange rate. It is only by resolving the fundamental issues that the Government will find a lasting and sustainable solution to Nigeria's forex debacle!
Option 3: Full deregulation of the foreign exchange market in Nigeria. The Central Bank should stop subsidizing the currency. This will allow the naira to find its level in the market. In that instance, the laws of demand and supply will work in favor of the Naira, and it will also foster currency rate convergence. This will also refocus the economy from subsidizing the currency by depleting the reserves to export drives.
Option 4: Dollarization of the Nigerian economy. The dollar can become the official legal tender replacing naira as practiced in Panama, Liberia, Ecuador, and Zimbabwe. This will lower interest rates and help deepen the financial sector because Nigeria is a high inflation country. However, Nigeria will lose monetary autonomy: The CBN will lose seigniorage and the nation lose prestige and independence.
My only worry is in the amount of dollars that will be required to satisfy pent-up and potential demand on the supply side. There's a perma-leakage component that will represent transfers out for safety reasons on the demand side. Exports refocus sounds good, on paper, but in reality, the inputs required for export-ready products are a challenge, not least because of government bottlenecks of both the operational and financial kinds. Dollarisation is going to happen whether we like it or not as the naira continues to bleed value, so it is better to stay ahead of the curve and introduce it as a policy - helps avoid another psychological punch to our collective solar plexus.
Alternatively, both demand and supply-side challenges should be addressed simultaneously. In such an instance, we need an interlocking of both fiscal and monetary policy to drive the export of value-added products and capital inflow within the context of a fully deregulated foreign exchange market. This will test the value of Nigeria's naira in the near term and reposition it over time through demand and supply-side management of the FX market.
Specifically, on the demand side, regulators and participants of each industry need to pursue import substitution strategies. While some analysts have argued that the short-run solution to the FX crisis in Nigeria demands focusing on sectors with comparative advantage, I believe that may yield a temporary solution which in itself may be overwhelmed by the continuous challenge in other industries as well as the activities of speculators. A holistic approach to the FX crisis would require refocusing demand across sectors (oil and non-oil sectors) from foreign sources to the domestic market through sectoral reform across boards. This should not be too difficult given that there are different ministers for different sectors. Each minister should spearhead the reformation of his/her sector(s).
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