After posting slowest growth in 16 years, Nigeria flirts with economic disaster as naira controls stay

Buhari will spend rest of the week in Kenya, and attend a memorial service for soldiers who were killed in an Al-Shabaab attack in Somalia

NIGERIA’S President Muhammadu Buhari arrives in Kenya Wednesday, leaving behind an economic crisis that analysts say just got a whole lot worse.

Central bank Governor Godwin Emefiele on Tuesday resisted calls—again—to weaken the currency despite a plunge in oil prices that’s slashed revenue in Africa’s biggest crude producer.

He stuck to his foreign-exchange restrictions that have led to capital flight, curbed output in the continent’s largest economy and led to the naira dropping to a record low on the black market.

Emefiele gave no indication in his Monetary Policy Committee statement that he is ready to ease controls even though they have been widely panned by investors, criticised by businesses and questioned by lawmakers.

That’s set to deepen the crisis for an economy that probably grew at its slowest pace in 16 years in 2015, is facing inflation of 10% and a record budget deficit to pay government salaries and build roads and power plants.

“There is pressure but there is no way of exerting market discipline on the Nigerian central bank,” Ayodele Salami, who manages about $500 million of African equities as chief investment officer at Duet Asset Management in London, said by phone.

“It’s not yet gone into territory where they have to panic. If growth was to be 1 percent or even go negative, I think that would definitely be the key thing that would persuade the central bank to move,” he said.

The economy probably expanded 3% last year, the slowest pace since 1999, and is set to grow 4.1% in 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Black market booms

The central bank has effectively pegged the naira at 197 to 199 per dollar since March by restricting imports of products from glass to wheelbarrows, halting supply of foreign currency to exchange bureaus and all but shutting down the interbank market with trading limits.

While Emefiele on Tuesday acknowledged the need for improving liquidity, he said policy makers were also committed to stability in the naira.

Nigeria has resisted devaluation while oil-producing nations from Angola to Russia and Mexico have let their currencies weaken.

The naira was trading at about 306 per dollar on the black market on Tuesday. Naira forwards soared after Emefiele’s speech, suggesting traders have lowered their expectations of a devaluation.

“Oil has gone lower than anyone thought it was going to and that didn’t change their mind,” John Ashbourne, an economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in London, said by phone.

A weaker economy “didn’t change their mind, and now you have a huge gap between the parallel market and the official market and that hasn’t changed their mind either,” he said. “I’m not sure what would be the sort of straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

The currency controls have knocked investor confidence, with foreign inflows dropping by 32% last year, the Nigerian Stock Exchange said in a report on it’s website on Dec. 19. The benchmark equity index is down 17% this year, the worst performer globally after gauges in Shanghai, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong.

The central bank has favored lowering interest rates to help support growth in the hope that banks will boost lending. The MPC reduced the benchmark rate by 200 basis points to 11 in November and kept it unchanged on Tuesday.

The bank “wants to encourage credit and stimulate the economy,” Lanre Buluro, an analyst at Primera Africa Securities Ltd., said by phone from Lagos. “However, I don’t see the banks lending in the near term because of low economic activity.”

Buhari’s influence

Emefiele has the backing of Buhari, who has said he doesn’t favor a currency devaluation. Buhari took office last year on a wave of optimism to fix the economy, fight corruption and combat attacks by Boko Haram militants.

“The president has indicated that he does not believe that a devaluation is the appropriate thing to do at this time,” Ike Chioke, chief executive of Afrinvest West Africa Ltd., which manages about 100 billion naira in investments, said by phone from Lagos. “It appears the decision on foreign exchange has been moved to a level above the central bank.”

Buhari will spend the rest of the working week in Kenya on a three-day state visit. He will join Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta and other leaders at a memorial service for Kenyan soldiers who were killed in attack by militant group Al-Shabaab in Somalia on January 15 at a memorial in Eldoret.

Eldoret, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, is the town where the garrison from which most of  the troops who died in Somalia belonged is located.

He and Kenyatta will also preside over a newly launched Kenya-Nigeria Business Forum in Nairobi.

-Bloomberg and additional reporting by Mail & Guardian Africa.

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