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Naira devaluation fears create bottlenecks on dollar deals

The Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN’s) policies to conserve foreign exchange and ward-off naira devaluation fears are up and running. The new domiciliary account policy that sets limits on dollar transactions, restriction of importers’ access to dollars and sale of high-yielding debt to foreign portfolio investors showed the CBN is committed to exchange rate stability. COLLINS NWEZE captures the battle to keep the naira stable.

Bassey Enoh, a Lagos-based fund manager is handling new investment advisory services to clients seeking his view on the future of the naira.

Enoh, who was one of the market analysts that predicted the 2015 devaluation of the naira, now has new task to advise his customers on what to expect as Nigeria is in a crossroads on the right pricing for the local currency as dollar earnings dip.

For him, the naira will, in the second half of the year, come under intense pressure that its devaluation would be imminent.

He sees the decline in Nigeria’s current account balances and the slower pace with which foreign capital has been flowing into the country as red signals.

“We have seen weakness in our current account basically. For the first time since 2015, we have three quarters of consecutive weaknesses in the current account balance, which is a sort of precursor to what you would expect around exchange rate stability,” he predicted.

But Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Godwin Emefiele has vowed to keep the naira steady for now, insisting that the slide in foreign reserves is not a cause for concern.

CBN’s commitment to naira stability is accompanied with new policies and bottlenecks meant to reduce dollar spending and meet critical obligations.

The CBN, in February, introduced new domiciliary account rules in which it directed that customers can deposit dollar into their domiciliary accounts but are not allowed to transfer it to another party. Also, only electronic fund transfers into domiciliary accounts can be transferred from such accounts to third parties while cash deposits into such accounts can only be withdrawn in cash.

Another policy encourages foreign portfolio investors to invest in high yielding Open Market Operation (OMO) bills at 14 per cent while local investors are restricted. Foreign holdings of OMO bills (CBN’s investment instrument to control liquidity) account for over $5 billion of the $37.3 billion foreign reserves.

Besides, it restricted importers of milk from accessing foreign exchange from official market. It limited the importation of milk and other dairy products to six firms- FrieslandCampina WAMCO Nigeria; Chi Limited; TG Arla Dairy Products Limited; Promasidor Nigeria Limited; Nestle Nigeria PLC (MSK only), and Integrated Dairies Limited.

According to the policy guideline, all Forms ‘M’ for the importation of milk and its derivatives will only be allowed for the aforementioned companies.

There is a standing rule that Personal Travel Allowance (PTA) and Business Travel Allowance (BTA) purchases must be on quarterly basis. Travelers submit their Bank Verification Number (BVN) and evidence of tickets among other documents to ensure they do not buy more than once per quarter.

On the domiciliary account policy, CBN Director, Trade and Exchange Department, Ozoemena Nnaji, said all ordinary domiciliary account holders could utilise cash deposits not exceeding $10,000 or its equivalent by telegraphic transfers to fund eligible transactions. He insisted that the CBN had not prohibited the acceptance of foreign currency cash deposits by commercial banks.

Head of Research, Afrinvest West Africa Limited, Abiodun Keripe, explained that it is the CBN that makes dollar payment for customers after their naira accounts are debited for transactions. But the CBN’s ability to pay dollar on customers’ behalf is dependent on the country’s available dollar reserves. The dollar reserves are dropping due to decline in crude oil prices. Brent crude fell to $50.749 per barrel representing a 14-month low.

Keripe said the new domiciliary account limit is a big challenge for businesses and individuals that needed to do dollar transactions.

“The fact that you can earn dollar but can only transfer $10,000 for eligible transactions is a problem for many businesses and individuals. What it means is that if you want to send more money to your goods supplier, you have to open Form ‘M’,” he said.

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He further said the PTA/BTA policy was to reduce Nigeria’s travel spends estimated at $20 billion per annum.

“The travel spend is a lot of money in the economy and gives you the extent of demand for dollar for medical bills, school fees and holidays abroad payment. These policies were also geared towards controlling money laundering, terrorist financing and other fraudulent transactions,” he added.

But he agreed that the policy on domiciliary account management makes it difficult for businesses to move money to their suppliers. Also, foreign and local investors are interpreting the policies, and the interpretation they give them will determine the level of foreign capital the economy will attract.

“Some of the foreign investors will exit the economy; others will weigh the options and decide to take the risk.

“Overall, it is a very tough time for the economy. Foreign portfolio inflows have fallen, crude oil prices are down, China demand for oil has dropped because of the coronavirus and that is also affecting the economy. With all these occurrences, I believe that the naira should be allowed to reflect the market reality,” he said.

According to him, devaluation of the naira will have its own challenges such as prices of goods going up due to rise in inflation rate and subsequent rise in poverty rate, but the foreign receivers will be protected.

President, Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (CIBN), Uche Olowu, said the dollar policies of the CBN will not affect businesses.

“I see it as one of the ways that the CBN is managing foreign exchange and interest rate stability. If any business wants to do genuine business, such business should establish Form ‘M’ to access the dollar or move dollar to suppliers. The problem is that some people do not want to obey government rules and want to beat the system. The CBN has also said it will sanction banks that violate its foreign exchange rules and the banks are complying,” he said.

Olowu said it is the strict enforcement of these policies that is affecting some businesses.

Head of Research at Coronation Merchant Bank, Guy Czartoryski, said that with OMO Bills at 14 per cent, foreign investors will stay as the rate is commensurate to what obtains in other economies.

He ruled out devaluation within the year, insisting that at $37.3 billion, the foreign reserves are enough to keep the naira stable.

“Demand for dollars has always been met at the Investors’ and Exporters’ Forex window. Exchange rate stability is a major priority for the CBN, hence devaluation is unlikely this year,” he said.

For the former Executive Director at Keystone Bank, Richard Obire, economic outlook is not positive, and the CBN cannot ignore the pressure on the naira, hence its introduction of foreign exchange administrative controls.

According to him, many businesses are already expecting that naira devaluation will happen soon, insisting that the domiciliary account policies were meant to stop people from moving dollar out of the economy.

“The CBN is trying to restraint dollar demand in order to protect the foreign reserves and economy. It has assured us that the naira will not be devalued, but many people do not believe that position. The domiciliary account policy is an indication that the CBN knows that people no longer believe its no-devaluation stand, and could begin massive movement of their funds outside the country, hence the need for current administrative controls,” Obire said.

Continuing, he said: “Despite the controls, some people can still keep their savings in dollar to safeguard their wealth should there be currency devaluation.

“People do not want their funds wiped out in one day, and we could see people who will buy dollar and transfer it gradually out of the country. But I see the domiciliary account bottleneck removed if and after the naira devaluation happens,” he predicted.

President, Bank Customers’ Association of Nigeria, Uju Ogubunka, said the domiciliary account restriction is within the monetary policy management role of the CBN meant to address rising inflation. He agreed that placing limit on dollar transaction could affect people’s businesses but there are always alternatives to be explored.

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He, however, said people that want to transfer their funds could move them in piecemeal, or get others to help if they can take the risk.

“People should understand that the CBN has reasons for implementing the policy. Those whose businesses are affected by the policy should speak out for possible review,” he advised.

Managing Director, Financial Derivates Company Limited who is also a member of Economic Advisory Council, Bismarck Rewane, said the restriction on dairy products was to increase the domestic production of milk and other dairy products and conserve foreign exchange, thereby forcing manufacturing companies to look inwards and invest more in backward integration.

But Rewane said the “select few” is a symptom of a problem more fundamental. “This is not the first time that the government would attempt to implement import substitution measures to wean the country off its huge import dependency. Has it always worked? In some cases, it has as witnessed in the rice production and other commodities under the Anchors Borrowers’ Programme. Nonetheless, there are still major challenges the economy experiences.

“The foreign exchange restriction policy will reduce the demand pressure on Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings. Nigeria spends approximately $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion annually on milk and dairy importation, 3.21 per cent to 4.01 per cent of the current external reserves level of $37.37 billion,” he said.

What the foreign exchange policy says

The foreign exchange policy allows banks to process Certificate of Capital Importation for foreign currency inflow to the country through the electronic Certificate of Capital Importation system. It requires exporters to register Nigerian Export Proceeds Form (Form NXP) with commercial bank of their choice prior to shipment.

Also, payment for eligible imports by small and medium enterprises valued not more than $20,000 per customer per quarter can be effected by Telegraphic Transfer subject to completion of Form “Q” and supported with Pro-forma Invoice and importers’ Bank Verification Number.

Commercial banks are to utilise inter-bank funds strictly for funding of Letters of Credits, Bills for Collection and other invisible transactions, subject to appropriate documentation as provided by extant regulation while commercial banks intending to import foreign currency cash are required to submit an application, stating the amount and purpose, to the CBN for approval.

Payment for exports from Nigeria will continue to be by means of Letters of Credit or Bills for Collection while appropriate sanctions will be imposed on commercial banks that remit funds on the basis of forged documents, engage in fraudulent transactions. The CBN says it will also sanction bank customers who breach any of the foreign exchange operational guidelines.

Future of the naira

The pressure on the naira has been on for years, with the CBN regularly intervening to stabilise it against the dollar. The CBN says it defended the naira with $8.28 billion through its direct intervention within the first six months of last year, according to its half-year report.

The naira is exchanging at N306.95 in the official market and N364 to dollar in the parallel market and has stayed below N365 to dollar in the last one year, both at the official and parallel markets. But the naira, on Friday, depreciated past N400 to a dollar on the one-year forward market which is an over-the-counter marketplace that sets the price of a financial instrument or asset for future delivery.

CBN Director, Financial Markets Department, Angela Sere-Ejembi, noted that $2.1 billion was auctioned at the Inter-bank spot; $550.70 million went to Invisibles, $810 million for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), $212.11 million at the Investors and Exporters Forex window and $4.57 billion as Forwards sales.

Member of CBN-led Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), Prof. Adeola Adenikinju warned that the naira faces immense challenge ahead unless certain conditions challenging the local currency’s stability are addressed in the economy.

Adenikinju, who is Professor of Research at the Centre for Econometrics and Allied Research, University of Ibadan, said the fall in foreign reserves and deterioration of current account balances are red signals pointing a difficult time ahead for the naira.

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He further explained that although the foreign exchange rate markets remain relatively stable at both the Bureau De Change and the I&E Forex windows, the weak performance of the current account balances, fall in foreign reserves and the small margin between oil price and the budget benchmark price for oil, imply that there could be increasing pressure on the naira in the medium term if the existing conditions subsist.

Also, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) advised the CBN to stop defending the naira through dollar interventions and adopt a unified exchange rate regime.

The Mission Chief for Nigeria, Amine Mati said: “The pace of economic recovery remains slow, as declining real incomes and weak investment continue to weigh on economic activity. Inflation – driven by higher food prices – has risen, marking the end of the disinflationary trend noticed in 2019. External vulnerabilities are increasing, reflecting a higher current account deficit and declining reserves that remain highly vulnerable to capital flow reversals.”

According to him, the exchange rate has remained stable, helped by steady sales of foreign exchange in various windows.

“The mission reiterated its advice on ending direct CBN interventions, securitising overdrafts to introduce longer-term government instruments to mop up excess liquidity and moving towards a uniform and more flexible exchange rate. Removing restrictions on access to foreign exchange for the 42 categories of imported goods would be needed to encourage long-term investment,” he said.

What hope?

Despite the challenges being experienced by the economy and the naira, a ray of hope sprang up at the weekend after facts emerged that Dangote Refinery, Fertiliser Plant and Petrochemical Company could rake in $2.5 billion annually to support Nigeria dollar positions once they start operations.

Speaking during an assessment tour of the Dangote Refinery, Fertiliser Plant and Petrochemical Company in Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos CBN Governor Godwin Emefiele said the refinery would begin operation in the first quarter of 2021, and would help the country to earn more foreign exchange.

“Tell those shouting that the refinery project is a fluke that latest, first quarter of next year, we will crank it and petrol will be produced from it. The refinery, which will be refining 650,000 barrels per day and will not only satisfy local consumption, but also position Nigeria as major exporter of petroleum products,” he said.

President, Dangote Group, Aliko Dangote said the refinery will be one of the highest foreign exchange generating companies in Africa.

He said: “We should not wait for foreign investors to invest in the economy. We have to do it ourselves; especially now that interest rates are dropping and banks are lending more to the economy. I encourage more entrepreneurs to gear up and borrow more to develop the economy.”

He said with the Dangote Fertiliser plant which will begin commercial production next month, Nigeria will be the biggest urea exporting country in Africa.

“We will not only be exporting, we will be expanding big time with estimated four to five million tons of urea. We expect to earn $2.5 billion annually from the three projects and that will reduce foreign exchange pressure on the economy,” he said.

While waiting for the take-off of the three Dangote projects, Keripe advised businesses to be flexible, dynamic and in tune with government policy statement.

“Nigerian businesses have to position themselves in line with government policies, and also go for backward integration. They have to study polices and key into the vision of government, which in many cases, have some inconsistencies,” he said.

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