Nigeria

Nigeria Spins Out of Control, and the IMF Remains Unaware

Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, and his government have lost control as Nigeria’s economic crisis sends that African nation into a doom-loop. Everyone, including the President’s wife, Aisha, knows that Nigeria is going down the tubes. But not the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As is often the case, the IMF doesn’t have a clue. The IMF’s October 2016 World Economic Outlook projects Nigerian inflation to average 15.4 percent for 2016.  This number is in sharp contrast to my Johns Hopkins-Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project’s inflation estimate for Nigeria. We estimate that the year-over-year inflation rate is currently 104.8 percent (see the chart below). 

Why is the IMF so far off base? Because it is doing what it often does: it is taking the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) official inflation data at face value. That official rate averaged 14.3 percent from January to August of this year. For the IMF forecast to materialize, official annual inflation in Nigeria would need to average 17.6 percent for the September through December period.  What did the latest inflation report from the Central bank of Nigeria show?  According to the CBN, annual inflation was 17.9 percent in September. The IMF’s blind acceptance of the CBN’s data is a big mistake.

 

Nigeria’s Floating (Read: Sinking) Naira

On Monday afternoon, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) ended the Nigerian naira’s sixteen-month peg to the U.S. dollar, sending the naira into a freefall. The currency had been pegged at 197 naira per dollar, but as the chart below shows, it had been trading at over 320 naira per dollar for months on the black market (read: free market) and currently sits at 345 naira per dollar. At the time of writing, the naira was officially trading at 282.50 naira per dollar.

Economic Lessons from Muhammad Ali

Since the passing of Muhammad Ali, the establishment has been working in overdrive to convince us that the great boxer was a member of their club. In doing so, the wisdom and wit of Ali has been on display.

Muhammad Ali’s lessons on economics, however, have been absent. Economics? Yes. The lessons were developed in a most edifying book by Donald Sull, The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World. New York: Harper Collins, 2009 – a book that Mohamed El-Erian recommended to me.

The economic lessons are summarized in “The Boxer Matrix.” A boxer’s fate is determined by a combination of his absorption capacity (read: can he take a punch?) and agility (read: can he avoid a punch?). In the Boxer Matrix, the ideal position to be in is the Northeast quadrant: where Ali and Joe Louis boxed. But, while Ali always had terrific agility, he had to train and think his way to an above average absorption capacity. This capacity was on display in his “Rumble in the Jungle” bout with George Foreman. It was then that Ali’s “rope-a-dope” tactic was executed to perfection.

This brings us to Ali’s message on economics, with particular reference to countries that are heavily dependent on the production of oil. In turbulent times (read: oil price plunges), countries like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Nigeria experience a great deal of pain because their oil-dependent economies aren’t diversified. In short, they lack agility. This is reflected in their position in the lower half of the Boxer Matrix.

Oil Price Blues (Read: Dangers) for Some

As the price of crude oil continues its downward tumble towards $80 per barrel, I am reminded of a similar scenario from near the end of the Cold War in the 1980s. When Saudi Arabia announced in 1985 that protecting oil prices was no longer its main priority, oil production surged and prices fell off a cliff, briefly plunging below $10 per barrel, as I had correctly predicted.

Falling Oil Prices Put Producers Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Over the last few months, the price of Brent crude oil lost over 20% of its value, dropping below $90 just yesterday and hitting its lowest level in over two years. In consequence, oil producers will no longer be able to rely on oil revenues to pay their bills. The fiscal break-even price – a metric that determines the price per barrel of oil required for a nation to balance its budget at current levels of production – puts the problem into perspective.

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