By Les Leba
The recent $1bn Euro loan is reported to be part of the federal government’s $8bn medium term external borrowing plan, which has already received the approval of the National Assembly (NASS) and the Federal Executive Council according to the DMO’s DG, Abraham Nwankwo. Incidentally, the interest payable on the $1bn Eurobond is within the same range of 6.75% as the initial $500m Eurobond issued in 2011, and similar to rates, which distressed economies like Portugal and Greece currently pay.
The Euro loan is primarily also targeted at consolidating a market for long-term external loans for Nigeria’s public and private sector borrowings. Curiously, in the past decade, Nigeria’s domestic and external debt has exploded from below N1tn ($6bn) and $4bn to over N6tn ($36bn) and $6bn respectively. Unfortunately, in spite of such rapid debt accumulation, Nigeria’s critical infrastructure has been impacted just minimally; it is also inexplicable, that these debts ballooned in spite of federal revenue regularly exceeding annual expenditure budgets, such that it became possible to share surplus revenue from the so-called excess crude account annually, while CBN also maintained relatively healthy double-digit reserve surplus. It is undeniably reckless fiscal strategy to consume or classify any revenue as surplus without first addressing any inherent revenue shortfalls in annual budgets.
Curiously, in spite of the fact that our current debt burden is well above the $35bn mark that was regarded as crisis level before the controversial London/Paris debt club exit, which siphoned over $12bn from our tattered pockets in 2006, NASS appears to have shown only passing interest in the succeeding oppressive debt accumulation.
Evidently, the current cost of about 7% for external debts is considered more benign and tolerable than the 12 – 17%, which our government currently pays on its extensive domestic borrowings! Consequently, the Economic Management Team has assured Nigerians that the current level of external debt, which is about 12% of total debts, will be increased to 40% within 3 – 5 years.
Nigerians may wonder why domestic cost of borrowing over which we have control is persistently much higher than the cost of external loans, over which our government has no control!! Indeed, we have constantly drawn the attention of NASS to the galloping pace of domestic debts in several articles; see for example, “$34b Debt, $20b Reserves, Debt Forgiveness & Slavery” _ February 2005, “National Assembly Fiddles as Debt Burden Cripples” _ May 2008, “Media Disinformation on Government Debt Accumulation” – May 2012. Regrettably, NASS’ taciturn response is akin to the popular slogan of “wetin concern agbero with overload?”
Incidentally, last week, President Goodluck Jonathan signed the MOU for a $1.29bn loan for the construction of four airport terminals and a 700MW hydropower station with the Export-Import Bank of China during his state visit. Refreshingly, as constantly demanded by well-meaning critics of government’s development policies, the $1.29bn Chinese loan appears to be tied up, ab initio, to specific infrastructural projects; nonetheless, the choice of airport terminals for the huge expenditure may be seen as inappropriate in comparison to the greater social impact of people-oriented projects in sectors such as education, health, water and mass transportation. Besides, the Chinese have failed to impress with the quality of their infrastructural interventions in several African countries, and they do not also have much affinity for adoption of significant local content (human/material) in such ventures.
In reality, there is everything to be said in favour of cheap or concessionary loans, which are dedicated to specific infrastructural improvement, but it is certainly worrisome to incur burdensome loans, as the DMO has regularly done, primarily just to establish and sustain a benchmark for long-term domestic and external borrowings.
It is however, patently ridiculous and reckless to borrow at even 1% interest, when simultaneously, we also have savings deposits, which earn less than 1% yield annually! It would be worse still, if such loans are applied to liquidate existing debts, as suggested by Dr. Yerima Ngama, Minister of State for Finance.
Consequently, the frenzied drive to expand our external debt must be worrisome to Nigerians, when national reserves currently canvassed as over $50bn, earn returns below the cost Nigeria pays for its external and domestic borrowings! Curiously, the Central Bank of Nigeria, is also exploring the possibility of investing part of its over $40bn reserves in China’s Inter-Bank bond market through the People’s Bank of China. The projected yield on CBN’s proposed investment in China is uncertain; however, the Chinese, as business savvy entrepreneurs, are unlikely to pay interest above 3% (the cost of its own loans to Nigeria) for such funds.
Thus, in what may be seen as a farcical and distressful turn of events, our Central Bank would in effect lend to China, so that Nigeria can borrow from China for our infrastructural enhancement!! The ubiquitous, but business conscious Nigerian market woman would be quick to advise Dr. Okonjo-Iweala that a wiser strategy would be to borrow directly from our own CBN, for our infrastructural development rather than the inexplicable convoluting trajectory being contemplated.
Curiously, this peculiar strategy is also discernible in government’s domestic borrowings, where the CBN consciously creates and floods the money market with excess naira, whenever it substitutes naira allocations for dollar revenue. Inevitably, soon after, the CBN timidly returns to the banks cap in hand, to borrow with treasury bills at double digit interest rates, just to reduce the ‘surplus’ cash holdings in the hands of the banks and thereby restrain the abiding threat of inflation. Regrettably, this strategy has failed over the last 20 years, as year on year inflation rates have continuously averaged an obviously oppressive rate of about 10% when compared, for example, with the more socially supportive inflation rate of less than 3% in China.
Worse still, the high yields instigated by government’s bloated domestic borrowings inadvertently attract international speculative hot money flows, which could ultimately adversely affect our exchange rate and economic stability, whenever there is the slightest storm in the international capital market.
SAVE THE NAIRA, SAVE NIGERIANS!