By Nick Agule, FCA
Within the last couple of weeks a war of words had ensued over the management of the Nigerian economy with Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State firing the first salvo by accusing the federal government of the catastrophic management of the economy and alleged that the government is printing money to fund federal allocations.
Nigeria’s finance minister, Zainab Ahmed, fired back in these words:
“The issue that was raised by the Edo State governor, for me, is very sad because it is not a fact. What we distribute at FAAC [Federal Accounts Allocation Committee] is revenue that is generated and, in fact, distribution of revenue is public information. We publish revenue generated by FIRS [Federal Inland Revenue Service], the Customs and the NNPC [Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation]; and we distribute at FAAC. So, it is not true to say we printed money to distribute at FAAC. It is not true”.
Governor Obaseki returned fire, stating that as an investment banker he stands by his words. This is how he put his rebuttal of the statement issued by the finance minister:
“The Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed should rally Nigerians to stem the obvious fiscal slide facing our country. Rather than play the Ostrich, we urge the government to take urgent steps to end the current monetary rascality, so as to prevent the prevailing economic challenge from degenerating further. We believe it is imperative to approach the Nigerian project with all sense of responsibility and commitment and not play to the gallery because ultimately, time shall be the judge of us all”.
It became clear that between Governor Obaseki and the finance minister, one person was not telling the truth given that their views were diametrically opposed.
All this while as the crossfire raged, the Central Bank of Nigeria governor [Godwin Emefiele] was mute, until he was captured on camera issuing threats to Governor Obaseki and other governors who were bailed out in 2015/16 that recovery action will begin immediately against them if they don’t stop accusing the government of printing money! Instructively, the CBN governor did not out-rightly deny that the government is printing money, but he did not concede either.
As pressure mounted on the federal government, specifically on the finance minister and the CBN governor to come clean to Nigerians on what is actually going on, the CBN governor finally caved in and conceded that Nigeria is printing money in a tweet issued on Friday, 16 April 2021 in the following words:
“The concept of printing of money is about lending money and that is our job…It will be irresponsible for the CBN or any Central Bank or Fed to stand idle and refuse to support its government at a time like this.”
What is known
TheCable, an online newspaper has reportedly seen data that shows the details of the February 2021 revenues which were shared by the three tiers of government in March. From the report, a total of N605.589 billion was shared by the three tiers of (federal, states and local) in March 2021. All the monies are reported to have been remitted to the federation account from Value Added Tax (VAT), Petroleum Profit Tax (PPT), Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Company Income Tax (CIT) and related taxes, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development (MMSD) and money withdrawn from the foreign exchange equalisation fund account to augment the allocations.
If the data, as reported by TheCable, is accurate, it confirms the finance minister’s statement that only revenue remitted to the federation account from the revenue generating agencies of account were shared and that no printed money was shared during the March 2021 federal allocation.
It is however to be noted that there are two revenue pots. The first pot is the federation account into which all generated revenues are remitted and the second pot is the federal government (FG) budget. When the FG takes its share of revenue from the federation account, it is dropped into the FG budget pot. The finance minister has stated that no printed money was dropped in the federation account pot which has been confirmed with data as seen by TheCable. For 2021 the FG budgeted to drop N7 trillion in the FG budget pot but also planned to spend N13 trillion from this pot. Thus this pot is in deficit of N6 trillion. The FG is yet to confirm that no printed money was dropped in the FG budget pot to fund the deficit.
So what we know now is that Nigeria is printing money and the printed money is not being used to fund the federation account but we do not have a confirmation that the printed money is not being used to fund FG budget deficit or to what other purposes the printed money is being deployed to.
The immediate questions that come to mind are:
1. Why did the FG not disclose to Nigerians that it was printing money until Governor Obaseki raised the allegation? For majority of Nigerians this could be the first time that Nigeria is implementing an economic policy called printing of money because their understanding of printing of money before now was bank notes and coins!
2. Why has the Nigerian government, unlike governments elsewhere, not provided the citizens with the details of the amount of money printed so far and the sectors that the money has funded and how much more money it intends to printed?
What is printing money?
Now that the FG has conceded that they are indeed printing money which, undoubtedly, will become a buzz word in Nigeria going forward, it is important to examine what this means from a layman’s point of view and the impact on our economy.
Central banks print money in two ways:
1. Physical money – this are the bank notes and coins we use in buying and selling or saving at home. It’s also called cash.
2. Digital money – this is money in our bank account.
Thus you can have N1 million with N100k in cash (physical) at home and N900k in your bank account (digital).
The printing of money in reference here is the digital money not the physical cash. When Central Banks print digital money it is called Quantitative Easing (QE).
What is QE?
QE is a monetary policy tool that central banks use to inject money directly into the economy. So, let us say the FG account at the CBN has a balance of N500 billion deposited by the revenue generation agencies of government such as the FIRS, DPR, NNPC, Customs etc., but that this money is not enough for government to spend, so the government asks the CBN to print money. The CBN simply credits government’s account with say N300 billion, thus the balance in the government account is now N800 billion, which the government will now spend.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with using QE. Governments all over the world use QE to jumpstart their economies. The US, UK, etc., governments used QE during the 2008 economic crash; and even more recently, in the pandemic hit economies.
But QE is risky
There are two halves to QE with one half as printing the money and the other half as using the printed money. If you don’t get the balance right then QE, instead of helping to jumpstart the economy, rather ruins it. Let us examine in detail the two halves of QE:
1. Printing money – the CBN prints money by crediting the account of the FG with money that the government did not earn. It is just like you own a bank and you have an account with the bank but did not have money to spend, so you just call the managing director of the bank and ask him to credit your account with N1 billion and you immediately see an alert of N1 billion and begin to pay your bills! This is the same thing the CBN is doing for the FG! This is one half of QE.
2. The second half of QE is how the money is spent. For QE to be effective there are only restricted ways the government can spend the money. This is because monies earned by government from economic activity are backed up with output. So the oil companies must produce oil for DPR to earn money. Oil must be sold for NNPC to earn money. Imports must be made before Customs can earn revenue. Companies must pay taxes for FIRS to earn money. All these monies are coming from output based economic activities. The difference with QE money is that it is not backed up with output, Government just increases money supply by fiat and thus, it’s a time bomb and if mishandled it is capable of blowing up the economy!
To avoid the QE time bomb from exploding on the economy, traditionally the governments spend QE money in very restricted ways which include:
a. Buy back bonds – bonds are government’s debt instruments used in managing the economy. For instance, if there is high inflation (prices are rising because too much money is chasing too few goods/services), government in a bid to reduce the inflation will issue bonds. Those who buy the bonds give government money and hold the bonds, which attract interest payments from the government. Thus, by government mopping money from people’s (individuals and companies) pockets, there is less money to spend and the less money that chases goods/services, will result in price drop and thus inflation is contained. The reverse is the case when the economy is down and the government wants to boost it. The government uses the money from QE to buy back the bonds. So, bond holders will surrender the bonds back to government and collect their money back. With more money in people’s pockets, they buy more goods/services and this will encourage manufacturers and businesses offering services to produce more to meet up with the demand. The greater output means prices drop as more goods/services are now in the market! The economy is thus brought back to life!
b. Bailout the struggling productive sector of the economy – here the government uses the money printed by QE to bail out ailing industries suffering from the downturn in the economy so that with the new cash these industries will fund working capital to bounce back to business and boost their production. A boost in production means more jobs will be created as more factories reopen and service centres return to life. The economy will then be jumpstarted back to life with increased output and jobs! The US, for example, used QE to bail out the banks, the auto industry, etc., during the crash of 2008; and President Joe Biden has announced an infrastructure plan of $2 trillion; these are some examples of governments’ use of QE.
The catastrophe of mismanaging QE
To better understand the reward and risk of using QE, let us illustrate what happens when QE is managed well and when it is mismanaged, as follows:
1. If QE is used rightly – it is a veritable economic management tool that jumpstarts comatose economies back to life. So, let us say our economy produces 1,000 yams and money supply is N100, 000; all the money will buy all the yams at N100 per tuber. Now, if government adopts QE and prints N900,000 so that money supply is now N1 million and government uses the money to boost the agricultural sector by clearing the land, buying farm equipment and building processing plants, there will be a sharp rise in output to 20,000 yams. N1 million will buy 20,000 yams at N50 per yam; so price has crashed (inflation tamed) and jobs created because the workforce that will produce 20,000 yams will be more than the one that produced 1,000 yams! This is the beauty of QE when used for economic growth!
2. However, and tragically too, if QE is mismanaged, it spells a death sentence to an economy. Let us say that our economy produces 1,000 yams. Money supply was N100,000 and all the money is used in buying all the yams, a tuber of yam will cost N100. Let us say that through QE money supply has increased to N1,000,000 without an increase in the quantity of yams produced, it means a tuber of yam will cost N1,000. As government continues to print money without commensurate increase in output of goods/services, prices will continue to rise until one day you will need a sack to carry the money to buy a tuber of yam! This is what happened to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe’s currency where, at a point, one needed 35 million Zim dollars to buy a loaf of bread! And the shops were even empty as no goods were being produced!
Nigeria has confirmed that QE is being used but is yet to give details on the implementation. It is, therefore, not clear what impact QE is having on the economy. However, recent data released shows Nigeria’s annual inflation has climbed to a more than four-year high in March 2021, rising 82 basis points from a month earlier to 18.17%. Notably, food inflation rose to 22.95%, which is making it increasingly impossible for families to feed their children! Whether this galloping inflation is resultant from the use of QE is yet to be known until the government provides additional data.
It is important for Nigerian political leadership to understand that Nigerians are the shareholders (owners) of Nigeria and the president, finance minister and the central bank governor are all employees of Nigerians who are entitled to be adequately informed about the economic policies being pursued by the servants. It is irresponsible for a caretaker manager given charge of a property to manage on behalf of the landlord not to inform the latter about significant actions being taken on the property, including those that are capable of setting the property on fire, which is precisely what QE is – a combustible economic policy that either delivers good dividends or turns an economy into Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe!
The FG must take urgent steps to inform Nigerians about the QE policy and the areas of intervention so that Nigerians will act as watchdogs to ensure QE is not being mismanaged as the consequence will be dire for all of us!
Solutions to Nigeria’s economic woes
Constructive criticism is the one that comes with viable suggested solutions. When individuals or organisations are struggling financially, there are two ways open to them to drive out of the economic jam! First is to reduce cost and the second is to increase revenue. This is like a double dose of vaccine to give government a fighting chance against financial covid infection.
Therefore, the following are the top 5 suggested economic management tools that are available to the Nigerian government to adopt to jumpstart the economy:
1. Reduction in cost of governance – The Nigerian government must take immediate action to reduce the cost of governance. The Orosanye Committee, which turned in an 800-page report with far-reaching recommendations on how government will reduce cost of governance, must be immediately given full implementation. The committee recommended the MDAs that should be scraped, those to be merged and those to become self-funding, thereby freeing funds for the much-needed capital projects across the country. The committee also recommended the discontinuance of government funding of professional bodies and councils. Government expenditure on things like sponsorship of pilgrimages must also be stopped immediately. The salaries of legislators, ministers and other top functionaries of government must be scaled down as with their convoys and other pecks of office. Government must implement full e-government to cut down on costs of travels, printing, etc. Efficiencies in procurement activity must be generated to obtain best value for the least cost, etc.
2. Taxation of the rich – Nigeria is a country where the billionaires don’t pay taxes. All the market women, okada riders, farmers, artisans, etc., are made to pay taxes daily. Employees who are captured under PAYE also pay taxes monthly. The billionaires with private jets are paying little or nothing. The FG at the highest level must summon all the billionaires in Nigeria to a meeting in the Villa and ask them nicely to go and pay their taxes else there will be enforcement action. This step alone, which only requires an investment of 30 minutes of the president’s time, will shore up Nigeria’s revenue by at least N5 trillion!
3. Stop the $1.5bn Port Harcourt Refinery repairs – Government must stop immediately the planned rehabilitation of the Port Harcourt refinery with a sum of $1.5 billion. Knowing that government projects are never delivered within budget, this rehabilitation may end up costing Nigeria $3-5 billion! The refinery can be sold as scrap for $1 (one dollar) to allow the buyers to bring in $1.5 billion to repair it. Government must then convert the $1.5 billion hitherto set aside to repair the refinery into N570 billion (at N380/$) and invest the full money into agriculture in all the 774 local governments (LGs) in Nigeria. N570 billion is N736 million for each of the 774 LGs. If Government sinks N736 million into agriculture in every LG in Nigeria, so much food and cash crops will be produced, there will be plenty of jobs for the teeming youths too. Thus, the economy will be jumpstarted and begin to grow astronomically as an output based economy and not QE, which is like steroids!
4. Power – It is a shame that Nigeria as a nation well-endowed with one of the world’s richest deposits of gas reserves takes pains to produce the gas and then sets the gas on fire, instead of harnessing it for electricity generation. Qatar, a country with 2.8 million people, is generating 8,500 megawatts of electricity and Nigeria, a country with 200 million people, is generating only 4,000 megawatts. The minimum electricity generation required to support the Nigerian economy is 100,000 MW! Thus the huge power supply gap in Nigeria can never jumpstart the economy no matter the economic policies we put in place and no matter the qualification/experience of the economic managers we appoint. QE will not help an economy that is this abysmally poorly powered with electricity! The FG must immediately read the riot act to the oil companies to stop flaring Nigeria’s gas within 6-12 months else they must shut down oil production. Government must also take immediate steps to fully privatise the power sector to allow for investments to boost power supply and close the electricity gap!
5. Rail – No economy will do well with the poor transport infrastructure as currently obtains in Nigeria. The roads are not motorable but most importantly, there is no rail transport in Nigeria. There is no reason not to have all the 36 capitals connected by rail today just for a start! The FG must take immediate steps to fully privatise the rail sector to allow investments to build and operate rail transportation to link all the cities, towns and villages in Nigeria. This will be a huge boost to the economy by making the movement of goods and people less cumbersome and far cheaper across the nation. It will also create millions of well-paying and sustainable jobs for the teeming population of our unemployed youths.
Nigeria’s economy must be saved!
If the FG follows the suggested solutions, the Nigerian economy will begin to experience astronomical growth and this will be real growth and not steroids-induced, which QE is. But if the government continues to print money (QE) without increasing output, we will be sure on the road to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and a catastrophic end to our economy. This must be avoided at all costs!
• Nick Agule, a Chartered Accountant and fellow of ICAN, is an international oil and gas expert who worked for 3 of the top oil companies in the world – Chevron, Shell & BP where he worked at their global HQ in London for 9 years before leaving to form his consultancy practice