Since voting for the next president is due in little more than two weeks, we will try to disentangle some of the muddled views in circulation about the impact of Nigerian elections on the economy. The consensus is that the impact is unremittingly negative and that the investor develops a ‘wait-and-see’ stance on auto-pilot.
One theory in circulation is that the government has no time for any business other than the programme of elections. We would say that a government seeking re-election will be pushing hard on its agenda to soften up the electorate. In the current Nigerian context, this means the FGN looking to accelerate its capital releases. Voters who see a new road/school/hospital built in their neighbourhood are more likely to back the incumbent. They will also respond positively if the government, federal or state, settles arrears on salaries and pensions due to family or friends.
Another theory is that existing and potential investors succumb to a state of inertia because they are worried by the “uncertainty” surrounding the elections. The result is uncertain of course but we can say with confidence that, whatever the result, Nigeria should not fear a radical change of direction. In 2015 we had the “change” agenda, and now we have talked of floating the naira and dismembering the NNPC. Alongside their negative campaigning and finger-pointing, serious challengers everywhere look to capture the attention of voters with striking policies.
There is a scope on the margins for new policies that can be introduced without the go-ahead from the National Assembly (the equivalent of President Trump’s executive orders). More broadly, the delivery of change is blunted by bureaucratic torpor across the three tiers of government. This means that we should limit our expectations of the new government in place at the end of the transition period in May. It works both ways: no fear of change for the worse but equally little hope of a strong market rally like those following the election victories of Lula, now disgraced, in Brazil in 2002 and Mauricio Macri in Argentina in 2015. There were very brief, relief rallies after the Nigerian presidential elections of 2011 and 2015.
The outcome to avoid next month is a very close result that is challenged on the streets and in the courts. The presidential term is four years on the US model and the transition period three months. The time for a president and government to make their mark is already limited without such challenges.
The downside from challenges to an election result was evident in Kenya in August 2017. The Supreme Court nullified the presidential election result from earlier in the month. The main opposition candidate, who had cried foul, boycotted the re-run in October, and the incumbent (Uhuru Kenyatta) was declared the winner with 98 per cent of the vote. We cannot say whether a flawed process has any impact on output beyond the very short term but we can say that the developmental capacity of the Kenyan government was weakened for about three months. The stock market saw a sell-off on the intervention of the Supreme Court and has not subsequently recovered (although other factors are also clearly at play).
According to a third theory, the macroeconomy is vulnerable to a slowdown in the run-up to the elections. Our findings suggest that this theory is the result of laziness on the part of analysts, some of whom are looking to create a narrative for their forecasts. (We were taught, in contrast, to construct forecasts on the basis of a tested narrative.) So we looked at historical data for the run-up to the Nigerian presidential elections in April 2007, April 2011 and March 2015.
The series we covered were FGN expenditure, inflation, offshore investment in the stock market and domiciliary bank accounts in Nigeria. We did not find any adverse trends other than a pick-up in FGN spending in the run-up to the 2011 polls, which we can trace to a sizeable increase in the national minimum wage by the Jonathan administration. Eight years on, we may well be seeing a repeat (that the FGN insists is incorporated in its 2019 budget proposals).
Our findings indicate that investors could profitably move on from the ‘wait-and-see” stance. They have waited and generally seen little if anything untoward domestically. Foreign portfolio investors have been exiting local debt markets for several months but in response to US monetary policy normalization rather than the Nigerian elections. As ever, the domestic events to trigger their exit remain pressure on the naira exchange, public finances and official fx reserves as a result of a steep and sustained decline in oil revenue. This is not our base case expectation.
History does not always repeat itself, and it may be that the lessons we have drawn from 2007, 2011 and 2015, subject to data restrictions, no longer apply. It may also be that the next president is able to push through far-reaching change on taking office in late May. We suggest otherwise.
Head, Macroeconomic & Fixed Income Research