15 January 2016

Namibia: Weakening Rand Erodes Benefits of Fixed Exchange Rate

analysis

Windhoek — The recent weakening of the South African Rand has triggered the erosion of the primary benefits of the fixed exchange rate that Namibia has enjoyed from the fixed exchange rate arrangement embedded in the Common Monetary Area (CMA) agreement.

Namibia became a member of the CMA immediately after Independence in order to benefit from the price stability, credibility and less volatile South African Rand that the CMA offered. The arrangement, which entails that Namibia peg its currency to the Rand has been beneficial in several ways, but since the recent downward spiral of the Rand, these benefits are gradually eroding. This situation has brought to the fore the fundamental question of whether Namibia should explore alternative exchange rate regimes that will better serve Namibia's developmental interests.

Price Stability

The primary benefit that Namibia has been enjoying from the arrangement is that of price stability. It is believed that when a country pegs its currency to the currency of a country that has low inflation, it tends to import low inflation from that particular country. The measured inflation rate between Namibia and South Africa although may have diverged at times in the past, because of the price of non-tradable goods, it has in most cases remained co-integrated. The most recent past evidence seems to support this conclusion.

In fact since 1993 the domestic inflation rate has closely mirrored the prevailing rate in South Africa. However, all this is set to change following the recent depreciation of the Rand against the major currencies of the world. A further weakening in the Rand will see the cost of imported goods for consumers rise, making it more expensive for consumers to purchase items such as imported electronics or other durable and semi-durable items sourced from abroad.

Namibia imports between 75% and 90% of its consumables from South Africa, meaning that Namibia will definitely import these from South Africa at even higher prices should the Rand continue to fall. Even more worrisome is the fact that local consumers also won't benefit from the slide in global oil prices that is expected to fall to record low levels closer to $30 a barrel. Simply put, this means that as the rest of the world gets lower petrol prices; we get ones that are higher.

Exchange rate fluctuations

Another major advantage of the fixed exchange rate arrangement was that it helped to avoid exchange rate fluctuations and reduced the unfavourable effects of exchange rate uncertainty on trade and investment. Given the fact that South Africa was and remain Namibia's main trading partner, a major benefit for Namibia was the elimination of uncertainty associated with exchange rate variability. Since Namibia is a net importer of goods and services from South Africa, the benefits derived from the arrangement were expected to be large.

The sustained depreciation of the Rand has eroded the Rand's ability to be the anchor currency so severely that Namibians have started to ask whether Namibia as a country should explore alternative exchange regimes. The low volatility which the Rand enjoyed in past years has become a thing of the past and hence these calls for alternative exchange rate regimes that will better suit Namibia. The hunt for a more stable anchor currency must begin immediately.

Alternative Exchange Rate Systems

Calls for an alternative exchange rate regime have increasingly become louder than ever before and it's about time the government acts to avoid being caught off guard should something horrible happen to the Rand. In fact if the Rand should fall just another 20% over the next year then by the beginning of 2017 a US Dollar would cost R20. Most financial analysts are in agreement that R20 per US dollar is on the cards.

In the absence of an official Plan B exchange rate regime, Namibia can still explore the following three basic choices. These can be used in determining the appropriate exchange rate regime - a monetary linkage between the local economy and the rest of the world. Namibia can let its currency float freely in the exchange markets against all other currencies, or it can fix the price of its currency against a specific foreign currency or a basket of foreign currencies.

Namibia can pursue intermediate approaches, letting rates float to some extent, but intervening to limit those fluctuations either ad hoc ("managed floating") or pursuant to some pre-determined parameters ("target zones," "crawling bands," etc.) Caution must, however, be taken - given the increasing intellectual and policy consensus that suggests that "fixed but adjustable" pegs - the traditional means of "fixing" the exchange rate, does not work well for either industrial economies or emerging market economies.

Hence, a country must either float to some extensive degree or fix permanently and thus credibly. Both courses have clear costs as well as benefits which must be weighted on the scale of balance.

Mally Likukela is Standard Bank Namibia's manager of economics and market research.

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