Africa’s central banks gather to discuss global oil prices

KUWAIT - JANUARY 15: A derek pumps in a oil field January 15, 2003 near the Saudi Arabian border, Kuwait. Kuwait produces 10% of the worlds oil and has promised to increase production as needed in the event of a war in Iraq. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A plunging oil price gives African central banks more to think about as they move toward a cycle of raising interest rates.

With a month to go before the U.S. Federal Reserve delivers what would be its fourth interest-rate increase of the year, African policymakers may still move to tighten to avoid a further sell-off of assets and currency weakness. Oil importers will see reduced pressure on inflation as fuel prices moderate, while those that export could see more inflation if their currencies drop.

Central bankers in Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia may follow Uganda’s lead this week and start tightening. Officials in Ghana and Kenya will likely stay put for now.

Until the crude price-plunge, “for most African countries it seemed that policy would be tighter for longer, but if oil prices continue to fall, given that it is such a large part of most countries’ imports profile, inflation would follow and the bias could eventually shift,” said Samantha Singh, an analyst Absa Group Ltd. in Johannesburg. But for producers, “the drop in oil prices could cause foreign-exchange supply challenges, which could be inflationary,” she said.

Zambia’s kwacha has depreciated more than 3 percent against the dollar in 2018, helping to drive inflation to an almost two-year high in October. This could trigger an upward move in the key rate from 9.75 percent on Wednesday.

The oil plunge could accelerate inflation in Africa’s largest crude producer as it hits foreign-exchange revenue and adds to pressure on the naira. Higher spending ahead of February’s presidential election already poses price risks.

Inflation has been above authorities’ target for more than three years. Three of 10 Monetary Policy Committee members voted for higher rates in September, with central bank Governor Godwin Emefiele saying an increase is “likely soon.” One thing that could persuade the central bank to hold off on tighter policy for now is economic growth that’s still fragile after a 2016 contraction, according to Yvonne Mhango, the sub-Saharan Africa head of research at Renaissance Capital in Johannesburg.

While a recession and falling inflation expectations in Africa’s most-industrialized economy could keep the MPC cautious, the panel has made it clear it prefers price growth closer to 4.5 percent. It predicts average consumer-price growth at more than 5 percent next year and in 2020.

“The last week or two of oil, particularly, means that it is a closer call,” Gina Schoeman, an economist at Citibank South Africa, said by phone. If they increase the rate “like we think they will, it is what the market calls a dovish hike. In other words, ‘we’re hiking but don’t worry — we’re not destroying GDP growth, we’re helping to anchor inflation’.”

A sharp decline in oil prices since early October has changed the outlook for forthcoming monetary policy committee meetings in Africa. Lower fuel prices should prompt a more sanguine inflation outlook in South Africa and Zambia. We still expect both central banks to opt for precautionary rate hikes to reduce the risk of further currency sell-offs.