Tackling The Exchange Rate Palaver

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By Adetutu Bashorun

 It is interesting to observe that the CBN is grappling with thorny problems arising from its ambitious experiment leading to the inauguration of the Bureau de Change.  We recall how CBN operated like a herdsman, gathered the street forex peddlers under one umbrella and approved guidelines to operate as a currency expert infrastructure named ‘Bureau de Change’.  That is the birth of the BDC and the guidelines named and sealed it.  Interestingly, the relationship has been frustrating for both agencies but for different reasons.

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On one hand, CBN has come to regard the BDC operator as recalcitrant and unconvincingly non-compliant.  Repetitively, CBN has had to deploy valuable resources that can be diverted to other meaningful tasks, to check that the BDCs are operated as directed.  Whilst addressing members of the House of Representatives Committee on Banking and Currency in July 2014, the CBN Governor expressed his frustrations with the BDC operators who have deviated from the “objectives for which they were licensed in the first place”.  To make matters worse, the BDC operators keep minimal records or paperwork providing unsuccessful, if any, audit trail of their transactions.

Amongst the woes listed by the Governor are that a large number of the BDC operators were only interested in “widening margins and profits from the forex market regardless of prevailing official and interbank rates”; many of the BDCs were in breach of the objectives and provisions of the guidelines and most of the BDCs could not be located or relocated without approval.

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On the other hand, the BDC operator considers that CBN is playing hardball and is irritated by the incessant presence of CBN in his business.  The BDC operator basically wants to sell foreign currency without ‘challenges’ from CBN or without the CBN breathing down his neck or making what he considers academic and bureaucratic demands.

From the BDC operator’s viewpoint, a classic example of CBN’s lack of thoughtfulness is that unlike the banks, the BDC cannot store people’s data and this has caused problems such as verifying the customer’s date of birth.  This minute but ‘vexing’ requirement of the CBN is affecting their sale of forex!

CBN has frankly not infused workable confidence in this relationship.  Out of the blue, CBN issued various directives to strangulate the arrangement with the BDC operators.  For example, within the last three months, CBN revoked licences of BDCs with the view to return close to N35 million deposits to BDC operators.  In asserting its authority further, the apex bank has stopped the sale of foreign currencies to the BDC operator asking him to source foreign currencies from the autonomous market but must operate within the CBN guidelines.

The shoe is now on the other foot and the situation could revert to the days of currency control of the 1970s and 1980s when sale of foreign currency by individuals was illegal.  Interestingly, unlike in those days, we are now under a democratic government where the rule of law will prevail and there is no clear-cut restriction on the possession of foreign currency by individuals.  All the BDC operator needs to do is to simply continue to operate illicitly under table.  Their customers know that their licences have been revoked, access to the dollar is now limited and supply is short.  Surprisingly, their customers will still find them more approachable.

The risk arising from this decision is that the BDC operators in running a parallel market could by their own strength create an artificial scarcity of the dollar for the purposes of heaving up the exchange rate and causing an artificial devaluation of the naira.  At that point and consequently, the system will revert to what it was prior to legitimising the activities of the foreign currency street pedlar and the elaborate inauguration of the Bureau de Change operations.

We are aware that the dynamic feature between the CBN and the BDC is the true value of the naira.  Sadly, there is no sign that these frustrations have reduced since July 2014.  Up to date and inclusive of the frustrations expressed in July 2014 by the CBN Governor, is that when CBN sets the exchange rate, the BDC operator will adjust his own rate as an increment over and above the CBN rate. CBN finds this situation quite irritating and has openly accused the BDC operators of causing the naira to slide in the parallel market. Naturally, CBN as an elitist policy-making establishment cannot understand that the BDC operator is, still mentally, the forex street peddler who is selling the dollar as a commodity upon which he has to make a profit at different times and seasons…

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