RESPONSE TO MR. SEGUN AGANGA, MINISTER OF FINANCE, NIGERIA
I have read, with amazement, the totally unprovoked diatribe of the Hon. Minister of Finance, Mr. Segun Aganga (published in the Nation newspaper of January 22, 2011) on my person while he was responding to a letter written by Vice-President Atiku Abubakar on the economy. I left office almost two years ago, and for Mr. Aganga, it was not until he suspected that I may be ‘advising’ Atiku on the economy that he quickly conjured that I should be in jail for what he believes I said or did not do about the banking system. So much for democracy and freedom of opinion and speech! I have mulled over the decision to respond or not. Some friends suggested I should ignore Aganga in consideration that I might be misconstrued as “attacking Government”. This has nothing to do with Government. Indeed, I am pained to be forced to join issues with the Minister.
Initially, I agreed that it was better to dismiss it, just as I had dismissed other commentaries and misrepresentations of my tenure in the past. As everyone holding public office knows, once you leave, there is often a tendency for your record to be rubbished and, if care is not taken, for you to be treated as a common criminal. After reading two nasty books on the globally revered former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, Alan Greenspan, I was sobered to temper my expectations of the judgment of history. No matter what you do, and especially for those who have tried to undertake revolutions in history, there must be enough people who judge you harshly. But what really matters is that one does his utmost best for his people, and leaves the rest to God and the history books. Obviously, I am not God, and cannot claim to have been perfect in public service. Therefore, I welcome criticisms and comments on my stewardship. But when Mr. Aganga, out of desperation to save his job, throws decency to the ground, and decides that the only way to burnish his uneventful tenure is to use his high office to throw mud at Soludo, then a sense of duty beckons on us to respond.
I love my country, Nigeria, and believe in its future. After gallivanting around the world for a decade as an itinerant scholar and consultant to 18 international institutions, I returned end of 2000 to serve my country. At the end of my tenure in 2009, I joined partisan politics out of my passion and impatience to see Nigeria as leader of the black race. I know that in a democracy there is hardly any other way of changing society other than through the political process. The only way Nigeria can move forward is for all those who have anything to offer to get involved. As I did so, I was aware of the enormous risks that await me, especially as I express views on sundry national issues. I have been repeatedly warned, and four newspapers had reported that Government might come after me, hang anything on my neck just to silence me.
Perhaps, that is what Aganga was alluding to. If the Finance Minister commented in his personal capacity as Mr. Aganga, I would not have given it a minute of my time. But since he was speaking as Minister of Finance of Nigeria (except perhaps he forgot that he was speaking as one given the uncouth language), I have come to the conclusion that it would be inappropriate to ignore such comments, however uninformed. Furthermore, I decided to give him at least a week to retract the statement credited to him in case he was misquoted. So far, he has not done so, and I have therefore elected to respond briefly. At least, we need to straighten the record.
I would for the moment ignore his emotional outbursts. I will not descend to that level. I will instead briefly respond to two issues he raised and directed at me: (1) his rather evasive ‘response’ on the state of the economy, and allegation that we were ‘talking down the economy’, and (2) that during the global crisis I said that Nigerian economy was ‘isolated’ from the crisis and that there were no non-performing loans in the banks but that after I left, the lid was opened and they saw that ‘everything was rotten’. For these ‘offences’, according to Hon. Aganga, I should go to jail. Permit me, at the outset, Hon. Minister, to state that you are clearly wrong on both issues. Let me elaborate further as follows:
In fact, the more you try to defend the indefensible on the economy, the more you expose and confirm what many people talk about the palpable lack of capacity to understand, let alone take steps to move the economy forward. By trying to respond to the former Vice President, you ended up avoiding 90 percent of the weighty issues raised in that letter; and by attempting to provide laughable excuses, you make people shudder in disbelief.
On a positive note however, I must congratulate you, if what DG- DMO was quoted as saying is true that the Federal Government has now agreed to borrow or issue bonds only for specific projects. At least, you have taken the first step out of at least six components of what must constitute a sensible debt strategy for Nigeria instead of trying to defend useless debt-to-GDP ratios. Furthermore, to start defending debt accumulation on the basis that countries like US, UK, and European countries undertook ‘stimulus packages’ and ran high deficits during the crisis makes us a laughing stock. Hon. Minister, these countries you cite were all in recession and the Treasury had to bailout their banks by recapitalizing them. Except if your figures are wrong, Nigeria was neither in recession nor did the Ministry of Finance spend a kobo to bailout banks. If the figures you bandy on GDP growth (at over 7.5%) is right, then Nigerian economy must be ‘booming’ and the idea of a ‘stimulus package’ and hence high deficit is a contradiction in terms. This is Macroeconomics 101, sir! Please stop shocking Nigerians by trying to excuse the depletion of our foreign reserves at a time of export boom on the grounds that what is left would still meet more than three months of imports. This is new Economics by your Economic Team. Perhaps, you should become economic adviser to China and all other countries to fritter away their foreign reserves until it can finance three months of imports, and for Nigeria, when oil price crashes we can then use water to pay for imports.
Nigerians expect you to sit down and find solutions to the other issues and stop the shadow boxing. Congrats also for setting up a Committee to review public finance. These are part of the issues we raised in our earlier article in September 2010. I can notice other feeble actions being taken. That is how it should be in a democracy.
But you must get serious, Hon. Minister. When you look Nigerians in the face and point to flattering comments on Nigeria’s prospects by some people in some conferences as your proof that Nigerian economy is doing well, it does not make you look well informed; especially in the face of hard evidence to the contrary. As you were busy blaming people for ‘talking down the economy’, the UNCTAD report released in Geneva on January 17, 2011 slammed you again with a red card: foreign direct investment (FDI) into Nigeria dropped by 62% in 2010 (from $6 billion in 2009 to $2.3 billion in 2010) again the worst in many years, and even worse than during the global crisis. While developing and transition economies increased their FDI inflows by 10% in 2010, Nigeria’s FDI fell by a whopping 62%. During our tenure, FDI was more than doubling every year, and even at the peak of the global crisis in 2008, stood at about $8.5 billion. Do you get the point, sir? The international investors are sending a strong message to you, Sir. You need to get your act together.
Before you issued Nigeria’s $500m Eurobond, Atiku indicated that it would only be oversubscribed because “... you are offering foreigners attractive returns on the bond...”. You got angry. Now, who is right: you or Atiku? Think about this, Hon. Minister: Nigeria’s debt-to-GDP ratio is about 17% (using your numbers, and external debt less than 3%), with proven oil reserves of about 36billion barrels and high oil price and output, strong GDP growth as you claim, and yet the yield on the bond is as high as 7% (higher than South Africa at 5.5%; Ghana at 6.2%, etc). Mr. Minister, can you point to other countries with similar “fundamentals” that are priced as risky as Nigeria? Put differently, are you not worried that even with the ‘fundamentals’ and high return to investors, the bond is not oversubscribed more than 10 times? The point, Hon. Minister, is that given Nigeria’s potentials, there is no reason (other than mismanagement) why even at 6% or less, the bond would not be oversubscribed more than 10 times. Did you read the front page of the London Financial Times last week, specifically the January 21, 2011 edition, regarding your economic management? What further proof do you require to know what the international community thinks of your handling of the Nigerian economy?
Again, in the said publication, you spent so much energy trying to convince Nigerians that the AVERAGE interest rate on Nigeria’s debt is 7%. Haba, Hon. Minister! With a total debt stock of $34.6 billion (domestic and external), your total debt service payment in 2010 at N542 billion ($3.61 billion) and yet you claim the AVERAGE interest rate is 7%? Even after adjusting for amortizations and new issues, you know that you cannot be right; otherwise publish the amount for debt repayment and we will see who is right at the end of the year! Enough said! You continue to bandy GDP growth rates which essentially show the obvious: we are lifting more barrels of crude oil, and the weather has been very clement to spur agricultural growth! You clearly lie with the GDP figures. Hon. Minister, seven years before 2010 is 2003- 2009, and NOT 2004- 2009: so your figures are wrong, sir. The fact remains that over a seven year period up to 2009 (that is, since Obasanjo’s second term and because data for 2010 are still estimates), GDP growth rate (appropriately adjusted for the oil sector) has been the worst under you as head of the Economic Team, at a time of oil boom!
By the way, Hon. Minister, are you aware that the Presidential Advisory Council (PAC) now agrees with our position on your budget? Several newspaper editorials and informed analysts agree with us as well. The PAC has just called on you to reduce recurrent expenditure to 40% (down from the current 114% of estimated revenue). Certainly, Hon. Minister, there is a strong message both Nigerians and international community are sending to you. Just listen!
Hon. Minister sir, while I should languish in jail for laying the foundation for a new financial system and for largely saving the economy from the global crisis, you should be celebrated for making it into the Guinness Book of records on many fronts, three notable ones being: (1) You assumed office when oil price was about $75 per barrel and external reserves stood at about $42 billion: within 9 months you have earned a world record as the Head of an Economic Management Team (EMT) that lost about $10 billion in foreign reserves at a time of unprecedented export boom, with oil price now over $90 per barrel; (2) While the EMT I belonged to got Nigeria debt relief, you will get the world record as the Finance Minister who had the fastest rate of debt accumulation in Nigeria’s history, even at a time of oil boom and presented a budget where not a kobo of oil revenue is spent on infrastructure, power, etc but 114% of revenue spent on consumption; and (3) as head of the Economic Team when literally all international ratings for Nigeria worsened, even worse than during the global crisis of 2008 and 2009, and for the first time in several years, the outlook for the economy is adjudged NEGATIVE, with FDI collapsing (a clear indication of loss of confidence by international investors), etc. Congrats Hon. Minister on these world records!
My candid advice to you, Hon. Minister, is for you and your colleagues at the EMT to note that you need serious help on the economy. It is our collective destiny that is at stake. Threatening me with imprisonment or even imprisoning me will not solve the problem sir. But if you are convinced that you know what you are talking about in respect of the economy, and/or that you are sure of what you said about my regime, I challenge you to a 2-3 hour televised national debate on these issues. Indeed, within the month of February, 2011, I will publish a synopsis of the highlights of my tenure at the CBN—just for the record--- and I will challenge you to debate them live on national TV with me, Hon. Minister!
(2) What I said or did not say about the global crisis and the Nigerian economy
I have had time to review what we did and what we did not do during my tenure and I can say that except in a few cases that I would have wished we did things differently, I remain proud of our vision for the financial system and Nigerian economy, our strategy, and the accomplishments during the period. I am proud of the Board, Management and Staff of the CBN that I worked with, and thank immensely the two Presidents I worked under for their political support and encouragement. I also thank members of the Economic Management Team during my tenure in government for the support.
We came with an agenda to CREATE and DEVELOP a new financial system to power the new private sector-led economy; to put our financial system on the world map and over time become Africa’s financial hub. We also had an agenda for the Naira (to become the de facto currency for West Africa), to create the largest foreign reserves in Sub Saharan Africa as a guarantor for both the Naira and the economic prosperity; achieve a single digit inflation (from 23% as at end of 2003); restructure the CBN to become the monetary and macroeconomic policy hub of the nation, as well as act as effective financial and economic adviser to the Federal Government. We also set out to rescue and restructure a largely bankrupt Nigeria Security Printing and Minting (NSPM) Plc into a world class institution to meet the needs of Nigeria and West and Central Africa; envisioned and established Africa’s first private sector-led investment bank (Africa Finance Corporation); etc.
In barely three years, we were on course to laying the solid foundation to attain these ambitious goals (within the limits of the political space allowed us by the political leadership) before the unprecedented global financial and economic crisis hit Nigeria and the world. More on these later!
As a member of the Commission of Experts set up by the United Nations General Assembly to work out options for dealing with the crisis and reforming the global financial system, as well as an informal adviser to about 11 other Governors of Central Banks around the world, I believe I knew a few things and was in a great position to help my country/financial system navigate through the crisis (details of how Nigeria was saved several times from tipping over during that crisis are in my forthcoming book on the crisis).
We responded to the crisis with a strategy that I believe helped to save the Nigerian financial system and economy from total collapse. Both the late President Yar’Adua, and the Senate President, David Mark, acknowledged that without our banking consolidation and the skilful manner we managed our foreign reserves, the global crisis would have swept our economy away. The hitherto booming banking system that was for the first time ranked in the same category as Israel, China, India, Russia, etc, and with non-performing loans down from 22% in 2003 to 6% before the crisis (due to rigorous regulatory and supervisory regime in place) was buffeted by four major EXOGENOUS shocks simultaneously and yet none was allowed to fail. I knew that the Federal Government could not bailout the banking system if it collapsed, except through “printing money” and/or issuance of debt (bonds) which would be bought by the same banking system. We therefore had a strategy to quietly, (as other leading central bankers around the world were doing at the time), but systematically navigate the system through the turbulence, clean up and restructure the balance sheet of the banks that had challenges before end of 2009 without recourse to the Treasury for assistance. With the benefit of hindsight, I remain proud of that strategy!
Like a pilot of an aeroplane that experiences an unprecedented turbulence, what you say to passengers and how you say it might largely determine whether or not some passengers will pass out or die of frightful shock before you navigate through the turbulence and stabilise the plane to reach your destination. We were candid to Nigerians in communicating the severity of the crisis, but as would be expected of any responsible Governor of Central Bank in such circumstances, remained the voice of confidence to the economic agents. We assured Nigerians that we would survive the crisis, laid out the steps we were taking to do so, and thank God, we have not been proved wrong till date!
Despite the massive outflow of about $16.6 billion out of the economy due to the crisis within less than three months, we still conserved our foreign reserves to about $45 billion as at the time I left office—which was still the highest in Sub Saharan Africa. Despite the collapse of major banks in the world, Nigeria did not lose one penny of our foreign reserves, and no bank was allowed to fail. Hon. Minister, we deliberately (within less than three years) CREATED banks as Nigeria’s dominant multinational corporations, and without what we did, you cannot be talking about infrastructure concessioning, private power plants, local content in oil and gas, and indeed a truly private sector-led economy as there was no domestic banking system to fund them. Let me even assert that there would have been no banking system to be absorbing all the debt (borrowing) that you have been issuing. Before the banking revolution, it was the CBN that took up a chunk of government debt instruments (monetization of deficits was the norm, with all the inflationary consequences). Today, there are still about five Nigerian banks in top 10 African banks, and still more than 10 Nigerian banks in the top 1000 banks in the world: there were none when I took over as CBN Governor. Even at the peak of the global crisis in 2008, non-oil GDP still grew at 9% and FDI into Nigeria was still almost FOUR times what it is under you today. Hon. Minister, what pains me the most is that our worst performance in any year is still better than your best performance. Nigeria should be going forward, not backwards! We shall return to these at a later date.
Hon. Minister, perhaps you are not aware that the Financial Sector Regulatory Coordinating Committee (FSRCC) under my chairmanship ordered for a consolidated examination (audit) of all the banks in early March 2009. At a stakeholders seminar in Lagos on 30th March, 2009 I made a PowerPoint presentation to the stakeholders gathered at the Eko Hotel on the state of the banking system, our responses so far including details on tightening of regulation and supervision, and spelt out CBN’s action plan to resolve any systemic distress as follows (I quote slides 13 and 14, and slide 20 of the presentation):
Strengthen CBN’s contingency planning framework for systemic distress
¡ Keep vigilance on early warning signals through rigorous examinations
* If chronic liquidity problems--- provide term loans; target examination, and seek restructuring of balance sheet and management
* If solvency problem: Could change Management, and strategic plan to recapitalize bank, including possibility of merger with/acquisition by stronger bank.
* Encourage banks to strengthen/ review bank-specific contingency plans
* Asked banks with signs of liquidity pressures to present plans for restructuring of their balance sheet
*Reviewing the draft Asset Management Company of Nigeria (AMCON) bill--- to be established to buy up toxic assets of banks.
In the same public presentation, I outlined to stakeholders steps we had taken to tighten and strengthen regulation and supervision of the banks as follows:
— Greater emphasis on enforcement of Code of Corporate Governance
— Resident Examiners have been deployed to banks since January 2009
— Standby teams of target examiners being deployed to any bank at any time to ensure timely regulatory actions if necessary
— Review of Contingency Planning Framework for Systemic Distress in Banks
— Introduction of Credit Bureau
— Advice to banks on risk management---call for extra conservatism during time of crisis--- capital conservation, cost minimization, de-emphasis on size, salaries/bonuses, etc
— Strengthening of institutional coordination through the Financial Sector Regulatory Coordinating Committee (FSRCC)
— Greater emphasis on e-FASS as a tool for banks’ returns analysis for speedy identification of early warning signals
— Consolidated Supervision and Risk Based Supervision have been adopted and arrangements are being made to migrate from the current fragmented sub-sectoral supervision to all-inclusive financial sector supervision
— All banks are to be examined in 2009 by consolidated teams of CBN, NDIC, SEC, NAICOM
— Adoption of common accounting year end for all banks with effect from end-Dec. 2009, aimed at improving data integrity and comparability
— Adoption of the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS)
— Review of BOFIA to strengthen regulatory capacity
I therefore challenge you, Hon. Minister, to show what has happened, since I left office, to strengthen regulation and supervision that is not part of the continuing implementation of the above agenda.
Hon. Minister, in the same presentation, we once again publicly announced the total banks’ exposure to the capital market to be about N800 billion. We also presented the result of our survey of how much of their ‘toxic assets’ banks were willing to hand over to the AMCON, and the total was about N400 billion as at that date. The CAMELS rating of the banks as at end December 2008 showed an average composite score of 62%--- a ‘satisfactory’ score. That was the score for the banking SYSTEM, and I stand by it. We will return to these issues later!
Hon. Minister, is it not instructive that if “everything was rotten”, the banking system could not have been declaring profits in 2009 and 2010 even when not one kobo of new capital had been injected into the system, and despite the shocks the banks passed through? The only new money into the system was the ‘term loan’ as I had prescribed as part of our contingency planning framework (which is a routine LIQUIDITY SUPPORT by central banks to commercial banks) and which in substance, was similar to the expanded discount window we provided to the banks. Enough said!
Thus, Hon. Minister, our record in respect of the banking sector is that we built a new system which was one of the fastest growing in the world and powering a new private sector-led economy, successfully navigated the system through the unprecedented financial turbulence in the world without allowing any one of them to collapse; designed and were quietly implementing an agenda to clean up and restructure the banks that had challenges as a result of the crisis before the end of 2009, so that the system could resume its momentum from 2010. Of course, we are aware that following the global crisis and the collapse of banks all over the world, the immediate populist response globally was to blame “loose regulation and supervision” for the banking crisis.
Everywhere in the world, regulators were blamed for lax regulation. I have been a part of this debate globally, and the jury is still out on many issues, and whether/how ‘regulation and supervision’ will be different after the crisis. The fad is fading. I will elaborate more on the nature of Nigeria’s regulation/supervision and the extent to which it had or had nothing to do with the state of some banks following the crisis. Details are in the follow ups. But Hon. Minister, perhaps I should remind you that banking regulation/supervision is just about 20 percent of the central bank’s mandate. We will return to these matters later.
Hon. Minister sir, I NEVER EVER said that the Nigerian economy or the banking/financial system was “immune” or “insulated” from the global crisis. Aside from the usual sensational headlines of some newspapers (designed to sell their newspapers) and of course some misrepresentations by some commentators, the records show that I was the most vocal public official in articulating the nature and causes of the crisis and the consequences for the Nigerian economy as well as the remedial actions. Disprove this point if you can, Hon. Minister! When a section of the media tried to insinuate that my assurances that we would survive the crisis meant that Nigeria was ‘insulated’ from the crisis, I issued clarifications (as advertorial) through my Special Assistant (media) in early 2009.
I have the transcripts and video copies of my public presentations on the crisis. Indeed, when most analysts were busy looking for the domestic causes of the crash of the capital market, I was the first public official to link the woes of the capital market to the global financial crisis, and also laid out the proactive measures we took at the CBN. The Guardian newspaper, 5th October, 2008, while reporting my presentation at Thisday newspaper’s seminar on the capital market crisis quoted me as saying: “We now begin to have cross-border contagion”.... “Given the credit crunch in the advanced industrial world, several of the institutional investors from those markets began to pull out of our markets”... “We have taken a lot of actions in terms of liquidity... Our doors are open, we are free and open to lend to the banks, our discount windows are open, our liquidity ratios are down, our monetary policy rate is down, and the minimum cash reserve requirement is down”.
Do these sound like someone saying that Nigeria was “insulated” or to use Aganga’s term “isolated”?
On 21st October, 2008, I appeared at the plenary session of the Senate with Minister of Finance, Dr. Usman; Minister of National Planning, Senator Daggash; and Chief Economic Adviser, Mallam Tanimu Yakubu. While reporting the session, Tribune newspaper of 22 October, 2008 reported that “‘They, however, agreed that the economy was not immune to the effects of the global financial meltdown as they said that banks in the country might have to recapitalize to fence off the effects of the meltdown”. Quoting me directly, the Tribune reported me as saying:
“I assure you that our foreign reserves are safe. That is the first round effect. On the second round effects, some of the assets of the banks could potentially deteriorate. It’s a potential risk because they are exposed to the capital market. We have done something proactively because we didn’t wait for them to collapse... We insist that no bank will fail. We have also restricted foreign ownership of our banks. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a good move. We have also suspended mop-up operations. There’s liquidity surge. Banks should reduce exposure to the capital market... As a lender of last resort, no Nigerian bank would be allowed to fail, but we need to recapitalize to make the sector more vibrant. We are not likely to go into a recession”.
Reporting the same Senate appearance (which was televised live on NTA), Thisday newspaper of 22nd October, 2008 (p.1 and p.7) reported me as follows:
“No Nigerian bank will be allowed to fail.... He said the CBN was ready to take any necessary step to save the banks in the event of distress--- including taking over ‘toxic assets’ in the banks’ balance sheets.... ‘We proposed an Asset Management Company during consolidation programme, but it was not passed by the National Assembly. This is the time, President of the Senate, most distinguished senators, to pass the Asset Management Company where banks and other financial institutions could go to sell or deposit some of their distressed assets.... But in order to pre-empt and make sure that the contagion does not wipe out our own system, we have also taken proactive measures by making sure that the system is as liquid as possible, and we have opened our lending window to be able to extend credit to any bank that needs it as much as it can.... But there are challenges going forward and that is the responsibility of the Senate. I think there are several bills before the National Assembly that need to be passed like yesterday that are needed to strengthen the financial system’. He listed the bills to include the Banks and Other Financial Institutions (BOFI) Act, which he said had been in the National Assembly since early 2006. ‘It still requires amendments to strengthen the regulatory capacity. There is also a bill for Consumer credit. It is before the National Assembly; there is the bill for mortgage reforms before the national Assembly. ‘These bills need to be passed urgently because they are required to unleash the boom in Nigeria’s financial system and also useful for moving the economy forward”.... He, however, agreed while rounding off his presentation to the Senate, that “this is not the time to be complacent; it is the time to take action; it is the time for patience and it is the time to be vigilant”.
Do I need to say more? I thank the National Assembly for finally passing the AMCON Act. Are you still there, Hon. Minister, or are you embarrassed to learn that even the AMCON you taunt as the ‘saviour of the banks’ happens to be one of Soludo’s initiatives?
In conclusion Hon. Minister, I make bold to say that I personally wish you well. I wish the Government and my country well. I have had my day, and I wish you success because it is our commonwealth that is at stake. Every group of public servants must pray that those who succeed them should take Nigeria to a higher pedestal. That is the only way to guarantee prosperity for future generations. All Nigerians will be better off if you can quickly find your bearing in an office which for now seems too overwhelming for you. I extend my hand of fellowship. But if you choose, as you set out to do, for us to have this engagement in the public domain, I assure you that even in prison, I will be ready to take you on, at least for the future of our children!
Professor Chukwuma C. Soludo, CFR, was a former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN.