Meet the new boss same as the old boss as the CFA Franc becomes the Eco

by Shaun Richards

As Christmas approaches things usually quieten down but if turn out eyes to Africa and in particular West Africa there have been some currency developments over the weekend. So without further ado let me hand you over to Reuters.

West Africa’s monetary union has agreed with France to rename its CFA franc the Eco and cut some of the financial links with Paris that have underpinned the region’s common currency since its creation soon World War Two.

So we have both an economic/financial element and a colonial one. We have looked at the CFA Franc briefly before but now courtesy of LSE Blogs let us have a refresher.

Firstly, a fixed rate of exchange with the euro (and previously the French franc) set at 1 euro = 655.957 CFA francs. Secondly, a French guarantee of the unlimited convertibility of CFA francs into euros. Thirdly, a centralisation of foreign exchange reserves. Since 2005, the two central banks – the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) and the Bank of Central African States (BEAC) – have been required to deposit 50 per cent of their foreign exchange reserves in a special French Treasury ‘operating account’. Immediately following independence, this figure stood at 100 per cent (and from 1973 to 2005, at 65 per cent)……The final pillar of the CFA franc, is the principle of free capital transfer within the franc zone.

As you can see via their relationship with France the countries here became implicit members of the Euro, and follow the broad sweep of its monetary policy. If we return to Reuters the scope of the issue and ch-ch-changes is explained.

The CFA is used in 14 African countries with a combined population of about 150 million and $235 billion of gross domestic product.

However, the changes will only affect the West African form of the currency used by Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo – all former French colonies except Guinea Bissau.

The Central Bank of West African States or BCEAO

If we look at monetary policy here we do see one advantage of this.

The minimum interest rate for bidding on open market transactions (calls for bidding) and the interest rate applicable on the marginal lending window (repo rate), whose levels are currently set by the Monetary Policy Committee at respectively 2.50% and 4.50%, are the principal leading interest rates of the BCEAO.

That is considerably lower than what is common in that part of Africa as Ghana is at 16% and Nigeria 13,5% so there is a gain here.

The Economy

According to Friday’s meeting of the council of ministers for the BCEAO things are in fact going really rather well.

The Council of Ministers has analyzed the recent economic and monetary situation in the Union. To this end, he noted the increased dynamism of economic activity in the third quarter of 2019 as well as the favorable economic outlook in the WAEMU countries. Indeed, growth in real gross domestic product (GDP) came out at 6.6% year-on-year, after 6.4% the previous quarter, under the effect of renewed dynamism in the tertiary and secondary sectors. Economic growth in the Union would be, in real terms, at 6.6% in 2019 as in 2020.

After a year of reporting slowing economic growth that is a cheerful and refreshing report. Indeed whilst more than a few would be screaming DEFLATION looking at the numbers below I welcome them.

The Council also noted the decline in the general level of consumer prices, with an inflation rate, year-on-year, of -1.0% in the third quarter of 2019, after -0.7% in the previous quarter, in combination with falling food prices, favored by abundant cereal production.

Firstly in spite of the fast rate if economic growth these are countries with plenty of poor people who will not only welcome lower food prices they may be a matter of life and death. Also low and indeed negative inflation can be combined with a good economic run and not need the economics establishment to rev up REM on their turntables.

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it

Although there is a catch if the price falls are for products produced and exported.

Thus, price reductions were recorded for cashew nuts
(-23.5%), palm kernel oil (-17.2%), robusta coffee (-7.1%) and cotton (-4.2%). On the other hand,
increases were noted for petroleum (+ 8.8%), rubber (+ 6.5%) and cocoa
(+ 5.0%).  ( BCEAO 2nd Quarter)

There is however a de facto consequence of implicit Euro area membership.

To this end, they invited the member states to continue efforts aimed at bringing the budget deficit below the Community standard of 3.0% of GDP, in particular by widening the tax base and improving performance. as well as the efficiency of tax administrations.

In case you are wondering about the other component of the Stability and Growth Pact it doesn’t really apply at the moment.

Preliminary data point to an increase in total debt to
52.5 percent of GDP in 2018 from 50.1 percent in 2017. ( IMF)

However bond yields are much higher so there are debt servicing issues.

and in total debt service to 33 percent of
government revenue in 2018 from 26.4 percent in 2017. ( IMF)

 

Also the burden is rising.

It rose by 17½ percentage points of GDP over
the last 5 years to reach 52½ percent
at end-2018. ( IMF )

Trade Is A Problem

The IMF puts it like this.

The external current account deficit is estimated to have increased to 6.8 percent in 2018 from 6.6 percent of GDP in 2017. This increase was underpinned by strong public capital spending but also by worsening terms-of-trade
on the back of higher world oil prices.

This is an issue and points straight at the currency being too high which is a challenge for the CFA Franc because it is a fixed exchange rate.

Ch-Ch-Changes

Back to Reuters.

Under the deal, the Eco will remain pegged to the euro but the African countries in the bloc won’t have to keep 50% of their reserves in the French Treasury and there will no longer be a French representative on the currency union’s board.

Comment

In economic terms this is a case of meet the new boss same as the old boss. The switches above are more symbolic than real economic changes as the broad reality is that the Eco is pegged to the Euro. As we stand that is not going too badly with economic growth having been strong for some time.

Despite adverse terms-of-trade shocks and security concerns in some member-countries, real GDP growth is estimated to have exceeded 6 percent for the 7th consecutive year in 2018, fueled by strong domestic demand. ( IMF)

Inflation is also low,

But whilst it is an establishment fashion to look at the fiscal deficit and of course that is a Euro area obsession and some might argue fetish the real issue for me is elsewhere. It is the trade position where we see that whether you call the currency the CFA Franc or the Eco it is too high and as inflation is low maybe a devaluation is in order. Where have we heard that before concerning the Euro?

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