Citigroup sees Nigeria deal freeze as devaluation risks rise

Citigroup Inc. said deals in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer, have plummeted because investors are too scared to spend money when it’s expected that the naira will have to be devalued.

“I see this as a year of pause,” Miguel Melo Azevedo, Citigroup’s head of investment banking for Africa, said in an interview in Cape Town. “You will look very stupid if you buy something in Nigeria and tomorrow it gets devalued. There’s an embarrassment factor.”

Nigeria’s government is shielding the naira after the 42 percent decline in the price of Brent crude in the past year has decimated state revenues. The currency has been pegged at 197-199 per dollar since March last year, while in the unofficial parallel market, the naira is more than 50 percent weaker and traded at about 300 per dollar on Wednesday.

The number and the size of mergers and acquisitions is showing the strain. So far this year there have been 12 deals valued at $1.45 billion compared with a year ago when there were 19 deals worth $5.62 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“The drop-off in mergers and acquisitions could get worse,” said Ronak Gadhia, a research analyst at London-based Exotix Partners LLP. “The level of foreign direct investment has also dropped off a cliff and it’s not going to recover any time soon until policies around the naira change.”

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in May last year, promising to fight corruption, fix the economy and tackle terrorism. What he couldn’t give assurance on was the oil price. Economic growth last year eased to it’s lowest pace in more than a decade and the benchmark Nigerian Stock Exchange All Share Index has fallen 17 percent this year, the worst performer in sub-Saharan Africa.

Nonetheless, Buhari remains opposed to devaluing the currency, arguing that it would result in higher inflation and hurt the poorest citizens.

The drop in asset values “opens a buying opportunity,” Azevedo said. Nigeria will likely be forced to devalue its currency and “those that have a longer-term perspective can take advantage of this. 2017, if oil comes back even to $50, I can see some resumption of normal levels of activity,” he said.

With far fewer dollars circulating in Nigeria, the country’s banks are struggling to access enough foreign exchange to facilitate imports, settle accounts with correspondent banks, keep up with customers’ use of credit cards internationally and meet maturing debt obligations, according to Adesoji Solanke, Renaissance Capital’s head of research in Nigeria.

The biggest lenders have about 3.4 billion euros ($3.7 billion) in bonds and are faced with coupon payments of 1.5 billion euros this year, Solanke said in a Dec. 21 report.

“It will become increasingly difficult to source enough forex to service debt repayments and a default will trigger a banking crisis,” said Robert Besseling, a Johannesburg-based executive director at business risk consultancy Exx Africa. “If a default is going to happen, it will probably happen this year. It only takes one bank to hit the wall to create panic.”

Nigeria remains Africa’s most populous country and its biggest economy. Even though its growth has slowed, the economy may expand 3.2 percent this year and 4.9 percent in 2017 if infrastructure investment is prioritized by the government, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday.

Investors may be reconsidering their presence in Nigeria, but those with a longer-term view won’t withdraw completely, Besseling said.

“Looking from the outside it’s a highly under-penetrated market and valuations on assets like the banks are pitiful — they’re so cheap you could buy them without having to get board approval,” Gadhia said. “But it boils down to a need for clarity. So far Buhari seems to have ad-hoc policies and you would need a lot more clarity before investors gain confidence again.”

– Bloomberg