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Dollar to watt? Uganda should pay for its imports with energy by Joachim Buwembo

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One German said that before the war, they used to carry money in the pocket to go buy food in baskets, later they ended up taking money in baskets to bring food in the pocket. Now, the Ukraine-born inflation is driving us all in that direction and countries are devising different solutions.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta is digging into the government’s (still) deep pocket to subsidize petroleum products. But departing presidents tend to be generous: in the US they even donate life to death row convicts.

But in Uganda, Comrade Museveni, who still has four years on his contract, is giving us tough love, not candy that causes tooth decay and teenage obesity. He said NO to injecting Uganda’s limited funds in a bad (petroleum) sector that is polluting and ruining the planet, and advised us to go electric.

Earlier in the same cost of living regard, Museveni advised Ugandans to switch from bread (imported wheat) to cassava (which grows casually in Uganda’s soil and can be preserved free of charge by sun drying, besides its having no fixed harvest time – just leave it in the ground as it grows bigger and bigger till you harvest only those tubers you need to eat that day).

At first many thought the president was joking, but soon enough started taking his advice seriously and now cassava is becoming trendy, as class-conscious and enterprising Ugandans innovate ways of preparing it. The easiest and probably healthiest way so far is simply boiling a few slices with a little salt and an onion – it gets ready in a few minutes like an egg – and your breakfast is sorted. If we don’t see bread from cassava in Kampala’s supermarkets soon, I’ll eat my hat, sorry my cassava.

So Ugandans may continue carrying money in wallets to buy food in baskets, not money in the baskets to bring food in wallets. But it takes discipline and creativity. When Museveni first took power in 1986, he attempted to tackle Uganda’s import needs by offering to exchange the country’s agricultural produce for industrial products.

It was working. We even got a fleet of Peugeot pick-up trucks from France in exchange for our coffee. Uganda was finally getting real value for value, but the owners of the dollar system of exchange were not amused. They killed the system and even sabotaged a barter deal with a country that is one of Uganda’s closest allies, and we were back to slavery to the dollar.

The solution — manufacturing key industrial goods, including equipment like vehicles — is ongoing beyond talk and Uganda-designed and built electric buses have been taking to the road since 2019, so the needs-driven creativity of 1986 is back through manufacturing, beyond trade.

As we continue to do our own thinking instead of leaving it to the “3 Bs” — from Bretton, through Brussels to Beijing — we should rethink the currency concept by looking at energy to take the place of money. Because energy is vital for powering human life, industry, transport and homes, Europeans are toning down on the names they were calling Vladmir Putin as winter approaches. No need to belabor that point.

Uganda can plan to use energy to (partially at first) to replace shillings, euros and dollars. Telephone credit and internet data are already an intangible value, measured in minutes and bytes, though still expressed in money. But Uganda doesn’t own these, they are from, and for, developed world companies. What we own is energy in different forms, the most measurable being electricity.

The “good” thing is that we have recklessly cut down the trees that provide firewood and charcoal, used by most of our people for cooking. In a decade, Ugandan peasants will cook with firewood imported or stolen from Congo. But we have huge electricity generating potential and are hardly using half of the installed capacity. So the domestic market can start switching from transacting using shillings and dollars to watts.

The best brains overseas are busy scratching their computers to make digital currencies replace the present-day money. Let us monetise energy, with tangible value unlike crypto things, by turning it into something like what phone time or internet data has become.

We have the computing capacity to figure out how. And the opportunity.

Strictly Personal

Paradox of foreign poll observers in Kenya who see evil back home by Jenerali Ulimwengu

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“When the hurly burly is done/ when the battle is lost and won.’’

This famous line in Shakespeareana was going through my mind as I watched and watched the poll results trickling in ever so slowly on Kenyan television screens, tracing the seesaw progress of the two leading presidential contenders this past week down to the photo finish.

The calm manner in which the collating of the results was done, despite all the cliffhanging and nail-biting, gave me hope throughout that this time around we were going to get to the end of this journey unscathed.

Of course, once bitten twice shy, and we always have reason to believe that what can go wrong will go wrong. Once, we have seen Kenyan election results thrown out by the law courts, and once, infamously, we saw Kenyans jumping onto each other’s throats, pushing their nation to the brink, literally.

Upward trajectory

I believe that what the Kenyans have shown us is that they becoming a learning people. Having gone to the precipice in 2007 and having experienced serious hiccups later, they have learnt their lessons, decided to cure their shortcomings and moved along on an upward trajectory. They have clearly refused to do the same thing the same way over and over again, expecting different results, the proverbial signs of insanity.

So, those who went to observe the elections were treated to a more serene scene than those I allude to above. They were looking at a people that is beginning to appreciate that elections need not be bloody battles, even though they be highly competitive, sometimes aggressive and bruising.

I thus commend the Kenyan people for showing us this face of their country, which tells me that it is possible to do politics in a civil manner.

Significantly, they have also shown us that time-hallowed stereotypes need not always be taken into consideration in the shifting political sands of Kenya: that a leader from Mount Kenya could embrace one from Nyanza and champion his electoral campaign was almost an impossibility only the other day.

Whatever else may have been lost in this election, that is a plus, a huge one. Now, we can expect the two communities to concentrate on what the Kenyans do best, and that is turn this ethnic détente into economic synergies allowing their young men and women to organise themselves together in the creation of wealth with the aim of heaving their communities out of the abyss of poverty and backwardness.

Let us face it, the only political messages that are worth looking at are those that aim at improving the lot of the people we claim to represent, to make their lives better, to seek to be inclusive in our programmes and to care for the least advantaged, seeking to achieve economic and social justice, the only basis for realistic peace.

I am a realist, and I of course never lose my focus on the fact that politicians will always lie, because that is the lot of them. Lying is to politicians what eating meat is to lions; they simply cannot help themselves.

What is required of them is that they do not destroy the habitat I which we all live.

Good one

As I pondered all that, I was naturally following on what the election observers from outside Kenya were doing and saying. I think that the practice of having election observers is a good one and which should be encouraged and enhanced.

Still, we could do it better by choosing who gets to be an observer. These should be people who have credentials showing they have practised observation in their own countries, and they should have shown that in observing elections in their countries they have proved their credibility and honesty.

For instance, if you want individuals to observe good footballing practices, you want to pick those who have practised football where they come from. It does not help matters if those who come to observe such activities have no idea of the offside rule or the difference between a corner kick and a penalty.

It is with this understanding that I would like to ask whether there was any justification for having Tanzanian observers in the observer teams for the Kenya elections, whatever regional organisation they were representing. When did they last have an election that even a casual onlooker could have recognised as credible, free and fair. When?

Nemo dat

There is a legal phrase in Latin: “Nemo dat quod non habet (you cannot give what you do not have).” It is usually used when deciding whether a proprietary right has been passed on to the current holder. But it can be used in situations where credibility is vouchsafed by someone whose own credibility is doubtful.

If in your own country you have not been able, or been willing, to observe and speak out against what is wrong, how can you now presume to observe and say anything at all in other countries?

Let me be fair: It was not Tanzania alone. I also saw a former Ethiopian president among the observers, and I was wondering about the same thing.

Nemo dat!

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Strictly Personal

Euro-Dollar Fluctuations: Is the Moroccan Dirham a Victim of Imported Inflation? By Hachimi Alaoui

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The global economy is witnessing an unprecedented motion in the value of the euro, as its exchange rate has reached levels not seen since the early years of its existence as Europe’s common currency. After a prolonged depreciation in the euro’s value, the euro/dollar exchange rate has almost reached parity.

It happened faster than expected, and the movement of the exchange rate between these two currencies has been non linear. The euro’s fall below parity against the dollar, however, merely reflects a widening gap in the interest rates between the two shores of the Atlantic. While the Federal Reserve has implemented aggressive interest rate hikes to curb inflation, the European Central Bank continues to opt for a more cautious monetary policy approach.

As a result, a significant interest rate difference between the Euro-Zone and the US, which has sparked larger capital inflows to the US and massive purchase of the dollars, as the dollar has become more attractive to investors.

The latest reforms are not enough

In a global context, however, let’s not forget that the Moroccan dirham is pegged to an anchor basket of these two currencies that reflect the relative weight of our trading partners. In 2015, Bank Al-Maghrib (BAM), Morocco’s central bank, and the Moroccan Ministry of Economy and Finance updated“ the Dirham’s basket weighting to reflect the current structure of foreign trade of our country.”

Under the updated basket, the Moroccan currency’s basket weighting is “set at 60% for the Euro and 40% for the US dollar,” notes the website of the finance ministry. But this range limits the ability of Bank Al-Maghrib to maintain the dirham around a predetermined central value.

The range has only been widened twice, in January 2018 and then in March 2020. In January, 2018, after years of a (+-) 0.3% range around the reference price, the dirham exchange rate began to evolve to a wider band of (+-)2.5%. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 then prompted Moroccan monetary authorities to further widen the fluctuation range of the nominal effective exchange rate, thus increasing to (+-) 5% around a central value.

Despite this progressive process concerning the exchange rate’s flexibility, the fluctuations of the dirham bring out a basket effect that continues to dominate the liquidity effect of market drivers. The basket effect comes from the impact of the fluctuation of the euro/dollar exchange rate on the dirham, and the difference between this impact and the evolution of the reference price of the dirham is equal to the market effect.

While the dirham would appreciate against the dollar and depreciate relative to the euro when the euro/dollar exchange rate appreciates, it would depreciate against the dollar and appreciate against the euro, when the euro/dollar depreciates.

The Moroccan exchange rate regime thus allows the current appreciation of the dollar/euro to appreciate the dollar/dirham and depreciate the euro/dirham rates. Nevertheless, these fluctuating values of the dirham occur at the expense of Morocco’s foreign exchange reserves, which remain the primary buffer against external shocks.

Making the Dirham more resilient to external shocks

Given the dirham’s vulnerability to the relative values of the euro and dollar, switching Morocco’s monetary policy towards adopting a targeted inflation rate, announced by Bank Al-Maghrib, could lead to a stronger market effect. Such a monetary policy framework can be implemented with a floating, or at least, a more flexible, exchange rate.

However, this transition would amplify the exchange passthrough to inflation, defined as the degree to which Morocco’s domestic prices react to a fluctuating value of the dirham, and induce persistent supply shocks, namely cost-push shocks. Nevertheless, more market discipline would follow and the exchange rate, rather than international reserves, would serve as the main shock buffer.

The redesign of Morocco’s monetary policy framework becomes even more critical in the face of the increase of oil prices. Morocco has long benefited from a negative correlation between oil prices and the US Dollar. The resulting compensatory effect made it possible to mitigate, albeit partially, the increase in the energy bill paid in dollars.

But this compensatory effect has faded in recent months due to the  rise in the value of the dollar against the dirham, combined with a staggering increase in the cost of energy inputs. Taken together, these two outcomes have amplified the inflationary pressures that households are experiencing, negatively affecting the Moroccan economy.

Under such conditions, Bank Al-Maghrib will need to provide more support to the dirham at the detriment of foreign exchange reserves. However, current fixed-exchange rate behavior fails to support the Moroccan economy. By strengthening the foreign value of the Moroccan currency, the country maintains the same level of inefficient domestic absorption, which in turn leads to supporting harmful consumption of energy and the bad habit of using imported goods.

Moroccan households currently face a volatile exchange rate and energy shocks. And rather than consuming our foreign reserves to maintain the same rate of energy utilization, an awareness of our consumption habits is probably more suitable. The fact is that pegging the dirham requires selling central bank’s reserves whenever there is an exchange rate pressure that generates costs associated with the continued use of foreign reserves as an external shocks absorber.

On the whole, the support that Bank Al-Maghrib provides to the dirham helps maintain relatively high levels of an unfavorable and unproductive use of energy and raw materials. If these imported inputs are expensive and hinder economic growth, Moroccans need to be informed.

Greater flexibility of the dirham and the resulting depreciation of its exchange rate would reduce domestic energy consumption, whereas a fixed exchange rate simply fails to readjust our consumption habits.

 

 

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