Risk of long-term pain over short-term gain for GCC in dollar peg moves

Tim Fox and Khatija Haque

Recently there has been renewed pressure on GCC FX pegs, with the ongoing weakness of oil prices and the strength of the US dollar giving rise to speculation in the forwards market that Saudi Arabia in particular may adjust its long-standing currency peg against the US dollar. 

There are two main arguments in favour of such a move. The first relates to trade, with the non-oil sectors of the GCC economies (such as tourism and manufacturing) become less competitive as the real effective exchange rate appreciates oowing to the dollar peg. Current accounts have moved from surpluses into deficits in 2015, and a devaluation would help to shore up competitiveness and promote the growth of non-oil exports.

The second argument relates to government revenues, which are becoming increasingly strained on account of the weakness of oil prices. As oil revenues account for about 80 per cent of total budget revenues for the GCC (on a GDP- weighted average), so a depreciation against the US dollar would in theory boost the local currency budget revenues, reducing the projected budget deficits. Estimates for Saudi Arabia’s budget this year have been rising, from about 15 per cent during the middle of the year to closer to 20 per cent today, so it is easy to see why this solution might be tempting. This fiscal problem is compounded by soaring government expenditures, with the cost of fighting in regional conflicts taking another toll on the Saudi government’s fiscal balance. Accordingly any step that would take the pressure off the fiscal accounts might in theory also be a welcome one.

There are a number of problems with these arguments however. The first is that with the exception of the UAE, the non-oil economy still only accounts for a relatively small part of GCC economies, in terms of exports and government revenues. The benefit of dropping or changing pegs that have stood the test of time – lasting for 30 years in Saudi Arabia’s case – and which have largely proved successful in terms of anchoring monetary policy and growth, and maintaining relatively stable capital flows, would seem to be quite small relative to the risks that could arise out of making such a shift.

As many countries know to their cost, one-off devaluations often give rise to further adjustments sooner or later, with governments often ending up fending off speculative attacks. More often than not the benefits are muted, giving rise to higher inflation and weaker domestic demand.     

On the budget issue, the arguments in favour of a devaluation are not compelling either. The point to remember is that despite the falling FX reserves, Saudi Arabia still has substantial fiscal buffers in the form of accumulated reserves and relatively low debt that would allow it to easily finance budget deficits for a considerable period, without making any changes to its long-standing monetary policy regimes.

Based on a conservative oil price forecast of $50 per barrel, we estimate that Saudi Arabia could finance a budget deficit of approximately $150 billion per year entirely out of accumulated reserves until 2019. If the kingdom raised debt to finance part of the deficit, as it has this year, then it could maintain spending at current levels beyond the end of this decade before depleting its savings entirely. While this strategy is not recommended, the analysis illustrates just how substantial a cushion Saudi Arabia has to withstand the current fiscal strain. 

There is also room for gradual fiscal reform to reduce pressure on budgets in the medium term, including various tax measures that have long been discussed, and reductions to generous subsidy regimes. Recent comments by the deputy crown prince suggest that all of these options are currently being considered.

From these points of view the medium-term costs of an exchange rate adjustment in the larger GCC economies, such as Saudi Arabia, would outweigh any short-term boost to government budget revenues in local currency terms.

The GCC pegs have proved to be successful nominal anchors. Even if they are adjusted rather than abandoned, this would add uncertainty about future adjustments and ultimately make the pegs more vulnerable to speculative attacks. Devaluation of the exchange rate would also push up inflation across the region, eroding any short-term boost to export competitiveness. 

Tim Fox is chief economist and head of research at Emirates NBD, while Khatija Haque is head of Mena research at the bank.


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