How can something intangible (credit) matter more than a real resource (oil)?
I just finished a book that changed, or at least makes more dynamic, the way I view African development, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Sometimes we get so ensnared in the details of social analysis that we forget to take a step back and look at the larger picture. Harari’s historical account helps us to do just that. His research deepens our understanding of the complexities of the resource course in oil-rich nations without strong democratic institutions.
He argues that one of the key turning points in human history was when we stopped viewing world resources and money as finite, and instead recognized that trust in imaginary future goods could create infinite economic expansion. These imaginary future goods were represented with a new kind of money: CREDIT.
Although we hear of the dark side of credit often—consumer credit card debt, credit on a loan to buy a home that the consumer could never pay off—credit is actually miraculous. As Harari phrases it, “credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.” In it, there is implicit hope that future resources will be more bountiful than current ones. That hope in the hypothetical is just so….human. And it has allowed the world’s per capita production to grow at a staggering rate over the last several centuries.
Although he doesn’t mention Nigeria specifically, a section of the book lucidly argues that a country’s credit rating, or the shared belief that a country will pay back its debts, matters more to its economic development than any other factor—including natural resource endowments.
Here is a grossly over simplified explanation using a feedback loop of why a nation’s healthy credit matters so much:
A) People have faith in the future economy —> B) credit is given out —> C) credit allows us to grow current businesses —> D) this growth is invested in new businesses —> E) businesses create goods that can be sold to pay back loans to creditors —> F) these pay backs fortify faith in the future economy.
And we are now back at the beginning of this cycle.
For those familiar with Nigeria’s economic history, any moment in this cycle can be, and has been, interrupted because of its unhealthy oil economy. In 2004, Nigeria required international debt relief after sovereign defaults on what it owed to the IMF. This was due to “heavy borrowing, rising interest rates, and inefficient trade” (see D). When the country suspended the national fuel subsidy in January 2012, no one wanted to expand their businesses that required gasoline, which is all of them since electricity is unreliable (see D). As I have mentioned in another post, oil can create a dangerous mono-economy in developing countries because it replaces the drive to produce anything aside from the oil itself (see E). Because so much of Nigeria’s economy is based on oil, its unstable pricing erodes the “faith in the future economy” that is the basis of credit extensions at all (see A).
Here is the excerpt of Sapiens that struck me as so pertinent to Nigeria:
A country’s credit rating is far more important to its economic well-being than are its natural resources. Credit ratings indicate the probability that a country will pay its debts. In addition to purely economic data, they take into account political, social and even cultural factors. An oil-rich country cursed with a despotic government, endemic warfare and a corrupt judicial system will usually receive a low credit rating. As a result, it is likely remain relatively poor since it will not be able to raise the necessary capital to make the most of its oil bounty.
Based on the description below, would you trust Nigeria to pay back money you gave it as a loan? Or as a business owner, would you trust its economy to grow, and give you returns on a new business you started with money you got from a creditor? Not many people would.
What is a country’s credit rating anyway?
In general, a credit rating is used by sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, and other investors to gauge the credit worthiness of a country—thus having a big impact on the country’s borrowing costs.
Standard & Poor’s credit rating for Nigeria stands at B with stable outlook. Moody’s credit rating for Nigeria was last set at B1 with stable outlook. Fitch’s credit rating for Nigeria was last reported at B+ with negative outlook. Overall, there are 11 ratings of stable, 9 rating of negative, and just rating of positive for Nigeria
As an aside, anyone who witnessed the 2008 American economic meltdown based on home loans can appreciate that these credit ratings are hypothetical. All of those agencies above, those “experts,” failed to change their credit ratings, would could have helped alleviate the devastating U.S. housing crisis that negatively impacted every country in the world.
So, if Nigerian policy makers are to take Harari’s purely academic arguments to heart, they’ll stop writing checks they can’t cash and pay back creditors.