Dollars Vanish in Ghana

Trader's bonus wiped out as banks hoard cash on speculation that the U.S. will scale back bond buying in the near future.

Sadiq Abubakar is seeing his hopes of an annual bonus fade as Ghana’s central bank hoards dollars, cutting foreign-exchange trading to the least in almost three years and sending the cedi to an all-time low.

The 32-year-old dealer at International Commercial Bank Ltd. in the capital, Accra, says he has met just 40 percent of his revenue target this year and hasn’t traded U.S. currency on the interbank market since June 1. Purchases of foreign exchange (FX) among lenders fell an annual 17 percent in the second quarter to $1.86 billion, the lowest since the third quarter of 2010, according to Bank of Ghana data compiled by Bloomberg.

“I don’t see the interbank market coming back until the end of the first quarter next year,” Abubakar said in a telephone interview on Oct. 23. “There’s going to be no bonus for me this year.”

The drought in trading underscores the havoc being wrought on developing nations by speculation the U.S. plans to scale back its monetary stimulus program as soon as the first quarter. Ghana central bank Governor Kofi Wampah is following countries from India to Mexico in bolstering reserves to brace for the capital outflows that may follow the Federal Reserve’s pullback.

As Wampah stockpiled dollars, the cedi plunged 16 percent this year against the U.S. currency. The selloff is the continent’s fourth worst, trailing only declines in Malawi’s kwacha, the rand, and Namibian dollar, which is pegged to the South African currency. The cedi, which gets its name from the Akan word for the cowrie shells used as currency as recently as the 19th century, weakened 2 percent to 2.2650 per dollar by 9:21 a.m. in New York after touching 2.2750, a record low.

For traders, the central bank’s move to boost reserves couldn’t have come at a worse time as foreign investment falls, remittances from overseas wane, and commodities slump. Ghana’s $41 billion economy gets 72 percent of export revenue from cocoa, gold, and oil.

The average daily foreign-currency turnover in Ghana’s interbank market has dropped to about $7 million this year from $20 million a year earlier, according to Standard Bank Group Ltd., Africa’s largest lender. In Nigeria, trading is about $400 million. In Mauritius, where the economy is a quarter of the size of Ghana’s, turnover is $30 million.

To bolster reserves, the central bank retained dollars from the sale of $1 billion in Eurobonds in July and a $1.2 billion syndicated loan the Ghana Cocoa Board received in September. Traders had been anticipating those dollars would trickle into the market, Abubakar said.

“We were hoping that the inflows of the Eurobond money and Cocobod’s loan would change the situation, but it hasn’t,” he said.

Keeping the dollars helped boost Ghana’s reserves 38 percent in August from a year earlier, to $5.8 billion, according to the central bank. Reserves in 12 of the biggest developing countries have risen $38 billion since the start of September to $2.93 trillion, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Developing nations have quadrupled reserves from $722 billion in 2002.

“The purpose of keeping foreign reserves is to step into the market to supply when there is a shortage,” Collins Appiah, head of asset management at Accra-based NDK Financial Services Ltd., which manages the equivalent of $30 million, said by phone on Nov. 1. “It’s not the best strategy by the central bank to be building reserves when there’s a high demand for dollars.”


Currency trading has slowed because earnings from gold and other exports have declined, according to First Deputy Governor Millison Narh. Revenue from bullion fell 13 percent in the year through August, the Bank of Ghana said Sept. 18.

“We don’t want to sell everything to the market,” Narh said in an Oct. 23 interview in Accra. “Investors also look at our reserves” to gauge the economy’s strength, he said.

Ghana, which is Africa’s second-biggest gold miner, needs to have enough reserves to pay for five months of imports to “comfortably defend the economy” against external shocks, Vice President Kwesi Amissah-Arthur said Oct. 29 at a conference in Accra. Reserves equaled 3.2 months of imports in August, the central bank said.

Falling exports are hampering efforts by President John Dramani Mahama’s administration to reduce the country’s trade and budget deficits. The current-account shortfall, the broadest measure of trade in goods and services, will widen to 12.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013 from 12.2 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The fiscal gap will narrow to 10 percent of GDP from 12.1 percent, Finance Minister Seth Terkper said in an Oct. 19 phone interview.

“The country is running large external deficits, which amplify structural shortages of dollars,” Samir Gadio, an emerging-markets strategist with Standard Bank’s London-based unit, said in e-mailed comments on Nov. 5. “Even if the Bank of Ghana were to sell more dollars, it’s questionable whether they would be able to fill demand and stabilize the exchange rate on a sustainable basis as long as more fundamental reforms are not implemented.”

A challenge to Mahama’s December election victory has damped investment in Ghana this year. His win was upheld by the Supreme Court in August, which set aside opposition allegations that vote counting was marred by irregularities. The controversy contributed to a 78 percent decline in foreign direct investment in the first half of the year, according to the state-owned Ghana Investment Promotion Centre. Remittances from Ghanaians living abroad fell by an annual 12 percent in July, according to the central bank.


Oil-Fueled Growth

Ghana’s economy is still on course to grow 7.9 percent in 2013, beating the sub-Saharan African average for a sixth straight year, as oil production increases, according to the IMF. Earnings from crude rose 47 percent this year through August, central bank data showed.

Abubakar is feeling none of that growth in his business.

He said he keeps busy at International Commercial Bank by exchanging currencies with lenders outside Ghana and supporting colleagues with money-market transactions. When the central bank does release dollars, they’re earmarked for ICB’s clients, who need the cash to pay for imports, he said.

While Abubakar wouldn’t discuss details of his salary, the average compensation cost per employee at FBN Holdings Plc, which acquired ICB in September, was $34,138 in 2012, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and the Lagos-based company’s annual report. That compares with a global average of $319,755 for the first nine months of 2013 at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and $165,774 at JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Without a bonus, Abubakar, who started at ICB as an intern in 2008, said he may need to borrow money to take the next step in his career.

“That’s the money I use to pay for my accounting exams and course material,” he said. “I may have to take a loan to pay for my exams next year.”

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