By Muhammed Umar-Hong
Changing the appearance of a country’s currency is widely practised worldwide by various methods and for different reasons. It could portray a nation’s rich cultural heritage, a change in regime to symbolise a ruler or celebrate national heroes with portraits of them attached to these currencies. However, the most cited reason has been to combat threats of counterfeiting. Threats which may lead to inaccurate figures of the total amount of money in circulation, for example.
The Naira is certainly not a stranger to the redesign concept, which has seen various denominations change over the last few decades. Chief among the changes had been the transition to more durable currency notes which began with the N5, N10, N20 and N50 denominations all upgraded to polymer substrates in 2007. While 2014 saw the birth of the N100 commemorative note marking the nation’s centenary celebration.
It should thus not be a contentious issue if the CBN decides, as it has, to make further modifications to the country’s currency. After all, it is within the apex bank’s constitutional powers as stated in the CBN Act, 2017 (Section 19, subsection 1b). This time, its primary aim will be to address our security challenges by reducing the hoarding of certain denominations whilst ensuring proper monitoring of monies in circulation.
But before the release of the new bank notes, however, interactions on social media had clearly shown that not many Nigerians understood the difference between currency redesign and currency redenomination (which involves removing/adding more zeros to the currency), and some were highly expectant of the policy to have some technical outcome. Opinions and suggestions are illogical or don’t seem to rest on sound economic principles. But I took the trouble to note a few, and to explain my views on them below. Feel free to make your contributions.
Q: Why wouldn’t the government set our highest currency denomination to N20 to end money laundering?
V: The reason for raising our highest denomination to N1000 is because our Naira has a fallen value. The change in exchange rates between two countries is usually determined by the constant demand for one currency by the other. If a country produces goods and services in commercially exportable quantities, the demand for those goods by foreign customers would automatically lead to foreign currencies being converted to local currency to enable these purchases, which ultimately drives the value of the local currency up. Foreign currencies would have to chase more Naira, thereby bolstering its value.
On the other hand, for products such as petroleum, where the purchases are made in US dollars, the additional dollars can be used by the apex bank to purchase the Naira, thus creating a sort of artificial demand for the Naira that usually raises its value.
I don’t think any money launderer (assuming I know how this is being done) would be deterred just because he now has to carry/stash away more currency in N20 denominations.
Q: Why wouldn’t the government choose an interval of four years to redesign its currency?
V: The international standard for countries to redevelop their currencies is between a 6 – 8 year interval. This is not, however, a strict rule, as some countries do it more frequently than others. In the US, for example, the practice is to focus more on widely used denominations (prone to more wear-and-tear) or are frequently targeted for currency fraud (counterfeiting) for a redesign. For instance, a currency like the two-dollar bill has a much longer lifespan due to its near-absence in daily transactions compared to a dollar bill.
Additionally, not every need for currency changes can be accurately foreseeable. And it may only sometimes be financially viable to make wholesale changes if it coincides with financial or economic shocks. Both of which our mono-economy is particularly susceptible to.
Q: Will the unaffected currency notes (i.e. N5, N10, N20, N50 and N100) remain in circulation after this redesign? Would their value fall?
V: The other currency notes that haven’t been affected by the current redesign will still maintain their legal tender status, fortunately, until the CBN says otherwise. They will also retain value as market forces dictate and are expected to remain in wide circulation. Elsewhere though, lower denomination currencies have been the most exchanged and most subjected to redesign, mainly due to their frequent use.
Q: Why not grant amnesty to hoarders of cash instead of embarking on the expensive redesign?
V: Well, I believe you can’t exert leverage over hoarders of cash if you were never going to carry out your threat (the redesign).
But Abdullahi Imam has another angle to it: The question of amnesty is straightforward. Amnesties are mostly for criminal activities. It’s not a crime to have cash or to store it. So the topic of amnesty is a non-starter. Except if an amnesty is for those that need to exchange their old notes before the agreed deadline.
Q: The government should introduce the use of coins if it hopes to increase its purchasing power.
V: Purchasing power is simply the value of a unit of currency in terms of the goods/services it can buy, which is effectively how strong/weak your currency is. The higher the purchasing (buying) power of a unit of your currency, the greater the number of goods/services it can purchase, and vice versa.
Does the N5 note come to mind? It’s okay to say the note has become worthless these days. I can’t remember when I walked into a shop for an item priced in the multiple of 5. Most of our goods have now been (deliberately, I think) rounded up to the power of 10.
Although they play little or no role in our daily transactions, coins are currently the oldest form of money available to us. They used to have intrinsic value based on the valuable metals (gold, silver) they were made with until it became less expensive to produce using materials like Copper. In more notable climes, they have been used for commemorative purposes.
Just recently, Britain had to redesign its fifty pence (50p) coin to feature the portrait of its new king, Charles III, following the death of Elizabeth II. And in many other countries, coin usage has practically been resigned to handling smaller transactions, often serving as ‘change’ from paper currency payments. This is more evident in countries assigning lower denominations to coins, effectively making the highest value of the coin in circulation worth less than the lowest-value note.
Even in our case, Prof. Soludo, then CBN governor, in his 2007 paper titled ‘Strategic Agenda for the Naira’ had proposed the reintroduction of coins in the following denominations: 1 kobo, 2 kobos, 5 kobos, 10 and 20 kobos in his bid to make the Naira a currency of reference in Africa.
Paper currency has become the preferred medium of exchange for higher denominations worldwide due to their convenient nature and the fiat status conferred on them by governments. To the best of my knowledge, no relationship EXISTS between using coins and increasing the purchasing power of a nation’s currency. But that’s not to say coins are wholly valueless and lack significance in the overall dealings of a country because, who knows, “the most important decisions you will ever make in your life may be decided with the toss of a coin.”
Muhammed Umar-Hong wrote via email@example.com.