Rising inflation main hurdle to currency union

DUBAI — Soaring rates of inflation in the Gulf, projected to average at 11 per cent in 2008, and ease to around nine per cent in 2009, pose the main challenge to GCC currency union, economists said.

By Issac John (Deputy Business Editor)

Published: Thu 12 Jun 2008, 12:52 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:08 PM

In the wake of GCC Central Bankers breakthrough agreement on Monday setting up a regional central bank, analysts said the prevailing double-digit inflation rates in the UAE and Qatar will continue to be one of the main hurdles in meeting the convergence criterion on inflation, which is a critical aspect of successful currency union.

Marios Maratheftis, Regional Head of Research, Standard Chartered Bank, told Khaleej Times that the most important obstacle for the common currency was the absence of GCC-wide institution. “By 2010 we understand the central bank for the GCC will be in operation, may be the common currency will follow later but for us what is important is the establishment of an institution. I think the development is a breakthrough and very important development indeed.”

According to the official convergence criteria, an inflation rate of no more than two percentage points above the regional average is allowed. "On the basis of 2007 data, Qatar is 6.4 points above the regional average inflation rate and the UAE is 3.5 points above it. Based on our forecasts for 2008 inflation, the UAE is likely to move back to within two points (as the regional average shifts higher this year), but Qatar’s differential is likely to remain in excess of three points," said Samba, a leading Saudi bank.

To meet the target for inflation, although Qatar has proposed stripping out rents from the inflation measure, it has met a cool response from other GCC members.

Analysts said the currency union presents the GCC with an imperative to define a more appropriate level for their exchange rates to ensure that they establish a realistic starting point.

"A satisfactory initial alignment of exchange rates is an essential, if not sufficient, condition for the viability of a GCC common currency. However, a currency union need not involve a fixed peg to the dollar (nor any other currency) and the project therefore also presents an opportunity to introduce a more flexible regime. This would allow the proposed GCC central bank some control over interest rates, and enable it to manage domestic demand more effectively. The end result would likely be more stable and predictable price growth, laying the foundations for sustainable, investment-led economic growth over the long term," the banks economist said.

Since the other convergence criteria, including limiting budget deficits to no greater than three per cent of GDP and public debt burdens of less than 60 per cent of GDP, now lack relevance given the GCC’s booming economies and robust financial indicators, inflation criterion is the main stumbling block to GCC currency union, analysts point out.

Observing that the most pressing challenge facing GCC economies is inflation, economists said a key factor bearing on skyrocketing price stems from the fixed peg to the US dollar. Another factor stoking inflation is increased government spending which has resulted in rapid liquidity growth across the GCC.

"A third factor contributing to demand pressures is the rapid growth of bank credit to the private sector, reflecting the greatly expanding role of the private sector in the regional economic and investment boom. A combination of promising investment opportunities together with highly liquid financial institutions have propelled annualised rates of credit growth to 35 percent or more across the region," they said.

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