The Real Exchange Rate and External Competitiveness in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia

By Zuzana Brixiova (Africa Development Bank), Balázs Égert  (OECD) and Thouraya Hadj Amor Essid (Monastir University)

Disclaimer: This policy brief is based on the Working Paper of the African Development Bank No. 187

Policy Brief:

A real exchange rate that is broadly aligned with its equilibrium value is an important part of a country’s macroeconomic and external competitiveness framework. Persistently misaligned real exchange rates can cause a misallocation of resources between tradable and non-tradable sectors and negatively impact labor market dynamics. Reduced external competitiveness due to over-valued exchange rate hampers exports, aggregate demand, growth and job creation. Besides the longer-term implications, real exchange rate misalignment can lead to inflationary pressures and even trigger speculative attacks. When setting their exchange rate policy, countries also need to balance their goals of reaching competitiveness and macroeconomic stability.

In Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia concerns about real exchange rate misalignments have prevailed for some time given the countries’ high unemployment, stagnating global export shares, and low the global financial crisis and after the 2011upheaval, with inclusive growth and job creation once again topping the countries’ economic policy agenda. By providing accurate signals to producers, the real exchange rate can help generate competitive jobs via exports. It can also help reduce income inequalities by raising the workers’ marginal revenue product. To be effective, the aligned real exchange rate needs to be complemented by other sound macroeconomic policies and enabling business environment.

As shown by their low and stagnating shares in global exports, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have been facing external competitiveness challenges. Low and constant (or marginally rising, as was the case of Egypt) export shares help explain why the aggregate demand growth in these countries has remained subdued and not generated enough ‘decent’ jobs in export sectors. The three North African economies are less diversified than some other emerging market economies at comparable levels of development. Europe accounts for a disproportionate share of their export destinations, reflecting geographical closeness and long-established business ties.

This paper aims to find out whether the real exchange rate misalignment contributed to the weak external competitiveness (e.g., limited export value added and diversification) in the three North African countries. To this goal, it estimates the real equilibrium exchange rate for the past three decades, using the stock-flow approach. This approach differentiates between (i) the medium-term undervaluation caused by the Balassa-Samuelson effect (productivity catch up) that is unlikely to cause abrupt adjustments and (ii) misalignment caused by other factors than productivity differentials. It is particularly suitable for emerging markets that can go through structural and productivity changes impacting the medium-term path of the real exchange rate.

The empirical analysis is based on annual data series for the past three decades, obtained from databases of the African Development Bank and IMF. The estimate results of the real exchange rate models, obtained using the DOLS and ARDL models. For each country, the baseline model linking the real exchange rate to productivity and net foreign assets was estimated first. Subsequently, additional control variables including the government spending ratio, openness, the investment ration and terms of trade were added one by one to the baseline model.

Our results indicate that in the long run, decreases in net foreign assets, equivalent to capital inflows, result in an appreciation of the real exchange rate. Regarding the impact of productivity, the coefficient estimates are generally positive in Egypt, indicating that increases in productivity lead to real exchange rate depreciation. In Morocco the impact of productivity on the real equilibrium exchange rate is significant, but negative, indicating that the increase in productivity has the traditional Balassa-Samuelson effect. In Tunisia productivity has an ambiguous impact on the real exchange rate. Further, a greater openness would lead to a depreciation of the real exchange rate in all three countries. Finally, improvements in terms of trade would lead to real exchange rate appreciation in Egypt and Morocco, most likely via inflation differentials.

Regarding the misalignment between the actual real exchange rate and the long run real equilibrium exchange rate, the paper found that: For Tunisia, the low misalignment in recent years can be explained by the abandonment of the real exchange rate targeting and gradual introduction of the exchange rate flexibility. The real exchange rate of Egypt was overvalued from the mid-1990s until mid-2000s and in recent years, following the rising inflation rate and current account and/or fiscal deficits. In Morocco, misalignment has been low in recent years. The county experienced a short overvaluation in mid- 80s entailed by the current account deficit, followed by the devaluation in the late 1980s. Morocco’s equilibrium exchange rate’s seems to have not been affected by the global economic crises, in part due to prudent monetary policy.

In summary, utilizing – for the first time for North Africa – the stock-flow approach to estimating the real equilibrium exchange rate, this paper estimated misalignments of real exchange rates in Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia during the past three decades. While Egypt experienced protracted misalignment in the past and recent years, real exchange rates in Morocco and Tunisia stayed closer to their equilibrium values. However, in all the export growth has been lagging some other emerging market economies. The paper suggests that non-price structural factors such as labor market flexibility, skills, and investment climate are a key for unlocking the export and productive potential of the three North African countries. Intra-regional trade – both with North Africa and the rest of the continent – together with greater orientation to fast growing emerging markets could also raise countries’ external competitiveness.





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