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A Saudi woman shows Saudi riyal banknotes at a money exchange shop, in Riyadh. A currency devaluation would be too costly for Saudi Arabia and the better option is to adapt to the oil shock through fiscal changes, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: A currency devaluation would be too costly for Saudi Arabia and the better option is to adapt to the oil shock through fiscal changes, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

“Unlike a devaluation, fiscal policy can shift the burden of adjustment on those more capable of bearing it through, for example, taxes on luxury goods,” Farouk Soussa, a Goldman Sachs economist, said in a report. “This is not to say there would be no economic or sociopolitical costs, but we believe these would be lower than in the case of a devaluation.”

Saudi Arabia tethers its currency to the dollar and tends to move in lockstep with the US Federal Reserve. While Goldman argues that the policy “has been of significant benefit to the Saudi economy over the years,” the arrangement comes under strain during oil downturns, since declines in foreign-exchange reserves erode confidence in the peg.

Strain on peg

Pressure has again intensified this year with the collapse in crude prices and a drawdown of reserves. Still, 12-month dollar-forwards for the Saudi riyal are well short of the all-time high reached in 2016 after the previous crash in commodity markets.

“An FX devaluation would have to be very large in order to generate an income effect sufficient to reduce external imbalances,” Soussa said.

Alternatively, to cope with oil at $30 per barrel, Goldman estimates that Saudi Arabia would need a fiscal adjustment of close to 15% of gross domestic product.

Scaling back current spending to 2016 levels alone would achieve around half of such an adjustment, it said. A doubling of non-oil revenue from their “current low base” of around 10% of GDP could contribute the rest, according to Soussa.

“The magnitude of devaluation of the riyal would have to be very large in order to be of material benefit to external and fiscal imbalances in a $30 oil price scenario,” Soussa said. “The most obvious alternative is an adjustment in fiscal policy.”