Iraq’s first $1 billion stand-alone bond was oversubscribed at an almost 7% yield as security forces were poised to retake Mosul from ISIS control and the IMF released another $800 million under its $5 billion multi-year program. In February it issued for the same amount with a US government guarantee at 2%, and a decade ago a $2.7 billion restructuring operation was completed for the post-Saddam era. During July global oil prices also rose $10/barrel, but local investors stayed bearish on equities despite the average P/E ratio at 8 times as the Rabee Securities index slipped 10% in June. State banks are main listings and offer high dividends, with only one-fifth the population having accounts, and fees rather than lending driving income with assets concentrated in Treasury bills amid flush liquidity. The IMF’s review noted fragility and missed targets, with millions displaced by military campaigns and billions of dollars in infrastructure destroyed. The budget deficit was 15 percent of GDP last year, but it is to be eliminated through end-decade to stabilize public debt as the current account also returns to surplus over the period with passage of the defense and humanitarian emergencies. One third of the country, including 250,000 Syrian refugees current receive aid, but internal and external repatriation is unlikely to increase in the near-term even with liberation of Mosul and other cities pending credible rebuilding plans. Elections are due next year and the Finance Minister was replaced after losing parliament’s confidence with the Prime Minister assuming the post. Official debt doubled to near 70% of GDP since 2013, and bond yields spiked to 15 percent before the latest standby agreement was reached. The current account hole was over 8.5 percent of GDP in 2016 and covered chiefly by donor flows, as international reserves dipped to $45 billion or six months imports. The currency appreciated in line with the dollar peg, and credit to the economy was flat with banks’ undercapitalization and double-digit NPLs. Non-oil growth should pick up after ISIS’ defeat, while inflation remains low at 2 percent.
Fund conditions will preserve the dollar-linked exchange rate, as devaluation would aggravate inflation and fail to help exports, but simplify foreign currency allocation and trading procedures to shrink the official-parallel level disparity. The central bank law will be strengthened with prudential rules to reflect prevailing international standards with outside technical assistance. Along with long-delayed bank restructuring the private business climate is in need of overhaul especially on electricity access and anti-corruption. Program risks are high, the report concludes, with a $7 billion financing gap identified for 2018-19 even under positive direction. Gulf, Asian and Western donors have been approached for additional pledges but regional supporters like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are under pressure to get their own houses in order, as reflected in flat stock market performance while the main core and frontier indices are ahead 15-25 percent. Jordan and Lebanon are also down for the year, with large refugee populations, political infighting and security threats, as “frailty” remains the watchword in the IMF’s view almost fifteen years after the international community’s first Iraq attack rumblings.