After a 7% MSCI gain in 2016 to match rival Morocco, Tunisian shares were spooked early in January as nationwide protests again erupted on the seventh anniversary of the previous Ben Ali regime’s ouster to coincide with popular anger against staple price hikes to curb the budget deficit under the IMF program, where the second review to release $1 billion was delayed over lackluster results. Security forces arrested hundreds of participants including opposition party activists, as the prime minister acknowledged grievances with insistence that low-income subsidies would be preserved. The Fund compiled a defense of its policies under the $3 billion 4-year arrangement, which succeeded the original Arab Spring one, in the form of a question and answer list admitting “short-term hurt” with fiscal measures against the “unsustainable” wage bill in particular, among the world’s highest, which accounts for half of spending. They also increase VAT on luxury items but keep basic food product protection, with recommendations to place pension and health services on sounder financial footing. Structural reforms such as state bank and enterprise restructuring have progressed at the same time to enable likely first quarter Board approval of the next installment, the text suggests. Following the pattern in North African neighbors Egypt and Morocco, which recently widened its fluctuation band, the authorities will consider greater exchange rate flexibility and dinar deprecation to aid competiveness, especially with external debt at 80% of GDP with reserves down to three months imports. The official salary adjustment emphasizes voluntary exit and early retirement rather than layoffs, and social spending like cash transfers for medicine and education are maintained while the fuel price hike targets wealthier households, according to the analysis. Anti-corruption and business climate improvement steps are in the mix, with new investment and banking laws despite a controversial amnesty for company and individual repatriation of questionable wealth accumulated under the old government. Financial inclusion is a supplementary focus to embrace micro and small firm credit, digital payment and central scoring and information bureaus. The IMF points out that it charges 3%, half the yield on Tunisia’s 2017 Eurobond, and that 30% youth unemployment is a paramount priority that can best be tackled through the program’s creation of private sector productive jobs.
The month before the EU was under fire for keeping the country on a tax haven blacklist as French President Macron prepared for an end-February trip since special rules remained for exports and financial services. It was named along with fifteen other “non-cooperative” jurisdictions, and the Tunisian President condemned the action as blocking transition to a “21st century state.” The UAE, where shares dropped 1% on the MSCI index last year as one of the few losers, was also on the roster for missing a deadline for tax information sharing. Dana Gas was an exception to the exchange damage, with a double-digit surge on apparent victories in contractual disputes. It won a $2 billion arbitration claim against Iraq’s Kurdistan region for non-payment, and local courts may uphold its failure to honor a $700 million sukuk which lawyers argue was sharia-non-compliant despite an English tribunal ruling for creditors like Black Rock and Goldman Sachs. Appeals may drag on for years placing deals and the industry at mutual risk pending definitive divinity scholar direction, according to experts.