The Tehran stock exchange was up 40% in local currency terms in September, although its annual decline was the same magnitude in dollar terms with the rial’s 75% depreciation, as investors rushed into commodity-linked companies able to raise prices ahead of the US’ final round of resumed energy and banking sanctions. The State and Treasury Departments vowed “maximum pressure” to curb Iranian Revolutionary Guard regional adventurism, and trigger negotiations on a new anti-nuclear and terrorism pact to replace the unilaterally shelved 2015 JCPOA joint agreement. They allowed European and Asian signatories still honoring it to provisionally continue oil imports, with the eventual goal of full cutoff. In a “single biggest action” 50 Iranian financial institutions and their domestic and foreign subsidiaries were designated off-limits, including the central bank and well-known state-controlled commercial lenders Melli, Sepah, Saderat and Tejarat.
The Brussels-based SWIFT cross-border payments network in turn disconnected the group without naming the specific list, as European backers of a “special purpose vehicle” led by France and Germany scramble to finalize a euro-denominated channel to maintain credit and trade links from the original deal. President Hassan Rouhani hailed this potential opening and continued oil shipments at least in the 1 million barrels/day range, as his government with a new technocrat Economy Minister reportedly organized a dedicated sanctions-busting unit. Rial devaluation leveled off before President Trump’s November order, and stock exchange price earnings ratios hit double digits as retail investors tried to preserve savings and access hefty dividend yields. Outside the blacklisted firms across an industry swathe including construction, insurance, mining and shipping they may still find decent prospects, as the country again girds for self-defined external economic onslaught as a regular Islamic Revolution feature.
This fiscal year first quarter from March to June registered over 1.5% gross domestic product growth, according to official statistics, but the International Monetary Fund now predicts contraction at the same level and an even greater 4% drop next year. Inflation is back in double digits with the rial crash and agriculture bad weather, and is projected to leap from 15% currently to 30% in the IMF’s view, with benchmark Islamic Treasury bill yields already near 20%. The government has set aside $4 billion from the sovereign wealth fund and granted foreign exchange preferences to pay for basic food and medicine, which the US pledges also to exempt from trade prohibition on humanitarian grounds. Reprising a program from previous sanctions and war episodes, citizens will receive baskets of staples that could help tip the budget into serious deficit. Public debt will reach 40% of GDP, as the current account surplus shrinks with slashed oil exports. The President and his team claim ample international reserves to withstand the crisis, estimated at around $100 billion, and previously shifted to euro holdings, but the exact figure is unknown and access and liquidity could be constrained under the repeated US clampdown.
The bilateral confrontation may further delay compliance with the multilateral Financial Action Task Force’s anti-money laundering and terror funding standards, a gap which keeps big Asian and European banks away regardless of sanctions status. Iran has been on the Paris-based body’s “grey list” pending passage of enabling laws, and the deadline was recently extended again to February 2019. In October, lawmakers over hardliner objections approved drafts by a slight margin, which the clerical Guardian Council headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei then rejected as a Western-imposed regulatory and foreign policy threat. Rumors abounded that agreement could compromise incipient crypto-currency arrangements with Russian and Turkish counterparts to circumvent all forms of monitoring, as private foreign exchange traders facing arrest also dabble in that alternative. However the odds are brighter for other bank reforms, such as a corporate governance bill to boost supervisory disclosure and reporting. After appointing Economy Minister Farhad Dejpasand when his predecessor lost parliamentary confidence, President Rouhani reiterated that financial sector modernization, including deep and diverse capital markets, was a priority. The stock exchange has an over-the-counter market to aid small and midsize companies which will suffer badly in recession, and he pressed also for more large state enterprise divestitures already at $150 million this fiscal year. These moves may be incremental, but can serve as a partial sanctions antidote while shifting the domestic narrative to overdue structural fixes that seal investor interest.