Iran’s Certified Share Momentum Doubts

The Tehran Stock Exchange rebounded slightly for a 3% gain through July as the Trump administration, after putting Iran “on notice” for possible cheating, certified short-term compliance with the six-nation anti-nuclear agreement at the same time new congressional sanctions were passed to punish companies and individuals involved in its ballistic missile program and Syrian Assad regime support. Earlier the Treasury Department had ordered asset freezes against leaders and organizations accused of “malign influence” in the region. Washington’s actions came against the background of hardliner backlash by the Revolutionary Guard ( IRGC) and religious conservatives against President Hassan Rouhani’s easy re-election win. His brother was arrested on corruption allegations which he vehemently denied, after the President blasted the IRGC’s economic and political dominance as “government with a gun.” Its leadership in turn savaged a breakthrough $5 billion gas deal with France’s Total and China’s CNPC as a “conspiracy” against domestic competitors. The Guard also viewed another waiver in June of Financial Action Task Force anti-money laundering measures as infringing on foreign policy and security as officials pass laws and rules to ensure bank adherence. The country remains on the blacklist but smaller European and Asian lenders have resumed correspondent relationships as they try to puzzle out growth and policy trends into Rouhani’s next reform act, thus far offering confused signals.

GDP growth was a torrid 11% for the fiscal year ended in March with oil export reopening and the non-oil sector up half that pace. according to official statistics. The IMF had estimated real growth rebound over 6%, and to further promote non-commodity sales the government  earmarked a $500 million credit line and signed agreements with Korea’s and Turkey’s state trade banks. EU exports were five times higher than last year from January-April at EUR 3.5 billion, concentrated in iron and steel products with Germany as the leading buyer. China remains the main energy importer and Iran is an infrastructure project target and crossroads under Beijing’s Silk-Road straddling Belt and Road scheme. Chinese state companies are active in mining and transport, and its cars and goods flood Tehran and other cities. The Export-Import Bank extended a $1.5 billion railway loan for fast service between the capital and Mashad, and national network electrification is set by 2025. The country has forged new bilateral commercial pacts with France, India, Australia, Pakistan and South Africa and a port deal with Afghanistan to diversify and deepen traditional ties.

Next fiscal year growth projections are in the 4-5% range, but the expansion will still be unable to overcome lengthy recession from the UN sanctions period and crack double-digit unemployment. Inflation fell below 10% but crept up again to that level in June, on money printing to aid ailing banks, higher energy cost with subsidy reduction and real estate price recovery after years of doldrums. Modest exchange rate depreciation is another factor, and the government continues to delay unification between the controlled and parallel rates for fear of further inflationary fallout. The central bank benchmark interest or return rate under the Islamic system is steep at 15%, reflecting tight monetary policy but also choking industrial investment, which has prompted a business community outcry.

However cuts could trigger another inflation spike when the 40% memory of the early Rouhani Administration is not too distant, and will not unclog the lending spigots as banks grapple with a 12% understated nonperforming ratio. Central bank head Valiollah Seif warned executives before the election that a banking crisis could stymie economic integration and modernization progress since sanctions relief. The March bad loan total was almost $35 billion and will swell as international accounting standards enter into force as of July. The government is debating cleanup alternatives, and may first opt for consolidating leading state-controlled banks as in previous troubles. The stock exchange should see additional offerings with this strategy, such as with the recent $25 million flotation of a Bank Mellat subsidiary. Both local and foreign investors tend to shun this lagging sector, despite bargain valuations against the average six times price-earnings ratio. New London-based funds emphasize consumer goods and e-commerce listings with the well-educated young 50 million population, but a share stumble may be unavoidable without certified management and policy changes in second Rouhani term financial system foundations.

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