Iran’s Capital Markets Deal Bridge (Financial Times)
As the US prepares in August to resume Iran’s commercial and financial isolation after President Trump’s decision to exit the JCPOA six-country nuclear freeze for sanctions relief agreement, Tehran has convened a so-called “economic war” council banning imports and free-market currency trading as the rial‘s collapse reached more than double the official 45,000/dollar rate. European and Asian signatories will be under pressure from Treasury Department exclusion from banking system access to sever energy, trade and monetary ties as a reported fifty multinational firms have already renounced future participation. The Brussels-based cross-border SWIFT payments network is also in the cross-hairs to end Iranian bank membership reopening correspondent relationships with official and private lenders, as local anti-money laundering guidelines were gradually adopted to meet global standards. Washington has already singled out Iran’s central bank, whose head was recently sacked, for supporting military and terrorist action throughout the Middle East, with the leading state-owned banks acting as conduits. The international organization may have little choice to either prohibit or strictly police cash transfers also used for normal export-import business.
However the banking sector, with a double-digit bad loan ratio from ailing government and real estate company borrowers, has struggled since JCPOA to provide routine funding. President Rouhani promised reforms in his second term that have been regularly blocked by conservative lawmakers, including stricter regulation toward Basel III norms, mergers and consolidations, and central agency nonperforming asset disposal. Capital market diversification was another strand but remains a missing link, with foreign investors only accounting for a sliver of stock exchange activity. The free float has been around 20% with badly-managed institutional investors, including religious foundations and elements of the notorious Revolutionary Guard controlling large blocks. The past two years, new domestic retail and wholesale players entered, alongside frontier market funds out of London and elsewhere, in an effort to improve liquidity and governance, and participants could point to incremental progress. Despite the banking and exchange rate dysfunction, the equity and nascent Islamic-style bond markets have rallied, with Tehran’s main index at a record. They are last resorts for savings and economic modernization, and continued international advice can encourage such internal change.
A full world boycott was last in place at the end of the populist free-spending Ahmadi-Nejad presidency, which invited deep recession and runaway inflation. The official and IMF GDP growth forecasts for the fiscal year beginning in March are still in the 4% range, but with currency depreciation and goods shortages the official inflation is back in double digits. Ministry technocrats pledge to maintain budget and monetary discipline, and the central bank bowed to market demands by launching a pilot foreign exchange platform for small and mid-sized enterprises. In external accounts, oil exports will shrink from the 2 million barrels/day before the renewed clampdown, which sparked an offsetting temporary price surge. China and India indicated they will continue imports under credit lines established in their own currencies. Turkey will ignore President Trump’s policy altogether as it continues financial market cooperation established through the Federation of Eurasian Stock Exchanges, originally backed in the early 2000s by the US Agency for International Development to promote common trading and regulatory infrastructure. Along with Russia which recently launched its own ratings agency, Turkish banks and investment firms have lined up to help Iran with an inaugural sovereign bond issue. According to the IMF, Iran’s estimated reserves are $125 billion, but it may need refinancing to clear previous foreign contractor arrears. Western raters have been reluctant to engage under the remaining US secondary sanctions since 2016, and in view of questionable account disclosure and corruption management inviting a low speculative grade.
The country is in the bottom tier of Transparency International Rankings even as the Rouhani administration and average citizens have tried to expose wrongdoing through official pronouncements and messaging apps. The government recently published a list of luxury importers benefiting from the preferential exchange rate, and previously cited unregulated financial firms operating pyramid schemes. The popular encrypted Telegram was blocked for security reasons following Washington’s deal pullout and street unrest, but Iran’s experienced software developers, often touted as public and private equity plays, are devising alternatives. A residual capital market corps of experts from the US, Europe and Asia could help advance corporate governance and financial system diversification principles, and the six parties to the original anti-nuclear pact can agree on a common waiver for such technical exchange as sanctions revive. The effort could work to cultivate a new banking and securities professional class, and pave the way for frontier market entry and recognition when foreign investment is again viable with outside and internal support.