The Middle East’s Integrated Introspection
Unlike most other emerging stock markets enjoying a bounce this year, as reflected in Bank of America’s latest asset allocation survey where they were a record overweight, Middle East components Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia have limped through February under international development agency criticism and investor ambivalence. An International Monetary Fund report underscored the lack of trade and financial integration among Maghreb countries Algeria, Libya and Mauritania alongside Morocco-Tunisia despite union proclamation three decades ago. Only the last two are not exclusively focused on commodity exports and are out of conflict and in democratic transition, with group average gross domestic product growth only 2.5% on 25% youth unemployment.
A separate World Bank analysis examines the economic and social dynamics of possible Syrian refugee return from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which together host the greatest population of the 5.5 million registered outside the country. It dissects the so-called “mobility calculus’ to weigh factors beyond hostility end, such as job, land, and infrastructure access in deciding on repatriation. The study finds these considerations remain overwhelming deterrents along with basic security, and explain why only 100,000 have gone back from neighbors. Damascus’ $400 billion reconstruction price tag, with scant expected Western donor support, is another argument for extended displacement both externally and internally, with equal numbers at large.
In 1989 the five Maghreb members established a free trade area again agreed by representatives in 2010, but it was never ratified. In contrast Morocco and Tunisia inked pacts with Europe, Turkey and the US and they also joined the World Trade Organization and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Over one-tenth of imports were Chinese in 2016, although trade openness declined overall with limited progress on product quality and export diversification. Intra-Maghreb commerce is less than 5% of the total, and mostly gas and oil, iron and steel, and clothing. Bilateral direct investment statistics are sparse but flows are “insignificant,” the IMF comments. The main example is Moroccan banks’ cross-border expansion, in the North as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. Number one Attijariiwafa Bank is in Tunisia and Mauritania and a dozen other countries, as the region continues to struggle with weak state-owned lenders. Financial technology has spread, with digital and mobile money regulations now in place. A new Maghreb Bank for Investment and Foreign Trade was created in 2017 with $500 million in capital to promote institutional and payments network integration, but the founders warned the process will be slow amid a spike in global financial volatility.
Tariff, non-tariff and geopolitical barriers persist, with the average 15% duty a departure from the 5% -10% in advanced and developing economies. Cross-border trading rankings in the World Bank’s Doing Business publication are low, reflecting poor logistics performance. Capital movements are typically restricted, with only Morocco’s account relatively liberal, although it still controls currency conversion for profit repatriation. Its more flexible pegged regime against a dollar-euro basket is far from a competitive float, a goal envisioned over a 15-year time horizon. Further Maghreb steps to closer ties as originally promised could forge a single block of 100 million consumers with combined $350 billion GDP, and facilitate global value chain inclusion through positioning as a hub between Europe and Sub-Sahara Africa, the Fund suggests. Trade is complementary and capital markets would benefit from internal reforms and cross-listing arrangements with existing regional zones in West Africa and elsewhere. Morocco embarked on this path with an application to join the English-speaking ECOWAS, and invited banks and brokers to locate in the nascent Casablanca Financial Center for broad geographic reach.
In the eighth year of the Syrian refugee crisis Jordan remains under intense fiscal and social pressure, as the latest IMF program and the World Bank’s mobility reviews point out. Growth was just 2% last year on 4% inflation, as the budget deficit again exceeded the target ahead of the London donor conference at end-February. Tax evasion and state enterprise losses remain widespread, as subsidies stay intact to mitigate the pain of near 20% unemployment. At international community urging, the government issued more work permits to Syrians to allow them formal jobs. However extreme poverty still affects half that population there, the identical rate as at home with reduction urgent in both places, the World Bank concludes.