Iran’s Banking Sickness Swoon

Iran, presumably through the conduit of close Chinese business and diplomatic ties, has been among the earliest and most severe concentrations of the coronavirus pandemic. With tens of thousands of infections and thousands of deaths reported going into the Persian New Year season, parliament shuttered with spread there following local elections where the cleric-led Supreme Council disqualified perceived economic reform candidates. The epidemic and accompanying price crash in oil, the main export subject to US sanctions have dominated the government agenda, despite cabinet ministers in quarantine or already sick.

In an historic move, the central bank formally requested $5 billion from an International Monetary Fund rapid facility to handle the disease fallout, as it approached allied lenders like the Islamic Development Bank and Asian International Infrastructure Bank for help. At the same time it reported a 50% annual jump in banking system lending to fund the fiscal deficit, with President Rouhani’s cleanup and modernization agenda on indefinite hold with the dual sanctions and Covid-19 confrontations. The state-dominated system, with capital adequacy estimated at half minimum Basel standards, and bad loans at one-quarter or more of portfolios, will be pressed further on announced  business and consumer support programs around the health emergency after decades of dysfunction and weakness. The IMF has long recommended sweeping changes in Article IV surveillance reports, and as part of future agreements the agency with Washington’s backing could work with Tehran to promote fixes that could also thaw bilateral relations.

With the Trump Administration further ratcheting up sanctions after formally designating the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, the Institute for International Finance (IIF) projected the economy would decline another 7% this fiscal year ending in March, after shrinking 5% in the period after joint nuclear deal breakup. Oil exports now under total US prohibition after initial waivers for neighbors and Asian countries slid to only several hundred thousands of barrels/day, compared with over 2 million in 2018. Budget figures have not been released for more than a year, but the IMF forecasts an 8% of gross domestic product fiscal deficit. Inflation officially runs around 20% but food price increases are double that level, and the currency is no longer in free fall against the dollar and has settled again toward the 150,000 range, or triple the fixed 42,000 exchange for essential imports under the multi-tier system. The IIF report expects a shift to annual trade deficits amid the continued sanctions squeeze could leave only $20 billion in international reserves by 2024.

The central bank, which has suffered coronavirus deaths among its own employees, offered in March a package of low cost loans to millions of individuals and businesses to cover damages, along with a three-month moratorium on loan repayments. The eligible industries span the spectrum from hospitality and tourism to agriculture, textiles and tourism. The lines were on top of a 30% annual increase in government debt to banks as of December, along with a reported $110 billion in outstanding private sector debt as Tehran pledges sanctions relief to existing large and small firms and support for high-tech startups.

Prior to these stresses, a June 2019 Peterson Institute for International Economics analysis from a former IMF staffer flagged a “slow motion banking crisis.” It described “problems brewing over decades” from state interference, corruption, and missing regulation and supervision. Despite chronic liquidity and solvency pressures, runs have not materialized due to emergency central bank assistance, de facto deposit guarantees, and limited savings alternatives aside from the stock exchange. It registered a triple digit gain through March, but has a narrow free-float for retail investors. The government controls 70% of system assets through “complex ownership structures and interconnections,” and only recently brought unlicensed shadow banks under oversight after several headline failures. In 2018, as President Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement, Iran’s parliament put the unofficial non-performing loan ratio at 50%. Capital adequacy was only 5% of assets against the Basel 8-10% recommended standard. Against basic banking law provisions, the central bank as a “lender of first resort” has provided large liquidity facilities without collateral. It extends “exceptional regulatory forbearance” instead of demanding recapitalization and restructuring, according to the Peterson Institute research.

International financial reporting standards have been adopted by several listed banks on the stock exchange, and their share prices collapsed with trading suspended after finding fraud and balance sheet holes. The Financial Action Task Force recently returned Iran to its “black list” for failure to pass anti-money laundering and terror funding rules. Iran has asked the United Nations to block US sanctions during the Covid crisis, as the Trump administration recognizes humanitarian exemption and previously approved a dedicated commercial funding channel. It can extend this logic and allow Tehran’s application to the IMF and World Bank as the biggest shareholder for direct lending and technical assistance. Both health care and banking system strengthening could feature on the intertwined agenda, and Washington, in promoting disease control and free-market reforms, can test rapprochement that could broaden through these institutions.

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