Iraq investors stubbornly stake post-ISIS future

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Iraqi bonds and stocks held by specialist foreign investors tried to shake off extended torpor, as a donor conference convened in Kuwait to pledge reconstruction help after Mosul was retaken to finally expel ISIS after a five-year fight. Using on-the-ground and aerial drone surveillance, the World Bank estimated initial physical and social rebuilding costs at $90 billion, as roughly half of the IMF’s $5 billion facility agreed in 2016 has been used despite “frail” performance on fiscal consolidation and bank restructuring. Baghdad still owes the conference host $5 billion in compensation from the early 1990s invasion by Saddam Hussein, which has been deferred, and other Gulf allies are expected to chip in alongside Asian and European counterparts and Iran.

The US recently provided a Treasury Department guarantee for a sovereign bond issue, but the Trump administration will not offer new economic assistance as it reviews bilateral relations. This follows a tiff over Kurdish region independence, where oil reserves are concentrated, and comes ahead of April scheduled elections where sectarian political divisions and violence again threaten stability.

US President Donald Trump’s controversial campaign mantra about “taking the oil” in exchange for continued military support has featured in the debate as production ramps up

US President Donald Trump’s controversial campaign mantra about “taking the oil” in exchange for continued military support has featured in the debate as production ramps up toward the 5 million barrels/day target for one of the leading Opec members. It is also flaring less natural gas to realize a reported $6 billion in lost earnings, and electricity supply has improved with private sector responsibility for distribution. However petroleum exports still account for 90% of government revenue as the security mess and a decades-long legacy of state control hamper normal enterprise and financial sector development. On the stock exchange, capitalized at only 5% of GDP, foreign buying tends to chase the few competitive stocks available, such as Coca Cola’s local bottling unit and number one weighting telecoms provider Asiacell.

Economic growth will be positive in the forecast 2-3% range this year with the better oil picture, and on the assumption that the displaced population of several million citizens and refugees can return to employment. Inflation is subdued with the continued exchange rate peg to the dollar, which the IMF views as “appropriate” for post-war stability as the parallel market premium dropped to 5% with ISIS’s defeat. Double-digit fiscal and current account deficits were the norm during the conflict and are due to narrow to manageable levels, but public debt spiked to 65% of GDP, including external arrears on non-Paris Club obligations and short-term rollovers to state-owned banks in turn funded by the central bank. To curb spending the public sector payroll and electricity subsidies were cut, and the revenue side will be bolstered by new import taxes and tighter customs enforcement.

The government will decentralize budget responsibility to provinces and major cities, and has tried to streamline investment approval, with its World Bank Doing Business ranking at 160 of 180 countries, while considering partial privatization for hundreds of officially-run companies from the Saddam era. The onset of 3G in 2015 and the internet’s spread encouraged burgeoning e-commerce, and consumer goods and construction have emerged as diversification plays on big traditional industry names on the stock exchange now in the portfolio of Middle East and Asia-dedicated frontier funds.

The two Rs, Rafidain and Rasheed, dominate the “shallow” banking system with 70% of deposits and half of credit and act as a “drag,” according to the IMF’s 2017 Article IV report. They have not been audited under international standards and are “severely undercapitalized” with double-digit bad loan portions. Anti-money laundering and terror financing rules are absent, and the central bank lacks oversight and monitoring powers and has also been charged with providing small business lines. However, in the past two years private competitors have grabbed share from the seven state institutions as Gulf regional banks also acquired local stakes.

Traditionally, the government giants handled all wages and pensions and trade finance, and without deposit insurance they also enjoyed an implicit guarantee as comparative advantage. A formal scheme is now under preparation, and with US Agency for International Development help a central credit registry is another project which can spur consumer as well as company lending. With stricter prudential rules capital has more than tripled to $7 billion over the ISIS attack period, and intrepid investors in attendance believe such smaller-scale reconstruction may succeed well before Kuwait conference ambitions.

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