All in Economy
◢ Over the last 18 months, the Iranian rial has lost nearly 70 percent of its value, hammered by the Trump administration’s decision to reimpose secondary sanctions on Iran in violation of the JCPOA. But new interventions by the Central Bank of Iran appear to have helped stabilize the currency, leading some commentators to proclaim that the rial is no longer vulnerable to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign.
◢ To help alleviate the strain of rising house prices, the Rouhani administration announced earlier this month that it would begin implementation of its long-awaited social housing construction campaign intended to increase the availability of affordable homes for low-income families. The National Action Plan for Production and Supply of Housing aims to construct 400,000 small and medium-size apartments.
◢ During a meeting with the Islamic Republic's political elite, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterated calls for a “resistance economy,” but also placed new emphasis on the “increasing the ease of doing business.” The specificity of some of Khamenei’s advice and observations about Iran’s economy suggests a greater appreciation for the practical importance of economic reforms that go beyond well-worn political slogans.
◢ The appointment of a new CEO at Iran Air exemplifies Iran’s renewed reliance on what its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called a “resistance economy.” In order to overcome the restrictions imposed by sanctions, Iran will turn increasingly to a cadre of “resistance managers,” elevating individuals and empowering networks with unique capacities to keep Iran’s trade flowing under duress.
◢ Working class Iranians could look forward to a hearty meal of meat stew or kabob at least once a week. But with meat prices soaring to all-time highs, Iranians are having to cut back on their consumption in yet another example of falling living standards as Iran’s economy falters under the pressure of sanctions and mismanagement.
◢ Reform-minded Iranians, especially those inside the ailing banking system, are worried that the US government’s step to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization has doomed a years-long effort to get the Islamic Republic off a consequential global blacklist.
◢ Iran’s economy was already creaking as two weeks of flooding devastated communities across the country, killing 76 people and damaging critical infrastructure and industries. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians have been left to pick up the pieces at a time when economic pressures may mean that their government and fellow countrymen will struggle to provide adequate relief.
◢ Expectations were high when Iranian president Hassan Rouhani visited neighboring Iraq last month. During the trip, his first as president, Rouhani signed multiple trade deals with Iraq, where the return of peace and stability has renewed the government’s focus on economic development. Iran’s reinvigorated diplomacy towards Iraq reflects a new diplomatic and economic strategy towards its onetime foe.
◢ Last week, Iran’s economic minister was in Beijing for talks on bilateral trade and investment. An official readout of the discussions from China’s commerce ministry describes China and Iran as “comprehensive strategic partners.” Unfortunately for Iran, the data tells a different story from the official rhetoric.
◢ Despite mounting evidence that the Iranian government’s policy of allocating subsidized foreign currency for the importation of essential goods has failed, the Rouhani administration has signaled that it plans to maintain the policy for at least another year. But lawmakers and Rouhani’s own cabinet ministers may force the administration to change course.
◢ President Rouhani’s budget proposal for the upcoming Iranian year will see the government run a deficit amounting to about 10 percent of GDP or 60 percent of the state’s general budget, excluding oil revenues and withdrawals from the National Development Fund. Rather than increase tax collection to ease budget gaps, the Rouhani administration plans to tap Iran’s nascent debt markets to cover its public spending requirements.
◢ An examination of the nature of Europe-Iran trade and the impact of this trade on Iran’s currency markets, suggests that the SPV could have a significant and stabilizing impact on Iran’s economy by helping to fight runaway inflation, the foremost economic challenge facing Iran’s leadership—even if the mechanism is initially limited to humanitarian trade.
◢ Next week, President Hassan Rouhani will submit a budget proposal for the forthcoming Persian year (covering March 2019-2020). Currently, the Rouhani administration has few options as it seeks to avoid a budget deficit. Yet the political tradeoffs required when devising a budget under sanctions may prove more difficult to manage than the economic challenges.
◢ With US sanctions on Iran’s banking sector due to come into effect soon, European countries are now considering measures that would facilitate trade transactions with Iran through a new legal and institutional structure. European governments have been reviewing this legal entity, known as a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), for months. The timing of this public announcement suggests that they have a degree of confidence that the SPV can become operational, and that Europe can use the model to showcase its ability to deliver on its commitments.
◢ Over the last six months, the public debate in Iran around FATF-related reforms has reached a surreal crescendo. Seldom do countries experience such intensive political debates over measures as technical and obtuse as financial regulations. But 143 lawmakers voted bravely to pass the final of four bills required by the FATF action plan, in a landmark vote that may increases chances that Iran maintains ties with international financial institutions in the face of returning sanctions.
◢ The experience of countries such as China show that currency devaluation can be managed and even turned beneficial for the economy by enabling the growth of exports. But in Iran, the devaluation of the rial has never been proactively managed, and subsequent administrations have only sought to respond to repeated currency crises, about once each decade. As Iran faces another such episode, it remains to be seen whether a real monetary policy might finally emerge.
◢ There is a growing sense that Iran has squandered its chance to join the ranks of the BRICs—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—which count as the great emerging markets of the world. As sanctions return, as the rial sheds value, and as protests become routine, Iran is increasingly portrayed as an economic basket case where state collapse is just around the corner. But comparing Iran’s macroeconomic performance with Brazil, another country that has contended with widespread protests and economic angst for over three years, paints a very different picture.
◢ On Monday, the Iranian rial sank to a historic low. But those Iranians who scrambled to convert their rials into dollars found it difficult to do so—as they have for months. This important detail of the current crisis has gone largely unexamined. While the determinants for demand for foreign exchange are well understood, the second determinant of market prices—foreign exchange supply—remains subject to mere passing mention. This is a mistake. Iran’s currency crisis is a supply-side story.
◢ A 41 percent rise in Tehran City’s average home prices has left some residents, especially renters, with no option but to leave the capital for more affordable housing units in suburban areas close to Tehran. As per the latest national census, Karaj was the top destination for residents moving out of Tehran during the five years to December 2017. In just the last three months, more than 53,000 individuals have moved from Tehran to Karaj City. In the first quarter of the Iranian fiscal year, the Karaj housing market recorded 65 percent growth in home sales and an 18 percent increase in the average price of residential units.