AFC Iraq Fund


Market Review: Telecoms dial up Recovery

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Average daily turnover in November continued to improve, increasing 24% on the back of October’s 24% month-on-month growth. However, the recovery is coming from an incredibly low base and still shows the average daily turnover in-line with the dismal levels of September, which were among the lowest for some time (chart below).

With the gradual recovery in turnover, the market, as measured by the RSISUSD Index, moderated its month-on-month declines, down -1.7% for the month- continuing to test the major bottom of May 2016.

However, the end the Arbaeen, summer, and the government formation are yet to mark the end of the period of, probably, the lowest daily trading volumes on the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX) since it first witnessed an expansion in volumes in 2010. The anomaly and un-sustainability of these low levels was discussed last month, and logic continues to argue for a reversion to the mean.

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange, Rabee Securities, Asia Frontier Capital)

It was also argued last month that an uptick in M2 (broad money and a proxy for economic activity) could imply that liquidity, brought on by a two-year recovery in government finances, has finally begun to filter down into the economy – which should accelerate as the new government begins to act on its spending programme.

A nascent recovery in telecoms adds support to this line of reasoning. The two major mobile operators out of three national operators, reported Q3/2018 earnings that display the markers of recovery in earnings, margins and profits. Of the two, AsiaCell (TASC) has been listed since 2013 and as such its reported earnings span the period 2012-2018, and thus reflects the operating environment before, during and just after the ISIS conflict.

(Sources: Rabee Securities, ISX, Company reports, Asia Frontier Capital)

TASC’s earning’s profile marked by rapidly increasing revenues – driven by the country’s adoption of mobile phones – peaked in 2013. The turn for the worst started in late 2013 with the increasing violence before the May 2014 elections, which accelerated by mid-2014 with the ISIS invasion and the loss of over a third of the country, and with that a significant loss in TASC’s subscriber base.

The roll out of 3G in early 2015 brought its own set of problems. The amortization of the fees of $307 million (on top of fees of $1,250 million in 2007 for a 15-year licence) to access the 3G spectrum increased costs meaningfully. While, revenues took a hit as free IP voice telephony soon replaced most expensive regular telephony-especially for international calls, while data fees could not fully replace these lost voice revenues. This was compounded by increased competition among the three mobile operators as they sought to replace both lost consumers and voice revenues through competitive price offerings to lure consumers from each other.

Capping the woes of mobile operators was the severe economic decline brought about by the ISIS conflict and the collapse oil prices as non-oil GDP declined by -3.9%, -9.6% and -8.1% for 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively.  Finally, the resultant weaknesses in both consumer and business demand was made much worse with the introduction of 20% VAT on phone cards in the summer of 2016.

For TASC, the revenue decline, while cost increases crushed its profits (as the chart above shows), however this decline in profits was moderated by very strict cost controls and decreasing capital expenditures reflecting an earlier heavy investment in infrastructure.

The bottoming in revenues over the last few years came to end in late 2017 with the liberation of Mosul and the gradual return of customers which contributed to the recovery in profitability. The company signalled its confidence in its future outlook with a distribution of a 12% dividend on the back of last year’s 14% dividend – however, in absolute terms the dividend is about one third higher than that of last year. The grandfathering of the transition to 3G, the amortization of the licence and the effects of the VAT introduction, all coupled with the return of customers as well as the expected growth in data usage should lead to a healthy period of resumed earnings growth.

The next few quarters should see a similar recovery for the battered banking sector, with probably the first to recover being the quality of loans. A return of liquidity and an economic pick-up should be followed by a recovery in the quality of bad loans and the reversal of NPL’s (non-preforming loans) with past provisions becoming earnings, thus providing the first boost to earnings recovery. This should be followed by growth in loans and deposits, as should growth in trade finance revenue, and therefore similarly to the case of telecom should lead to a resumption of a period of earnings growth, and with-it better stock price performance. For more details on the banks see “Of Banks and Budget Surpluses”.

Recovery, in frontier markets, is a mirror image of Mark’s Twain’s phrase on going broke, in that recovery happens gradually and then suddenly. If similar experiences in other frontier markets of declining prices while fundamentals point to a start of a gradual recovery, then the trend of the last few months could be followed by a sharp reversal to the upside.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at AUIS. He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

Market Review: Volumes and Reversion to the Mean

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The end of the month brought with it the end of the multi-month paralysis in government as the designated prime minister was confirmed by parliament through the approval of his proposed cabinet on October 25th. Although, parliament has not approved all of his ministerial choices- a function of the fragmented politics of the new parliament and a possible marker of risk for the government’s future stability.

Nevertheless, the new government is in a position to implement its policies, as articulated by the prime minister in presenting his government, which are focused on the provision of security, services, and investment in much needed infrastructure. The implementation of these policies is made possible by the accumulated budget surplus for 2018, which was about USD 14.5bn at the end of August- and on course for a two-year accumulated surplus of USD 24.5bn by the end of 2018.

Coinciding with this has been the end of the 40-day Arbaeen pilgrimage that brought the country to a standstill as millions of pilgrims took part in “the largest annual gathering of people anywhere on earth.”, including almost two million Iranian pilgrims.

The end of the Arbaeen, summer, and the government formation should be followed by the end of the period of, probably, the lowest daily trading volumes on the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX) since it first witnessed an expansion in volumes in 2010. Average daily turnover in October, while higher in percentage terms than the dismal levels of September, was among the lowest for some time (chart below). In tandem the market, as measured by the RSISUSD Index, declined ending down -5.3% for the month, continuing to test the major bottom of May 2016.

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange, Rabee Securities, Asia Frontier Capital)

While, the anomaly of these low levels can be seen in the chart above, they come into sharp focus when viewed statistically in the form of a frequency distribution. The two charts below drill down into actual daily turnover for two periods: (1) January 2013-April 2014-representing the bull-market phase of rising prices and high turnover; (2) January 2016-October 2018- representing the bear -market phase of declining prices and low turnover. The frequency refers to the number of trading days corresponding to ranges for the daily turnover index on the LHS of the above chart. The contrast between the two periods is extreme from both the level of the average daily turnover, the concentration of daily turnover around the average (standard deviation) and the full range of turnover.

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange, Asia Frontier Capital)

Almost 63% of the lowest turnover days, for January 2016-October 2018, were in the last two months, while the other 37% was spread out as odd days throughout the whole period. As such, it seems that with the end of the political paralysis and summer slowdown that turnover should revert to the mean. While neither this nor the direction of the market are assured, a clue can be obtained from the initial recovery in M2 (see chart below) which has ticked up over the last few months, following months of sharply increasing oil revenues. While the October M2 figure is an estimate, it is based on actual M0 figures for the month and the recent M2/M0 multiplier figures. As such, this could mean that liquidity has finally begun to filter down into the economy – which should accelerate as the new government begins to act on its investment programme.

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq, Iraq’s Ministry of Oil, Asia Frontier Capital)
(Note: M2 as of Sep. with AFC est.’s for Oct, Oil revenues as of Oct)

The strong improvement in the finances of the country following years of conflict lie behind the reason for the continued expectations, expressed here over the last few months, that the market would be correcting and then bottoming. However, these expectations continued to be tested as the market sustained its dismal performance, and its divergence from its past close relationship with oil revenues is currently at the widest it has been for the last few years (see below).

(Source: Iraq’s Ministry of Oil, Rabee Securities, Asia Frontier Capital)
(Note: Oil revenues as of Oct)

The end of the political paralysis, the sharply improving government finances and tentative signs of liquidity reaching the wider economy could act as the catalyst to change the direction of the market to the upside. If similar experiences in other frontier markets were to be repeated here (a big if) then the anomaly of the current low trading volumes coupled with the market’s sharp divergence from its historic association with oil revenues would suggest that the next move could be a sharp reversal of the recent trend.

The irony for the market (having risen sharply this time of the year in each of the last the two years only to lose almost all gains within a few months) is that its real recovery would be greeted with the same scepticism that met the “boy who cried wolf”

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at AUIS. He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

Market Review: “Feast or Famine”

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The uncertainty that has prevailed over all economic activity during the last few months is finally coming to an end in a typical Iraqi fashion- extremes of either feast or famine. The parliamentary elections in May, having yielded no clear winner, led to a multi-month paralysis during which the election results were contested in court, subsequently leading to a partial recount of the votes.

Increasing the election anxiety were massive demonstrations in Basra and the southern governorates, where citizens demanded reform and investment into basic services, and the proverbial shaking of the political class by raising fears that they would spread throughout the country. Thoughts on the protest movement and its implications are further discussed in, (The Protest Movement, the Politicians and the Elections).

The end of the uncertainty came in early October with the appointment of a president, and a prime minister in quick succession. This was done at a speed almost unheard of in post-2003 Iraq. While the individuals are two of Iraq’s most accomplished politicians with a lot of promise, the important takeaway is that the process of selecting them broke the mould and ended the political gridlock that bedevilled the country since 2003.

This was a continuation of the effects of the same 2015 protest movement that had such a profound effect on how the elections were fought and their subsequent results. The most visible effect was the fragmentation of the prior ethno-sectarian monolithic blocs that dominated over the past 14 years, the root cause of Iraq’s political and social instability since 2003. It is the end of this gridlock that holds the promise for change in Iraq and with it begins the unlocking of the massive reconstruction drive that lies at the heart of the Iraq investment opportunity.

This is made significantly easier for the upcoming new government as the windfall from higher oil prices (based on the year-to-date average Iraqi oil price of USD 65/bbl) could imply that Iraq would have a two-year cumulative surplus of USD 24.5bn, or the equivalent of a 19% stimulus for non-oil GDP by the end of 2018. Conservative assumptions for Iraqi oil prices for 2019 of USD 59/bbl would imply a further surplus of USD 9.3bn by end of 2019, but if Iraqi oil prices were to remain at the current average price then the 2019 surplus could easily double to USD 18.6bn.

The implications of a three-year cumulative surplus of USD 33.8 – 43.1bn by end 2019 are enormous for Iraq’s ability to plan the funding of the reconstruction and to address the country’s structural imbalances. The assumptions above don’t assume that the current rally in oil prices is sustainable, but that Brent would stabilize at about USD 65-70/bbl from the current USD 84+/bbl (Iraqi oil tends to sell at a discount of USD 5/bbl).

However, this is at least a few months away as the new government is unlikely to be formed before the middle of November and as such would not be able to take any action before year end. Given that, the county is in the mildest of the 40-day Arbaeen pilgrimage, the timing of the new government’s spending programme would coincide with the return of activity following the Arbaeen pilgrimage -hence the earlier reference to the extremes of feast or famine for Iraq’s economy.

The market followed through with its longer-term bottoming process as the July interim bottom continued to be tested this month, in-line with the same trend seen in August and will likely continue for some time. The market, as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISUSD Index was down -4.8% for the month and -10.5% for the year. Average daily turnover declined significantly for the month to the lowest levels (by a wide margin) for a number of years as can be seen from the chart below.

Average daily turnover Index (green) vs RSISUSD Index (red)

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange, Rabee Securities, Asia Frontier Capital)

The poor market action over the summer months should be seen in the perspective of the low turnover coupled with the continuation of the demonstrations that began in July, the prolonged uncertainty over the governments formation and finally the 40-day Arbaeen pilgrimage that brings the country to a standstill as millions of pilgrims take part in “the largest annual gathering of people anywhere on earth.

However, the low activity was not without fireworks as a sell-off by a foreign investor in Mansour Bank (BMNS) set off a frenzy of trading activity in a replay of the sell-off in the Bank of Baghdad (BBOB), as reported in July’s update “Of Frenzies & Market Bottoms”. At the worst point BMNS, was down -40% for the month and its market capitalization was equal to about 0.5x Book Value, 17% of assets and 22% of cash (based on trailing 12-month numbers). In an exact replay of the events with BBOB, once the position was liquidated locals and some other foreigners bought the stock which sent it up +27% to end the month down -24%, and -10% for the year.

However, the financial position of BMNS during the past few difficult years is almost the mirror opposite of BBOB. BBOB suffered from the same forces that crushed the sector’s earnings, as reviewed in (Of Banks and Budget Surpluses), in addition to its share of company specific issues and structural weaknesses that were exposed by the pains of 2014-2017, including the recent pressure on FX margins. BMNS on the other hand, weathered the storm mostly unscathed as seen below, and in particular it’s in a strong position to reap the rewards of a recovery given its strong deposit growth, low loan/deposit ratio, and low ratio of non-performing loans (NPL’s) to deposits.

As explained “Of Banks and Budget Surpluses”, the banks’ leverage to the economy crushed their earnings. In particular, the double whammy of the ISIS conflict and the collapse in oil prices squeezed government finances as expenses soared while revenues plummeted. The government resorted to dramatic cuts to expenditures by cancelling capital spending and investments which, due to the centrality of its role in the economy, led to year-year declines in non-oil GDP of -3.9%, -9.6% and -8.1% for 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively. Ultimately, the government had a cumulative deficit of around USD 41bn during this period and accumulated significant arrears to the private sector in the process.

The same leverage should work in reverse as the potential budget surpluses of USD 33.8 – 43.1bn for 2017-2019 should have a simulative effects on economic activity which ultimately should translate to stronger future earnings for the banks. These were discussed in further details in: “Forget the Donations, Stupid.”

BMNS’ financial performance during the years of conflict can be seen through the three charts below that look at loans/non-performing loans (NPL’s), deposits and trade finance and their association with budget surpluses/deficits. BMNS’ loan and NPL data as supplied by the research team at Rabee Securities is gratefully acknowledged, while other data was taken from the Central Bank of Iraq. Data from 2010-2014 are based on Iraqi accounting standards, while data from 2015-2017 are based on IFRS, and all calculations uses the official USD/IQD exchange rate.

BMNS’ loan book growth peaked in 2015 at the same time that NPL’s peaked. Unlike many other banks in the sector, its loan book was almost flat during 2015-2017 and NPL’s as a percentage of loans declined by almost 50%. At the same time BMNS increased its provisions significantly at almost twice the NPL’s in 2017.

Mansour Bank: Loans & NPL’s 2011-2017

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Rabee Research, Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

Unlike, almost all other banks in the sector, BMNS experienced deposit growth throughout the crisis with growth accelerating during the relative stability in 2017. A flat loan book and sharply increasing deposits resulted in a very low loan/deposit ratio allowing BMNS the opportunity to grow its loans book. Moreover, most of these loans are collateralized by property as most banks’ loans are in Iraq where the norm is for collateral value at 2x the loan.

Mansour Bank: Deposits and Loan/Deposit ratio 2011-2017

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Rabee Research, Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

BMNS’ trade finance declined, however, at much lower rates than those experienced by the sector, while the damage to BMNS’ earnings was mitigated by the relatively small size of the business.

Mansour Bank: Trade Finance 2011-2017

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

It’s logical to conclude that the sea change which has taken place in the government’s financial health would reverse the trends that affected the banking sector’s earnings as the significant stimulus to non-oil GDP should lead to sustainable economic activity which should provide the sector with room to recover. Given BMNS’ strong position relative to other banks, it should have an opportunity to grow much faster than the sector as a whole.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at AUIS. He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

Market Review: “Frenzies and Market Bottoms”

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The market, as measured by the RSISUSD index, marked an important bottom in July as part of a likely bottoming process. The multi-month bank selling shifted into high gear. This intensified into a frenzy, climaxing by the middle of the month with the liquidation of a large foreign position in the Bank of Baghdad (BBOB) – one of the top banks on the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX). At the worst point in July, BBOB and the index were down -24% and -12% respectively for the month, after which both reclaimed these losses to end up +2.4% and +0.5%.

The selling in the banking sector over the last few months, driven by concerns over declining FX margins (as explained here in the past), was paced by consistent foreign selling in BBOB. The size of the selling exaggerated the stock’s declines which had a knock-on effect on other banks which declined in-tandem and dragged the market with them given the sector’s dominance of trading on the ISX.

Local retail trading is dominated by speculators, yet locals tend to appreciate the true values of local assets especially at extreme valuations. At the worst point, BBOB’s market capitalization was equal to about 0.3x Book Value, 8.5% of assets and 15% of cash (based on the trailing 12 months) which would suggest that the stock was discounting some sort of end of the world type event. The locals, aware that such a catastrophe was not around the corner and that the decline was a function of a portfolio liquidation, raised funds from family, friends and banks in order to buy BBOB. Joined by a few foreign investors, undoubtedly aware of the same valuations, the combination absorbed all the significant selling, after which the stock began to climb.

Irrespective of BBOB’s strong position among local banks, it too suffered from the same forces that crushed the sector’s earnings, as discussed in last month review of banks (Of Banks and Budget Surpluses). Furthermore, it had its share of company specific issues and structural weaknesses that were exposed by the pains of 2014-2017, including the recent pressure on FX margins. The bank’s focus on addressing these weaknesses at the expense of revenue growth is hindering near term growth. However, given the quality of its management, strong position with high quality customers (in particular foreign companies) and the strength of its franchise, it should emerge in a position to resume growth in the recovering economy.

As explained last month, the banks’ leverage to the economy crushed their earnings. In particular, the double whammy of the ISIS conflict and the collapse in oil prices squeezed government finances as expenses soared while revenues plummeted. The government resorted to dramatic cuts to expenditures by cancelling capital spending and investments which, due to the centrality of its role in the economy, led to year-year declines in non-oil GDP of -3.9%, -9.6% and -8.1% for 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively. Ultimately, the government had a cumulative deficit of around USD 41bn during this period and accumulated significant arrears to the private sector in the process.

The same leverage should work in reverse as the expected budget surpluses of USD 28.5bn for 2017-2019 should have simulative effects on economic activity which ultimately should translate to stronger future earnings for the banks. These were discussed in further details at: “Forget the Donations, Stupid.”

For BBOB, the changes for the worse during the years of conflict can be seen through the three charts below that look at loans/non-performing loans (NPL’s), deposits and trade finance and their association with budget surpluses/deficits. BBOB Data as supplied by the research team at Rabee Securities is gratefully acknowledged. Data from 2010-2014 are based on Iraqi accounting standards, while data from 2015-2017 are based on IFRS.

BBOB’s loan book growth peaked in 2015, while NPL’s grew at the height of the crisis in 2016. The sharp decline in the loan book since then exaggerated the growth of NPL’s as a percentage of loans, as NPL’s declined in absolute terms marginally in 2017 vs. 2016.

Bank of Baghdad: Loans, NPL’s & Loan provisions 2011-2017

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Rabee Research, Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

Though NPL’s are relatively high, even during the relative boom times, loans as a percentage of deposits have been very low at the mid-20%’s level as can be seen below.  Moreover, most of these loans are collagenized by property as most banks’ loans are in Iraq where the norm is for collateral value at 2x the loan. BBOB’s relatively large NPL’s were a function of the relative size of their loan book which meant a larger exposure to riskier loans taken during the boom years.

Bank of Baghdad: Deposits and Loan/Deposit ratio 2011-2017

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Rabee Research, Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

The decline in deposits as a function of the economic contraction was made worse by the decline in BBOB’s trade finance business as that meant the loss of funds deposited as partial collateral required for the provisioning of trade finance.

Trade finance, once an engine of growth for the bank suffered as a result of the sharp economic contraction brought about by investment cuts and the slowdown in consumer spending.

Bank of Baghdad: Trade Finance 2011-2017

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Rabee Research, Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

It’s logical to conclude that the sea change which has taken place in the government’s financial health would reverse the trends that affected the sector’s earnings as the significant stimulus to non-oil GDP should lead to sustainable economic activity which would provide BBOB room to recover, address its weaknesses and grow.

The question- when will these budget surpluses find their way into the economy through government action- has been partly answered by the government’s response to nationwide protests that erupted in early July, demanding the provision of services. The first response was to allocate USD 3bn to the city of Basra to fund long delayed infrastructure projects, a USD 669mn injection into the country’s housing fund to provide about 25,000 housing loans, plus a number of smaller projects in the southern governorates.

The eruption of protests in the city of Basra and their spread across the southern governorates right to Baghdad has, as is the usual case in all Iraqi events, led to two polar views. The first dismisses these as the usual ritual of summer protests ignited by the scorching heat that would soon settle with a few government handouts and the end of summer – echoing perhaps an old Iraqi politician who likened Iraqis’ anger to effervescent salts that erupt with a great fanfare before settling down. The second warns of the emergence of instability given that the Iraqi political establishment is incredibly slow to change its bad old habits, if at all, but that the young angry population is running out of patience.

While both arguments have merit, current protests should be seen from a wider prism in that they are the fourth instalment of a protest movement that began in 2010 and developed in both scope and maturity. The last incarnation in 2015 had a profound effect on how the election was fought and its ensuring results, as it led to the break-up of the ethno-sectarian monolithic blocs that were dominant over the past 15 years and which were at the root of Iraq’s instability. Thoughts supporting this line of thinking appear in (The Protest Movement, the Politicians and the Elections).

The influential religious leadership has supported the protest movement calling for the quick formation of a government focused on meeting the demands of demonstrators. This should hasten the formation of the government ending the current uncertainty. However, irrespective of how it is formed, the government would have the financial wherewithal to start the reconstruction of the country and the provisioning of infrastructure in the form of cumulative two-year budget surplus of USD 18.8bn by end of 2018- equal to a stimulus of 14.5% of non-oil GDP once reconstruction projects are underway. These would be enhanced by potential budget surplus of USD 9.3bn in 2019 or a further 6.8% stimulus to non-oil GDP. (Details available in a recent article).

It worth noting that while Iraq has its share of challenges, none are unsolvable in that the key issue of the last few years has been a sequence of crises that have forced successive governments into short -term solutions without providing overall long-term solutions. For instance, the current demonstrations were started by anger over the lack of electricity coverage beyond a few hours each day. Yet, “of 26 gigawatts installed generation, theoretically enough to meet the current 23 GW of demand, less than 17 GW is operable because of lack of fuel, maintenance and transmission capacity: source.” As such, these are addressable in a reasonable timeframe by a focused government with a clear mandate which could emerge given the current pressures from the electorate supported by the religious authority.

Finally a report on Iraq’s debts addresses a number of misconceptions on its debt profile that would have a huge implication for its ability to fund the needed reconstruction and the provisioning of services is here (Understanding Iraq’s Debt).

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS). He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

 

Market Review: “Of Banks and Budget Surpluses”

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Activity in the economy at large, and the market in particular, came to a virtual standstill at the start of the month as it coincided with last two weeks of Ramadan which ended with the Eid holiday’s in the middle of June.

The start of the summer heat in earnest further contributed to the slowdown of activity. However, the intense focus on the political activity around the election results took the spotlight over the major markers of economic recovery and the banks’ leverage to it.

Average minimum and maximum temperatures in Baghdad in degrees centigrade

(Source: World weather and climate Information)

The elections produced winners and losers who will eventually form a coalition government as reported last month, a process that should take a few weeks but could extend to a few months. Claims of fraud surfaced as in past elections, however this time there was an unusual action by parliament to force a manual recount of the whole vote and a wholesale annulment of certain types of votes (overseas, IDP’s and security forces votes). The parliament’s action was made possible by investigations that suggested that fraud was made possible by hacking the electronic readers of the ballot papers –introduced for the first time this year.

The potential disruption could have resulted in a delayed government formation until early 2019. However, objections to parliament’s action were raised to the Supreme Federal Court, whose ruling on 21st June was a master class response to the conflicting political reactions following the elections. The ruling, provided a framework for a workable compromise as evidenced by its wholesale acceptance by all of Iraq’s political parties.

The ruling is discussed in a recent article: in a nutshell it led to a manual recount of only of those election centres whose results were disputed, and thus should be concluded in a few weeks. The impact will likely be felt in a changed balance of power among the Kurdish parties and among some Sunni parties, but ultimately will not significantly change the balance of power of the main election winners. The process of government formation continued unabated during this period and the broad outlines of it are taking shape.

However, irrespective of how the upcoming government is formed, it would need to address the issues at the heart of the 2015 protest movement that had such a profound effect on how the election was fought and its results. These would be the provision of services and reconstruction, which require much needed overdue investments in the country’s infrastructure and the reconstruction of the liberated areas, estimated at USD 88bn over five years.

Prevailing negative perceptions of Iraq’s ability to fund this have not reflected the transformative effects of higher oil prices and the end of conflict on Iraq’s ability to self-fund the reconstruction of the whole country. These were discussed in detail in a recent article, the highlights of which are: By end of 2018, based on realized oil prices of 2017 and average year-to-date for 2018, Iraq is on its way to have a cumulative two-year budget surplus of USD 18.8bn instead of the initially projected cumulative deficit of USD 19.4bn. This would be equal to a stimulus of 14.5% of non-oil GDP once reconstruction projects are underway, thus further accelerating economic activity. The effects of this stimulus would be enhanced by a potential budget surplus of USD 9.3bn in 2019 or a further 6.8% stimulus to non-oil GDP.

The stock market’s action in June was a continuation of the same trends discussed here over the last few months. By end of June, the market, as measured by the Rabee Securities’ RSISUSD Index, was down -3.5%, bringing its year to date performance to -0.6. Average daily turnover was among the lowest of the last three years and most stocks, in particular the banks continued to decline.

The market’s focus continues to be the effects of the shrinking FX margins on banks’ earnings brought on, paradoxically, by the increasing signs of an improvement in liquidity in the broader economy. These were brought by the steady increases in the market price of the Iraqi Dinar (IQD) versus the USD, lowering its premium over the official exchange rate to 1.2% – the lowest point in a number of years from just under 6% at the end of 2017 and 10% at the end of 2016. FX spreads are one of many sources of revenues for the higher quality banks but constitute the bulk of earnings for the lower quality banks. However, almost all banks were caught in the group’s sell-off which accelerated in recent months.

However, valid as these concerns are, they fail to take into account the transformative effects of the expected budget surpluses of USD 28.5bn for 2017-2019 on the banks’ future earnings through the simulative effects the surpluses would have on economic activity. This same leverage worked in reverse during the double whammy of the ISIS conflict and the collapse in oil prices as government finances were crushed by soaring expenses and plummeting revenues.

The government resorted to dramatic cuts to expenditures by cancelling capital spending and investments which, due to the centrality of its role in the economy, led to year-year declines in non-oil GDP of -3.9%, -9.6% and -8.1% for 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively. Ultimately, the government had a cumulative deficit of around USD 41bn during this period and accumulated significant arrears to the private sector in the process. The outstanding arrears are estimated by the IMF to be at USD 3.6bn as the end of 2017.

The effects were disastrous for private sector businesses at the receiving end of the cuts whose finances deteriorated, and which in turn affected the quality of bank loans as these businesses accounted for the bulk of bank lending.  As a result, the banks’ earning suffered from the increasing non-performing loans (NPL’s) coupled with negative loan growth, as well as from declining/negative deposit growth.

The changes for the worse for the banks during these years can be seen through the three charts below that look at loans/NPL’s, deposits and trade finance and their association with budget surpluses/deficits. The charts consider only loans/NPL’s, deposits and trade finance for the private sector but not those for the government as they conducted through state banks.

Loans and NPL’s 2010-2017

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

Loan growth peaked in 2015 after slowing in the prior year and has declined since, while NPL’s soared in 2015-2016 as the effects of the capital spending cuts fed through to deteriorating loan quality. These negative effects were made worse by a flight to safety as more of the private sector borrowed from state banks instead, in the process increasing their share from 59% to 63% of all private sector lending. The ultimate effects of budget surpluses and deficits on loan growth and quality can also be seen from the above chart.

Deposits 2010-2017

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

The same story is repeated with private sector deposits which for commercial banks peaked in 2013 and declined since then. The flight to quality was again evident in the slower decline in total deposit growth and its pick-up in 2017 as the expansionary effects of the recovery in oil prices and the ending of conflict were being felt. In the process, the state banks increased their share of total private sector deposits from 61% to 68%.

Trade Finance 2010-2017

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

The only area where commercial banks increased their share was that of trade finance for the private sector- increasing from 71% to 87%. However, trade finance suffered significantly in this period as trade declined due to investment cuts and the slowdown in consumer spending. This further hurt the commercial banks as it was a major source of revenues and growth.

Its logical to conclude that the sea change which has taken place in the government’s financial health would reverse the trends seen in the charts above as the significant stimuluses to non-oil GDP should lead to sustainable economic activity, providing room for the banks to recover and grow again.

It should be noted that these are aggregate figures for the whole sector which hide significant variations in the performance of individual banks. The pains of 2014-2017, including the recent pressure on FX margins, would have exposed the structural weaknesses of many of the banks and will likely lead to failures among the weaker ones. However, the stronger banks that weathered the storm and addressed any structural weaknesses should benefit disproportionally from the expected benefits from a recovering economy.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS). He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

“Forget the Donations, Stupid”: New Dynamics in Funding Reconstruction

By Ahmed Tabaqchali (pictured), CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

This article was originally published in the Marsh to Mountain blog. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

“Forget the Donations, Stupid”: New dynamics in funding the reconstruction of Iraq

Key Takeaways

In the months following the Kuwait Conference a sea change has taken place in Iraq’s financial health that has yet to be reflected in perceptions.

Higher oil prices, as a result of the changed dynamics of the oil market and the robust health of the global economy, has had a transformative effect on Iraq’s finances.

By end of 2018, based on realized oil prices of 2018 and average year-to-date for 2018, Iraq is on its way to have a cumulative two-year budget surplus of $18.8bn instead of the initially projected cumulative deficit of $19.4bn.  

This would allow it to start the reconstruction process on its own resources. Coupled with a potential surplus of $9.3bn in 2019 would give the country a great deal of flexibility to fund further reconstruction over the near-term. 

The surplus of $18.8bn by end of 2018 would equal a stimulus of 14.5% of non-oil GDP once reconstruction projects are underway, which would further accelerate economic activity. 

However, this three-year window of opportunity faces the twin headwinds of Iraq’s corrosive corruption and all of prior governments’ failures to spend oil wealth on  rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, spending it instead on expanding the state’s role in the economy.

——————————————————————-

A great deal has changed since the Kuwait Conference on the reconstruction of Iraq, which was marred by misconceptions of international observers who bemoaned that it failed to achieve its objective in raising enough donations. These were not helped by an Iraqi side that went to the conference looking for donations (investments in Iraqi speak) by focusing its efforts solely on presenting a shopping list of projects that needed $88bn in funding over five years.

These misconceptions were addressed in a prior article[1] which highlighted that over five years, Iraq should be able to fund $77bn out of this $88bn through a combination of $50bn from its oil revenues and $27bn in borrowings. Crucially, this level of direct funding and borrowing would be consistent with maintaining macroeconomic stability, which means that funding the reconstruction would not distract from the government fulfilling its traditional role in the economy, and so the reconstruction will contribute to sustainable economic growth.

This ability to fund the $77bn was derived from the IMF estimates for Iraq’s budget for 2018-2022 based on updated market-implied future Iraq oil prices, i.e. the implicit price of oil from the futures markets. In February, the implied price for Iraqi oil was $60/bbl for 2018, declining to $51 by 2022. These are in sharp contrast to the IMF’s estimates in August 2017 which used Iraqi oil prices of $45.5 in 2018, increasing to $47.2 by 2022. The 2018-2022 estimates made in 2017 would have made it impossible for Iraq to fund any portion of the needed funding as it would have needed to borrow to balance its budget during these years[2].

Iraq’s high dependence[3] on oil means that its budget and GDP are highly sensitive to the volume of oil it exports and to oil prices. The massive change in oil prices over the last few years, as seen from the five-year Brent crude price chart below, played havoc with Iraq’s budget during the ISIS conflict 2014-2017. They forced the government into a sharp fiscal retrenchment by cutting costs and cancelling all investment spending, while increasing military spending which had substantial negative knock-on effects on the economy[4]. The significant effects of oil price changes extend to planning for funding the reconstruction directly by Iraq, and indirectly by its stakeholders who need to take into account these effects in relation to their level of contributions and expected investment returns.

Brent Crude Jun 2013-Jun 2018, Source: Financial Times[5]

The fundamentals of the oil market went through major changes over the last four years, from expectations of supply scarcity versus increasing demand up to mid-2014; fears of increasing supply overwhelming decreasing demand from mid-2014 into late-2016; easing somewhat to hopes for a rebalance by mid 2017; and finally, into growing demand exceeding declining supply. Overlay the robust health of the global economy and it is expected the oil market will continue to tighten in the immediate future. This outlook is complicated by disruptive technologies such as those behind the Shale oil boom in the US, and by geopolitics affecting major suppliers such as Iran and Venezuela. These are balanced somewhat by OPEC’s actions and shifting perceptions of either its increasing dominance or increasing irrelevance. These perceptions came into sharp focus with the OPEC & non-OPEC supply cut agreement in late 2016 that started the recovery process. Recently there is news that talks have been underway to increase supply as prices have risen too high in response to threats to Iranian and Venezuelan supplies.

These would make budget planning, let alone long-term reconstruction planning, for Iraq an exercise in folly if it were to use the latest market implied future prices or to accept the prevailing wisdom at any given time as a basis for planning. This pretty much explains the conservative assumptions used by the IMF -which the world financial community depends on in assessing Iraq’s financial soundness and its credit worthiness. These assumptions served as the basis on which Iraq and the IMF identified creditors and donors for Iraq to cover its estimated budget deficits for 2017-2022 as part of the IMF’s 2016 Standby agreement.  Moreover, the IMF updated these assumptions with new estimates for forward oil prices as part of its Kuwait Conference presentation.

A recent article[6] noted “using realized prices of Iraqi oil of $49.1/bbl for 2017, and assuming Iraqi oil prices of $60/bbl for 2018, then declining to $51/bbl in 2022, would produce a cumulative surplus of $47.4bn for 2017-2022 instead of the earlier assumed cumulative deficit of $17.6bn”[7].  While using higher estimates for oil prices would result in a cumulative surplus of $78.2bn. In the first scenario Iraq could fund the reconstruction by a combination of $50bn from its oil revenues and $27bn from borrowings, and the final $11bn from aid/donations, which is in-line with the assumptions made by the IMF at the Kuwait conference.  While, in the second scenario Iraq could fund the reconstruction by a combination of $80bn from its oil revenues and $8bn from borrowings which is a vastly different proposition.

Given the impossibility of forecasting future oil prices, especially up to 2022, this article will consider the data for 2017-2019 given the higher degree of predictability in this short timeframe.

The IMF updated its global growth projections to +3.9% for both 2018 & 2019, up from its previous projections of 3.7% for both which was made in late 2017 as part of its World Economic Outlook (WEO) in April[8]. It believes that the upswing that began in 2016 has accelerated since then but it expects that it will taper off afterword’s. These coupled with changed dynamics in the oil supply/demand imply higher oil price assumptions for the period, which for the short-term has positive implications for oil exporting nations in MENA as outlined in its Regional Economic Outlook (ROE) May[9].

For Iraq, these would have huge implications for its economic profile for 2017-2019 and thus to its ability to start funding the huge reconstruction demands. The table below looks at the original IMF estimates for Iraq’s budget 2017-2019[10] versus updated estimates for 2017-2019 based on the latest actual data for 2017 and updated estimates for oil prices.

For sources & assumptions see endnote[11]

The updated assumptions for 2017-2019 imply a cumulative surplus of $28.1bn vs earlier assumptions of a cumulative deficit of $22.8. Although Iraq has identified funding sources for each year during the budget planning stages, it is likely that it would have not utilized them due to the higher revenues as a result of the higher than planned oil prices. These unused funding sources could be as high as $14.3bn[12].

Irrespective of the above, the upcoming government should have a cumulative surplus of $18.8bn by the end of 2018 which can be used to start the reconstruction process, which coupled with the likely surplus of $9.3bn in 2019 would give the country a great deal of flexibility to fund further reconstruction over the near-term. This flexibility would be augmented by $30bn, over five years, in investments and trade credit guarantees that Iraq received during the Kuwait Conference in February[13].

The effect of this spending flexibility on economic activity is enormous, in that should the surpluses be spent on reconstruction from 2019 over a two-year period, this would be equivalent to an economic stimulus of 14.5%[14] of 2019’s non-oil GDP over this period. This is a major economic stimulus by any account that would be magnified over the next five-years should the $30bn in pledges that Iraq received materialize.

However, the risk, and the likelihood, is that the upcoming government would succumb to public pressures to use some of this extra fiscal flexibility on populist measures. Such pressures have already been applied by parliament as it amended the budget by removing the 3.8% tax on salaries and pensions to appease an angry electorate in an election year. The elections marked by the continued pro-reform demonstrations since 2015, and the large active non-participation movement imply that the upcoming government would increase spending on populist measures to pacify the electorate and provide a visible peace divided.  In fact, the updated estimates for 2018 & 2109 in the table above reflect the expectations of higher expenditures, which would narrow the surplus for these two years, which in turn would detract from the funds available for infrastructure investment.

A further risk is the country’s corrosive corruption which would find breathing space as a result of higher oil revenues, especially if they are spent on populist measures, in the process relieving public pressures on the government to reform and to expose corruption. Moreover, the practice post-2003 of using state contracts as a means of reinforcing political influence on selected players in the private sector could continue, further entrenching corruption, with the government ability to fund the reconstruction and ability to award contracts.

Even, if the government would not succumb to populist measures, it would still need to resort to borrowing to continue funding the reconstruction. This is especially true given the high level of government expenditures, especially its public-sector payroll and social security spending. Moreover, higher oil prices for 2017-2019 will likely lead to the government to slow the pace of fiscal consolidation in response to public demands. This therefore means that budget surpluses will decline in time, especially as oil prices are likely to moderate in the coming years[15].

Borrowing, especially from the commercial debt markets, imposes a much-needed discipline on the government to adhere to sound fiscal policy and to continue the path of reducing its role in the economy and encouraging the development of the private sector[16]. Combined with the IMF’s 2016 Stand-By Agreement (SBA) this should help ensure sustainable macroeconomic stability.

Iraq’s ability to assume debt that is sustainable and within the confines of maintaining macroeconomic stability is much higher than assumed by many who merely look at the headline figure. An upcoming report by the author looks into the composition and background of Iraq’s debt[17]. The IMF estimates the total debt to be $122.9bn by end of 2017[18], made up of external debt of $73.7bn and domestic debt of $49.2bn.

However, $41bn out the external debt is to non-Paris Club creditors, mostly the GCC nations, that date back to the pre-2003 regime which are under negotiations to reduce them on the same terms as applied by the Paris Club of creditors. Should this happen they would likely be reduced by 90% to $4.1bn[19]. Therefore, including the unused borrowing for the 2017 deficit, this means that actual debt by end of 2017 is more likely to be $71.7bn[20] than the headline figure of $122.9bn. This would imply debt/GDP ratios of 37.3% for 2017 and 32.1% for 2018[21], giving Iraq plenty of scope to assume debts of up to $40bn and still keep debt/GDP ratio under 50% for 2018[22].

A sea change in Iraq’s position has taken place since the months leading up to the Kuwait Conference, but perceptions have not. Iraq’s position was that of a country with a debt/GDP ratio of 63.8%/65.3% for 2017/18, that needs to borrow to fund its budget deficit for the next few years and thus needs aid/donations to fund an urgent and massive reconstruction. The sea change, based on the IMF’s May REO, is that Iraq now has a debt/GDP ratio of 58%/54.7% for 2017/18, a budget surplus and can start to fund its reconstruction. This article further shows that Iraq can start funding its reconstruction in 2018 with $18.8bn in cumulative surpluses based on current oil prices. If the argument above on the underlying nature of its debt were to unfold then Iraq can add to this by accessing $40bn in the debt markets- which is far more than its immediate needs for reconstruction.

The underlying positive for Iraq that is fortunately to a large extent free from any government planning, or mismanagement, is that the reconstruction along the lines described by the joint study of the World Bank Group (WBG) and Iraq’s Ministry of Planning (MoP), on its own, will generate substitutional non-oil economic activity[23]. This activity can over the course of the next five years provide the non-oil economy with sufficient momentum for Iraq to escape its high oil dependence, which no government has attempted before. The silver lining of the trauma caused by the ISIS conflict, coupled with collapsing oil prices was that Iraq, in spite of all the improbable odds, united and climbed its way out of the abyss and of total disintegration. Given Iraq’s ability to start self-funding the reconstruction, a similar silver lining is that the recovery from the same trauma, in the form of reconstruction, could lead the country’s evolution away from pure oil dependence.

Disclaimer

Ahmed Tabaqchali’s comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

 

[1] http://www.iraq-businessnews.com/2018/02/22/its-not-the-donations-stupid-key-points-from-kuwait-conf/ – _edn3

 

[2] IMF’s estimates and presentation in the Kuwait conference are at:  Session 3 after clicking on the pdf icon of the presentation. Presentation starts at minute 8.20 on the youtube link on the link below: –

https://view.publitas.com/1692ac51-faf7-464f-a9c2-1784ed1da647/iraq-reconstruction-and-investment-part-3-investment-opportunities-and-reforms/page/1

IMF’s earlier estimates are from Country Report No. 17/251

 

[3] 2017 estimates: Oil exports accounted for 99% of all exports, Oil revenues accounted for 87% of government revenues which in turn accounted for 32% of total GDP. Moreover, Oil GDP accounted for 38% of total GDP and indirectly accounts for the bulk on non-Oil GDP as the government’s orders drives non-Oil GDP (source: Country Report No. 17/251).

 

[4] A report by the author discusses this dynamic and the government response http://www.iraq-businessnews.com/2017/07/17/economic-consequences-post-mosul/. Some highlights of which are “The government maintained overall spending on salaries and pensions, but it introduced new and increased existing consumption taxes on a large number of consumables while it also increased utility prices, Non-oil investments bore the brunt of the cuts as the government sharply curtailed all capital spending and investments.”

 

[5] https://markets.ft.com/data/commodities/tearsheet/summary?c=Brent+Crude+Oil

Iraqi oil sells for about $5/bbl discount to Brent.

 

[6] http://www.iraq-businessnews.com/2018/05/23/market-review-elections-the-economy-and-the-stock-market/

 

[7] The deficit of $17.6bn was based on IMF estimates made in 2017 (Country Report No. 17/251). The IMF has since then updated its revenue estimates higher based on higher oil prices which imply a much lower cumulative deficit than the one used here, but these estimates were only up to 2019 and hence old estimates are still used. Updated data is at: World Economic Outlook April 2018 & Regional Economic Outlook May 2018 in the two footnotes below.

 

The estimates depend on IMF projections which assume that the government spending would continue to be constrained but this is unlikely given public demands for an ease as a result of higher oil prices. This will be balanced in this report’s higher oil price assumptions such that the surpluses would be the similar as will be seen later in this report and in the author’s other recent publications.

 

[8] https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2018/03/20/world-economic-outlook-april-2018

 

[9] http://www.imf.org/en/Publications/REO/MECA/Issues/2018/04/24/mreo0518 (data only until 2019)

 

[10] IMF Iraq Country Report No. 17/251 (http://www.imf.org/~/media/Files/Publications/CR/2017/cr17251.ashx). The IMF assumptions are used throughout for assumptions made in 2017, instead of available Iraq budget figures for 2017 & 2018, to ensure consistency with other estimates used throughout. Moreover, the data from the IMF country report 17/251 are used instead of the IMF updated data (footnotes above) as the updated figures provide only headline numbers without specific details that are needed for a full analysis.

Note: figures are rounded, and so total figures might not add up fully.

 

Below are the main differences between IMF projections and those of Iraq’s budgets for 2017 & 2018, and Iraq’s actual 2017 budget spending.

 

Iraq’s budget vs IMF projections for 2017

  • Iraq’s budget
    • Total revenues of $66.8bn made up of oil revenues of $57.5bn based on oil price of $42/bbl, and total exports of 3.75mbbl/d. These exports include the KRG’s exports of 0.55mbbl/d.
      • The agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was for it to export 0.55mbbl/d through Iraq’s State Oil Marketing Organization (SOMO). In return the KRG would receive 17%, less sovereign expenses, of the federal budget. However, neither have fulfilled their obligations, yet, both of Iraq’s budget and the IMF budget assumptions include the KRG’s oil exports and its share of expenditure.
    • Expenditures of $82.2bn, creating a deficit of $18.3bn.
  • IMF projections:
    • Total revenues of $69.2bn made up from oil revenues of $61.3bn based on oil price of $45.3/bbl and total exports 3.8mbbl/d, and non-oil revenues of $7.5bn
    • Expenditures of $79bn, creating a deficit of $9.8bn

 

Iraq’s preliminary budget vs IMF projections for 2018

  • Iraq’s budget
    • Total revenues of $77.5bn made up from oil revenues of $65.2bn based on oil price of $46/bbl, and total exports of 3.888mbbl/d. These exports include the KRG’s exports of 0.55mbbl/d.
    • Expenditures of $88.1bn creating a deficit of $10.6bn
  • IMF Projections
    • Total revenues of $73.9bn made up from oil revenues of $64.3bn based on oil price of $45.5/bbl, and total exports 3.9mbbl/d and non-oil revenues of $9.3bn
    • Expenditures of $83.4bn creating a deficit of $9.5bn

 

Iraq’s actual 2017 budget revenues and expenditures based on Ministry of Finance (MoF) data

  • Oil revenues of $55.3bn, which exclude the revenues from the KRG’s direct exports of 0.55mbbl/d (included in the IMF projections in the table used and in Iraq’s budget planning). These revenues would have been higher than planned by the government which assumed an oil price of $42/bbl total, including KRG, exports of 3.75mbbl/d vs the realized price estimated at $49.2. They are also higher than the IMF est.’s which assumed a $45.5/bbl on total exports of 3.8mbbl/d.
    • If the KRG’s exports of 0.55mbbl/d were sold at the same price, then total revenues would have been $73.6bn vs the Iraq budget plans of $57.5bn or the IMF’s estimate of $61.3bn. This reflects the budgets sensitivity of $1.4n to every $1 change in oil prices.
  • Non-oil revenues of $9.9bn for total revenues of $65.4bn (ex-KRG oil revenues).
  • Expenditures, which excluded the KRG’s share of the budget, were $63.8bn or showing a surplus of $1.6bn.
    • If the KRG’s planned $6.4bn expenditures were to be included, total expenditure would have been $70.2bn vs the planned $82.2bn, which would have resulted in a surplus of $3.4bn.

 

 

Note:  Revenues for 2017, and likely for 2018, benefited from higher than planned oil prices. But, expenditures in 2017, and likely in 2018, were lower than planned. The under execution of the budget expenditure, especially on capital spending, is an ongoing feature of Iraqi governments due to the country’s weak institutional capacity and which possess a risk to the reconstructing effort.

 

Sources for this footnote:

http://www.mof.gov.iq/obs/_layouts/obsServices/DownloadObs.aspx?SourceUrl=%2fobs%2fObsDocuments%2fYear-End+Report+Folder+-+مجلد+تقارير+نهاية+السنة%2fEnd-Year+Report+2017.xlsx

http://www.bayancenter.org/en/2018/03/1461/

(http://www.imf.org/~/media/Files/Publications/CR/2017/cr17251.ashx).

http://www.mof.gov.iq/obs/_layouts/obsServices/DownloadObs.aspx?SourceUrl=%2fobs%2fObsDocuments%2fYear-End+Report+Folder+-+مجلد+تقارير+نهاية+السنة%2fEnd-Year+Report+2017.xlsx

 

 

 

[11] Sources: IMF Iraq Country Report No. 17/251, IMF World Economic Outlook (WEO) April 2018 database, IMF Regional Economic Outlook (REO) statistical appendix, Iraqi Ministry of Finance (MoF).

Assumptions:

  • Updated figures for 2017 are from MoF which show revenues and expenditures for 2017 excluding those for the KRG. However, MoF and IMF estimates and planed budget include those of the KRG (see details in footnote 9).
  • Iraqi oil price averaged $63.5 for Jan-Jun, while Jun’s average was $69.9. The YTD average is used as an estimate for the full year.
  • Total updated revenues for 2018 & 2019 include higher non-oil revenues as the IMF in May’s REO increased its growth rate for non-oil GDP to +4.4%/+5% for 2018/2019 up from 2.4%/3.7%
  • Revenues are estimates based on updated oil price assumptions while expenditures are the updated IMF’s estimates.
  • Updated Expenditures reflect expectations that the government will ease back on its tight fiscal consolidation, however, they might very well be off-set by the historic tendency for lower budget executions.

 

[12] The IMF (Country Report No. 17/251 P: 28) notes “The program is fully financed through the next twelve months, but there is a financing gap of $7.1bn in late 2018 and 2019. The authorities have contacted one donor to fill the 2018–19 financing gap, for which there is good prospect”. The financing gap is made up of $5bn and $2.1bn respectively 2018 & 2019. Which implies that Iraq has achieved full financing for 2017’s $9.8bn deficit, $4.5bn out of 2018’s $9.5bn deficit., and $1.3bn out of 2019’s $3.4bn deficit.

 

Since the actual budget achieved a surplus for 2017 and would likely achieve a surplus in 2018, then Iraq has borrowed $14.3bn ($9.8bn + $4.5bn see above) to fund a deficit that did not materialize and so the funds could either not be drawn which would lower overall debit or used to fund reconstruction projects.

 

However, it should be noted that “fully financed” does not imply that the all of the funds were delivered to Iraq but that funding agreements were made.

 

[13] https://uk.reuters.com/article/mideast-crisis-iraq-reconstruction/factbox-pledges-made-for-iraqs-reconstruction-in-kuwait-idUKL8N1Q55RY

 

[14] This would be about 8.4% of 2019’s updated GDP estimate, but as it would be spent on reconstruction it would be a stimulus of about 14.5% of non-oil GDP. It would have an added significance in that the planned for deficits would have been accompanied by restricted capital spending and continued fiscal consolidation by the government, the reversal of which alone would have expansionary effects.

 

[15] The major shortcoming of the successive governments since 2003, was to use most of the oil revenues on expanding the public payroll and social security spending as main vehicle for transfer of oil wealth. As a result very little of oil revenues went towards reconstructing and building the country’s physical capital that would contribute towards diversification away from oil and to economic sustainability. The upshot is high oil dependence with the resultant vulnerability to external forces, import dependence, weak/small private sector and a skewed labor market.

 

Without a fundamental change of track, such as that agreed by the IMF’s 2016 SBA, the fruits of the country’s expanding energy production profile as a result will perpetuate this process. However, this is unsustainable given Iraq’s large rapidly growing population whose needs for public sector jobs cannot be met under any optimistic scenarios for increased oil production or prices.

 

The upshot, is the fundamental change of track along the SBA guidance will take a number of years to unfold, and as such the public-sector payroll and social security spending will continue to account for the bulk of government expenditure and thus the need for accessing the debt markets to fund reconstruction down the road.

 

[16] As can be seen from the author’s report on Iraq’s debt (link on next footnote) that Iraq’s only debt on truly commercial terms are two Eurobonds worth $3.7bn: A $2.7bn bond issued in 2006, due in 2028 with a 5.8% interest rate; and a $1.0bn bond issued in 2017, due in 2023 with a 6.5% interest rate. However, the third $1bn bond issued in 2017, due in 2022, is guaranteed 100% by the U.S. government, with a 2.1% interest rate, and as such does not constitute debt on commercial terms.

 

Therefore, should Iraq access the commercial debt markets these would require fiscal discipline to assure the markets that debt would be serviced. Some of the requirements would take into account, debt repayments as a percentage of exports, currency stability and the level of foreign reserves in relations to months of imports, balance of payments, budget balance as a percentage of GDP. They would also take into account other liabilities and contingent liabilities such as the state guarantees discussed in footnote #22 below. All of these requirements will affect the amount of debt raised and the interest rate it would carry, which would place a much-needed significant fiscal discipline on the government. Coupled with the huge demands for reconstruction they should help ensure that Iraq’s governments pursue sound fiscal policies while following sustainable macroeconomic stability.

 

[17] Link to be provided in an updated version of this report.

 

[18] Updated figures in REO show that the updated figure for 2017 is $114.6bn of which foreign debt is $68bn. However, the older assumptions of 2017 are used as they are part of longer term projections, and crucially they served as the basis for Iraq securing finding for the expected deficits as explained in an earlier footnote.

 

[19] The IMF notes: “These arrears can be tolerated under the Fund’s policy on Arrears to Official Bilateral Creditors because the Paris Club Agreement was found to be adequately representative (i.e., Paris Club creditors provided most of the financing contributions required from official bilateral creditors in the context of that agreement) and the authorities have since been making best efforts to conclude agreements with non-Paris Club creditors on Paris Club comparable terms. Negotiations to implement debt relief on the same terms as with the Paris Club creditors, i.e. an 89.75 percent net present value reduction, are ongoing.”.

 

In the current environment of the rebuilding of the relationship between Iraq and the GCC it is very likely that these negotiations will lead to a grand bargain in which both sides agree to the same 90% debt reduction in exchange for investment opportunities and long-term agreements.

 

[20] $122.9bn less: (1) 90% of $41 or $36.9bn, (2) Unused deficit funding of $14.3

 

[21] The IMF’s updated GDP figures for 2017/2018 are $197.76bn/ $223.3 and GDP/Debt ratios of 58%/54.4%

 

[22] It should be noted that the government has issued 11 state guarantees that affect the total amount of debt that it can take as these are contingent liabilities. These are a total of $36bn made of which the largest is $32.4bn in guarantees of service payments to independent power producers (IPPs) in the electricity sector for the 14 years of the contacts.  This makes it essential for the government to continue with the electricity sector reform and ensure the collection of tariffs-the failure of which will make the state liable to fulfil its guarantees to the IPP’s which would add to the debt.

 

Separately, the IMF aware of all of the above liabilities, in its presentation in the Kuwait Conference, had argued that Iraq should be able to borrow up to $36bn over the next five-years while its debt to GDP would be around 50% by 2022-23. These were made under lower oil price assumptions, with more fiscal discipline in expenditures, over a longer time frame, but without the benefit of the 90% haircut to the $41bn in debt.

http://www.iraq-businessnews.com/2018/02/22/its-not-the-donations-stupid-key-points-from-kuwait-conf/ – _edn4

 

[23] The IMF has attributed reconstruction for increasing its non-oil GDP growth rates to +4.4%/+5% for 2018/2019 up from prior +2.4%/+3.7%.

 

These figures could be higher should the full $88bn in reconstruction spending be embarked upon over the next five years as that would be a stimulus equivalent to about 14% of non-oil GDP in each year over the five-year period. While, it is ambitious to assume that all of that amount would be properly spent, yet even half that amount would create the conditions for self-sustaining economic activity for the non-oil sector.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS). He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

Market Review: Elections, the Economy and the Stock Market

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Market Review:  The Elections, the Economy and the Stock Market

A key aspect of the Iraq investment opportunity is arbitraging the delta between real and perceived risk. The perceptions of the widely covered parliamentary elections fit within this arbitrage opportunity in that they miss the mark by a wide margin.

The May elections did not result in an overall winner with an outright majority (165 seats among the parliament’s 329 seats) enabling the formation of a government. Instead, they produced winners and losers who will eventually form a coalition government. At the lead is Sairoon, a coalition of Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, Communists and Liberals, with 54 seats; followed by Fateh, a coalition of the political arms of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU’s), with 48 seats; finally, Nasr, the Prime Minister’s (PM) coalition, with 42 seats.

The rest are made up of: five different coalitions each with 18-25 seats; four coalitions each with 4-6 seats; and finally, a gaggle each with 1-3 seats. The next step would be the formation of an alliance of coalitions that would, on the first day of the new parliament by end of June, have the largest number of seats to enable it to have a PM with a chance of forming a government. The whole process should take a few weeks but, in the past, it took a few months.

The winning coalitions, irrespective of their lead player, are all cross-sectarian unlike the prior ethno-sectarian monolithic blocs that dominated over the past 14 years – a division that was the root cause of Iraq’s political and social instability since 2003. Moreover, for the first time since 2003 there was a strong mass opposition to these ethno-sectarian monolithic blocs that manifested

in an active non-participation movement. This led to an election participation turnout of 44.5%, which in turn had huge effects on the seats won and lost by the different coalitions.

Drilling further into the leading blocks shows neither they nor their leading players conform to simplistic assumptions. For example, Muqtada Al Sadr is often described as a firebrand cleric who is anti-secular, anti-Western and pro-Iran as a result of his leading role in Iraq’s dark history since 2003. Yet, at least outwardly, he went through a transformation to a firebrand cleric who is anti-Iran and anti-its proxies in Iraq, whose alliance with Communists and Seculars kept the 2015 pro-reform demonstrations alive and relevant.

Moreover, he was a leading player in rebuilding Iraq’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE – both received him in their capitals in 2017 to further this rebuilding. The second leading coalition, Fateh, a grouping of the political arms of the supposedly pro-Iranian PMU’s, although not all are, is led by Iranian-allied Bader Organization. Yet Bader has been a part of every Iraqi government since 2005, responsible for the Ministry of the Interior, and as such a major part of the next phase of Western support for Iraq in rebuilding its security apparatus in the long-term fight against ISIS.

The most visible fruit of which has been the decline of violence since the end of the Mosul campaign and in the first violence free elections (see chart below). Finally, the Naser coalition which is led by the PM and while much admired for leading the fight against ISIS, he suffers from perceptions of failure to address the demands of the demonstrators since 2015. Although an unfair criticism given the overriding priority to deal with the ISIS invasion, it was behind much of the reason for his collation’s third place showing. Nonetheless, his chances of returning as a PM capable of leading a workable government are high.

UN Casualty figures for Iraq November 2012 – April 2018

(Source: United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), for 8 months from 2015 UNAMI, in some cases, could only partially verify certain incidents)

Optimists see the potential for a coalition governing with a clear reform agenda and with a proper opposition in parliament providing a check on the government. The pessimists however see a repeat of the prior coalition governments that were made up of all groupings in parliament, and thus no real change to the failures since 2003. However, irrespective of who would be right, a few things are clear that would have implications for Iraq’s economy, the investment opportunity in Iraq and the stock market.

The combination of the lead by Sadr’s coalition, the continued pro-reform demonstrations since 2015, and the large active non-participation movement together imply that the upcoming government would need to address the issues at the heart of the public’s anger. This would be the provision of services and reconstruction, which require much needed overdue investments in the country’s infrastructure and the reconstruction of the liberated areas.

The new oil price dynamics have a huge positive implication on Iraq’s ability to provide funds for this massive investment spending estimated at USD 88bn over the next five years. Current estimates for the country’s revenues for 2017-2022 are based on Iraqi oil price assumptions of USD 45.3/bbl in 2017 and increasing to USD 47.1/bbl by 2022. These estimates would result in a cumulative deficit of USD 17.6bn, thereby increasing the debt load, necessitating borrowing to fund the deficit and restrict the ability to fund reconstruction. This implies the need for outside aid and investment to fund reconstruction.

However, different assumptions based on the new oil price dynamics would provide a vastly different picture. For instance, using realized prices of Iraqi oil of USD 49.2/bbl for 2017, and assuming Iraqi oil prices of USD 60/bbl for 2018, then declining to USD 51/bbl in 2022, would produce a cumulative surplus of USD 47.4bn instead of the earlier assumed cumulative deficit of USD 17.6bn. In other words, this equals a turnaround of USD 65bn in potential available funds.

While, an assumption of an oil price of USD 64/bbl for 2018, then declining to USD 55/bbl by 2022 would produce a cumulative surplus of USD 78.2bn, or a turnaround of USD 95bn in in potential available funds.

Granted some of this windfall will result in higher government spending, especially on populist measures which would be detracting from the funds available for infrastructure investment. Though this would nevertheless be a large positive for consumer confidence and economic activity, all of which would ultimately support the earnings profile of consumer service providers and the banking sector.

In the immediate term, given the impossibility of forecasting future oil prices out to 2022, if Iraq’s oil price was to hold the YTD average for the remainder of 2018, it would convert the IMF 2018 projected deficit of USD 9.5bn into a surplus of USD 10.9bn. This means a turnaround of USD 20bn in potential available funds. Coupled with a slight positive variance to 2019 projections, this would provide Iraq with enough fiscal flexibility to start directly funding the immediate needs for reconstruction. This changed fiscal position would further allow it to comfortably access debt markets at reasonable rates to build upon this reconstruction. The potential addition of regional investments led by Saudi Arabia, as discussed here in the past, could lead to a self-reinforcing investment cycle.

The stock market’s action in the weeks before and after the elections has been business as usual and very much followed the same themes discussed over the last few months. This is an indication of how much negative news the market has discounted over the last three years that saw the index, as measured by the RSISUSD Index, decline -68% from its 2014 peak to the 2016 bottom.

Through 22nd May the market was down -3.9% for the month, bringing the year to date gains to +5.8%. The daily market action has been almost identical to that of the prior month with the same low turnover, the same buying in the selected leading stocks and the same selling in the banks based on the same fears.

The response of the currency to the elections for the most part matches that of the market with the market price of the Iraqi Dinar (IQD) weakening versus the USD in the days around the elections but returning to the same levels at the start of the month. The upshot, is that the premium of the market price of the IQD over the official exchange rate increased from 1.2% at the end of April, reaching 2% just before the elections and is now back to 1.2%.

The issue that continues to dominate the market is the timing of the return of liquidity as a result of the expansionary effects of higher oil prices and the end of conflict. As discussed here in the past, the observed time lag between Y-Y changes in oil revenues and Y-Y changes in M2 has been about 7-9 months which suggests that M2 growth should see improvement over the next few months as the chart below implies: it shifts the Y-Y percentage change in M2 back by 9 months versus the Y-Y percentage change in oil revenues. However, it is complicated by the additional time taken up by pre and after elections, and the additional time needed for the formation of the new government. All of which will delay this recovery but would likely result in a large back-end loaded return of liquidity.

Oil Revenues (green) vs the RSISUSD Index (red)

(Source: ISX Central bank of Iraq, Iraq’s Ministry of Oil, AFC.)
(Note: M2 as of Jan. with AFC est.’s for Feb & Mar, Oil revenues as of Mar with AFC estimates for Apr & May)

As argued here in the recent past, the backdrop continues to be positive: historically the equity market, as measured by the RSISUSD Index, has tended to follow oil revenues with a time lag of 3-6 months as the chart below shows.

Iraq’s Oil Revenues (green) vs the RSISUSD Index (red)

(Source: Iraq’s Ministry of Oil, Rabee Securities, Iraq Stock Exchange, AFC)
(Oil revenues are as of Mar with estimates by AFC for Apr & May)

Given the time lag involved and the delay over the formation of the new government, this will probably unfold over the next few months and the recovery will likely be in fits and starts with plenty of zig-zags along the way. This continues to underscore the opportunity to acquire attractive assets that have yet to discount a sustainable economic recovery.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS). He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

_______________________

[1] Source of current estimates on Iraq (deficit, oil price, revenues etc) are from the IMF Iraq Country Report No. 17/251 (http://www.imf.org/~/media/Files/Publications/CR/2017/cr17251.ashx). Updated assumptions are the author’s calculations based on the above source

Market Review: Market Consolidates & Banks Correct

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The market’s consolidation continued for the second month running with both turnover and the market continuing to decline. Average daily turnover declined by about -57% from that of the prior month, itself down about -15% from the preceding month. The market, as measured by the RSISUSD Index, paced these declines, down -5.8% for the month (see chart below) but up +10.1% YTD.

While a monthly market decline of -5.8% following a -2.6% decline the prior month might be thought of as a correction and a not a consolidation. Yet the term consolidation is more appropriate given the internal market dynamics which are not captured fully by the RSISUSD Index given its heavy representation by banks with a 51% weighting and almost 40% of that accounted for by lower-quality banks.

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), Rabee Securities, Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

Buying by both locals and foreigners continued in the high-quality names such as mobile operator Asiacell (TASC) and Pepsi bottler Baghdad Soft Drinks (IBSD), up +68% and +49% respectively YTD. Foreign buying in these names has been consistent and persistent since early December, 2017 driven by improving fundamentals as discussed in January’s article. The high-quality banks which joined the rally in February, discussed in February’s article, have been dragged lower over the last two months by concerns over the earnings outlook for the lower-quality banks.

This concern has been driven by the declining margins on foreign exchange dealings as a consequence of the narrowing of premium of the market price over the official exchange rate of the Iraqi dinar (IQD) vs the USD, as will be explained below.

As discussed in the last few months, increasing signs of an improvement in liquidity in the broader economy have resulted in steady improvement in the market price of the IQD vs the USD, lowering its premium over the official exchange rate to 1.2%- the lowest point in a number of years from just under 6% at the end of 2017, and  10% at the end of 2016 (see chart below). Although, the premium would likely return to the 2-4% range once this liquidity feeds into increased consumer spending and the resultant increase in demand for imports.

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq, Iraqi currency exchange houses, Asia Frontier Capital)

(Note: The Spikes in 2012, 2013 & 2015 were due to CBI policies that restricted the sale of USD, but abandoned after causing a rise in market rates)

The Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) conducts daily currency auctions in which participating banks buy the USD at the official exchange rate on behalf of clients: international transfers mostly to finance private sector imports, and fixed/limited cash payments to meet citizen’s needs for travel. The attractiveness of buying the USD at the official rate and selling it at the market rate has made the system susceptible to abuse and has led to lower-quality banks focusing on it almost exclusively as a source of revenues.

Higher quality banks, in particular those majority owned by regional banks, have either avoided the auctions or tended to use them sparingly especially in the last two years. The upshot is that while FX spreads constitute the bulk of earnings for the lower quality banks, they are one of many sources of revenues for the higher quality banks.

Worries on the banks’ earnings power from shrinking FX spreads have been one of many reasons that high-quality banks have outperformed the lower-quality ones in the last few months, yet the speed of the narrowing of FX spreads has led to fears that this would affect the higher quality banks in a similar fashion. Coupled with foreign selling in some of the higher-quality names exasperated these declines and resulted in them trading at valuations that are at extreme odds to the underlying improving fundaments in their outlooks.

These are the bottoming of the negative developments that prevailed over the last three years, i.e. declining/negative deposit growth, declining/negative loan growth and increasing non-performing loans (NPL’s). Their outlook is brightening as the expansionary effects from the reversal of the escalating costs of conflict and collapsing oil prices that crushed the economy in 2014 provides them room to recover further and grow.

The valuations of the higher quality banks are as attractive as they were in mid-2017, discussed in the July 2017 article, but the current outlook and the state of the economy are significantly better today.  The table below is a snapshot of current valuations of three of the “bluest-chip” banks, but to appreciate the significance, a quick review of the banking sector:

  • Less than 20% of the population have bank accounts and out of those that do, about 60% have their deposits and loans with state banks, which in turn control over 90% of total assets and deposits;
  • Lending is a small part of most bank’s income stream which is mostly from trade related fee income esp. trade financing, other fee income, interest income from T-Bills, and deposits with the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI);
  • Banks are extremely liquid; most assets are in cash and cash equivalents, consisting of cash deposits with other banks and with the CBI, CBI & Ministry of Finance T-Bills;
  • Book values are understated vs banks elsewhere given the low interest income generation and the high dividend-pay-out ratio;
  • Note: Bank of Baghdad’s dividends are assumed to be in-line with last year’s which might be optimistic, Mansour Bank’s are based on dividends declared in March and Commercial Bank’s are based on its stated dividend intention to be confirmed in its upcoming AGM next week.

(Source: Company reports, ISX, AFC, Data based on latest trailing 12 months)
(Note: Prices as of 03 May 2018. Fundamental data from the latest quarter (unaudited) and not average of last two years as in the last few quarters some banks have cut their loan books significantly through increased provisions and write-offs and enforcing loan repayments)

As reported in the March article, the improved government finances have yet to be reflected in a return of liquidity to the economy as measured by growth in broad money supply.  While this is likely to happen over the next few months, the timing would probably be delayed and complicated by the uncertainties and government paralysis ahead of the parliamentary elections on 12th May, and the subsequent negotiations over the formation of the new government.

The low turnover during the month, a likely function of the uncertainties during the election season, underscores that the increased liquidity in the form of both local and foreign inflows reported over the last few months needs to be maintained for the market’s consolidation to lead to further recovery and for this recovery to be sustainable.

The backdrop continues to be positive as the sustained improvements in government finances should ultimately lead to better market action. The time lag involved coupled with the election uncertainties, implies the recovery will likely unfold over the next few months and it will likely be in fits and starts with plenty of zig-zags along the way. Which continues to underscore the opportunity to acquire attractive assets that have yet to discount a sustainable economic recovery.

For those who have not been to Baghdad recently, this article is worth a read as it shows that the decline of violence is felt with a return of night life in Baghdad.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS). He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

Market Review: Market Consolidates

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The market consolidated its recent gains with both prices and turnover declining from those of the prior month. Average daily turnover declined by about 15% from that of the prior month with the second half of the month seeing even bigger declines in daily turnover (see chart below). The decline in turnover was paced by declines in the overall market with the RSISUSD Index down -2.6% for the month and up 16.9% YTD.

Daily Turnover Index on the ISX (green line) vs its moving average (red line)

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

Foreign buying declined significantly from the strong pace of the prior month but remained consistent and at relatively high-levels in contrast to the on-off buying patterns of last year. Foreign selling dropped to the lowest level over the last 12 months (see chart below) which taken with the continued buying, implies that the Iraqi equity market is still in the early phases of foreign inflows.

Index of foreign buying (green) & selling (red) on the ISX

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

The increasing signs of the improvement in liquidity, discussed in recent newsletters, continued through the improvement in the market rates of the IQD vs. the USD.  Given, the dollarization of the economy, it follows that the strength or weakness of the IQD is a function of demand-supply balance for IQD and not a specific USD weakness or strength.  During the month the market price of the IQD vs the USD improved by about +1%, lowering the premium over the official exchange rate to its lowest point in a number of years to 2.1% from just under 6% at the end of 2017 (see chart below)

Iraqi Dinar (IQD) exchange rate vs the USD Jan 2014 – Mar 2018

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq, Iraqi currency exchange houses, Asia Frontier Capital)

(Note: The Spike in 2015 was due to a CBI policy that restricted the sale of USD, but was abandoned alter after causing a rise in parallel rates)

A great deal of this recovery is related to the recovery in oil prices and thus government finances that began in November 2016 as evidenced by the gradual decline of the premium over the official exchange rate from 10% in November 2016. The first visible beneficiaries were the country’s foreign reserves held with the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), which increased to over USD 50bn by March vs USD 45.2bn at end of 2016, and the IMF’s estimates of USD 41.5bn by end of 2017. This was driven by less need for indirect monetary operations by the CBI to finance the budget deficit given improved government finances.

The improved finances were manifested through the flexibility gained by the changed dynamics of oil prices, which over the course of the last 12 months had a sustainable positive effect on these finances as Iraqi oil prices averaged about USD 49/bbl throughout 2017 vs. 2017 budget assumptions of USD 42/bbl, and YTD averaged about USD 61/bbl vs 2018 budget assumptions of USD 48/bbl. This was first expressed through a smaller budget deficit and thus less of a need for indirect monetary operations by the CBI and less borrowings, which should lead to greater flexibility for the government to allocate more resources to reconstruction and capital spending.

Given the centrality of government expenditures to the economy and the declining cost of the ISIS war, the improved finances should be reflected by a return of liquidity to the economy, but, this is yet to happen. Historically the observed time lag between Y-Y changes in oil revenues and Y-Y changes in M2 has been about 7-9 months which suggests that M2 growth should see improvement over the next few months as the chart below implies: it shifts the Y-Y percentage change in M2 back by 9 months versus the Y-Y percentage change in oil revenues. However, this is complicated by the uncertainties and government paralysis ahead of the parliamentary elections on May 12th which will likely delay this recovery.

Oil Revenues (green) vs the RSISUSD Index (red)

(Source: ISX Central bank of Iraq, Iraq’s Ministry of Oil, AFC.)

(Note: M2 as of Dec. with AFC est.’s for Jan & Feb., Oil revenues as of Feb. with AFC est.’s for Mar.)

The increased liquidity in the form of both local and foreign inflows reported over the last few months needs to be maintained for the market’s consolidation to lead to further recovery, and for this recovery to be sustainable. The backdrop continues to be positive as the sustained improvements in government finances should ultimately lead to better market action: historically the equity market, as measured by the RSISUSD Index, has tended to follow the improvement in government oil revenues with a time lag of 3-6 months as the chart below shows.

Iraq’s Oil Revenues (green) vs the RSISUSD Index (red)

(Source: Iraq’s Ministry of Oil, Rabee Securities, Iraq Stock Exchange, Asia Frontier Capital)
(Oil revenues are as of Feb with estimates by AFC for Mar)

Given the time lag involved and the election uncertainties, this will likely unfold over the next few months and the recovery will likely be in fits and starts with plenty of zig-zags along the way. This continues to underscore the opportunity to acquire attractive assets that have yet to discount a sustainable economic recovery.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS). He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

Market Review: Momentum & High-Quality Leadership

By Ahmed Tabaqchali (pictured), CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The positive momentum which started during the second half of January continued unabated throughout February with both prices and turnover increasing meaningfully. The market, as measured by the RSISUSD Index ended the month up +18.5% and +20.1% YTD.

The average daily turnover reached the same levels last seen in early 2016 that were marked then by two significant events: the first being the sale of HSBC’s 8.8% holding in Dar Es Salaam Bank, while the second was the liquidation of a sizeable foreign Iraq fund for a total amount of around USD 20m. The two events combined with the then collapsing oil price had a devastating impact on the market in which heavy selling sent the average daily turnover higher and prices lower (see chart below).

Average daily Turnover Index on the ISX (green line) vs RSISUSD Index (red line)

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), Rabee Securities, Asia Frontier Capital)

Foreign investors, in an almost mirror image reversal, have been net buyers to a much larger degree than in prior upturns since the May 2016 bottom. However, the increase in foreign buying as a percentage of total buying has been less than that of the increase in absolute foreign buying, indicating that while foreign buying might have been a catalyst it was local buying that drove total buying. Foreign selling, both in absolute levels and as a percentage of total selling has been in-line with those of the last few months. The chart below shows these and the mirror image symmetry of the current market vs. that which prevailed in early 2016, yet it suggests that the current phase is in its early stages and that an increase in liquidity would need to be maintained for the rally to be sustained.

Index of foreign buying (green) & selling (red) on the ISX

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), Asia Frontier Capital)

Early, but narrow market leadership by high-quality names such as mobile operator Asiacell (TASC) and Pepsi bottler Baghdad Soft Drinks (IBSD) that started the recovery in December has expanded in February to include high quality names in the banking sector. The foreign buying interest that was focused then in these two names has also expanded to include the same higher quality banking names.

Fundamentals continued to be what fuelled the buying interest as discussed in January’s article. In the case of the banks the fundamental change has been a bottoming of the negative developments that prevailed over the last three years, i.e. declining/negative deposit growth, declining/negative loan growth and increasing NPL’s (non-performing loans). Their outlook is brightening as the expansionary effects from the reversal of escalating costs of conflict and collapsing oil prices that crushed the economy in 2014 provides the banks room to recover further and grow. The banks’ own confidence in their outlook was discussed in July’s article when high-quality banks declared dividend yields of up to 11%, while valuations were attractive with these banks’ market capitalizations trading at under 20% of their assets, which themselves were over 70% in cash and cash-equivalents.

The fundamental reasons for market leadership is the main characteristic that differentiates the current rally from that of October 2016-February 2017, in which the then leadership was concentrated in names that were extremely leveraged to the economic recovery post-conflict. Then, sharp rallies in lower priced and lower quality but high beta stocks drove the market’s gain as reported in AFC’s October 2016 newsletter. It was argued then that, “this should dissipate as high-quality stocks resume market leadership as part of the market bottoming and eventual recovery process”. While this seems to be the case now, it is still very early in the recovery process and remains to be seen if this recovery will extend and broaden out over the next few months.

The natural question is whether this rally is sustainable, i.e. whether the market will stabilize or move sideways before resuming its uptrend or even decline. Part of the clue may come from the MSCI Emerging Market and the MSCI Frontier Market indices, which Iraq’s outlook for 2018 argued were leading the RSISUSD Index by about 6 months. If this observation and the correlation were a guide, then the RSISUSD index should consolidate before resuming its rally. While this argument has merit, it should be noted that the fund inflows to the MSCI Emerging Markets & MSCI Frontier Market indices’ underlying markets are different from those for Iraq and driven by factors specific to the underlying markets’ own fundamentals.

MSCI EM Index, MSCI FM Index & RSISUSD Index

(Source: Bloomberg)

The increased liquidity in the form of both local and foreign inflows needs to be maintained for the market’s recovery to be sustainable. Given the time lag involved, this will likely unfold over the next few months and the recovery will likely be in fits and starts with plenty of zig-zags along the way. This underscores the opportunity to acquire attractive assets that have yet to discount a sustainable economic recovery.

The outcome of the Kuwait conference for the reconstruction of Iraq, in the form of loans/investments for the initial stages of the reconstruction drive, will likely add fuel to the expansionary effects from the reversal of escalating costs of conflict and collapsing oil prices that crushed the economy in 2014. The coverage of the conference was confusing at best and which this article by the author, “It’s not the donations, stupid”, discusses and puts into a clearer perspective.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS). He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.