Ahmed Tabaqchali


Market Review: “Money makes the World go Round”

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 Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISUSD Index, started the year not with a bang but with a whimper, as befits the ending of the Chinese year of the Dog, by going mostly sideways on a continuation of the low turnover of the last few months. However, the emergence of a moderate foreign seller took the index down to about -5% for the month before buyers emerged to absorb some the selling, taking the market to a decline of -3.1% for the month.

The real economy on the other hand is showing increasing signs that liquidity is returning as the healing effects of higher oil revenues over the last two years are having a positive effect. As reported last month, this was seen in the recent recovery in broad money, or M2 which acts as a proxy for economic activity. Driving the recovery in M2 has been the growth in the monetary base M0-defined as “the sum of currency in circulation and reserve balances in Iraqi Dinars (IQD) held by banks and financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI)”.

The clearest evidence of this nascent recovery is seen in the IQD Current Account (C/A) component of banks’ reserves with the CBI, which has been behind the recovery in M0 as seen in the chart below.

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

(Note: M0 as of Nov, IQD C/A component of bank’s reserves as of Dec)

The IQD C/A component of banks’ reserves with the CBI, reversed its multi-year decline in late 2017 and began a recovery that picked-up momentum in May 2018, with the latest data as the end of December 2018 showing a continuation of this trend. This in turn is driven by the level of customer deposits (consumers, businesses and government) held with the banks. The early evidence of increased private sector deposits was discussed a few months ago in “Of Banks and Budget Surpluses”, however the granular data for private sector deposits is only available for end of 2017. The rise in deposits for 2018 is likely to have been driven by government deposits, which should lead to a rise in private sector (consumers and businesses) deposits as the government begins its spending programme as discussed later in this report.

The current trends indicate a continuation of this recovery, and as such to a continued recovery in M2. The latest M2 figures from the CBI for October and estimates for Novemebr (based on MO figures for November and recent M2/M0 multiplier figures) support this as can be seen from the chart below.

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq, Iraq’s Ministry of Oil, Asia Frontier Capital)

(Note: M2 as of Oct with AFC est.’s for Nov; Oil revenues as of Dec with AFC est.’s for Jan)

The prospects of increased economic activity got a boost with the end of the government’s spending paralysis, as parliament finally approved the 2019 budget in mid-January. The budget, however, is heavily skewed towards current spending, as opposed to investment spending, as both of parliament and government are under pressure to appease the population with some immediate rewards from the end of conflict and the recovery of oil prices. (for a review of the budget see the appendix in this report).

The government’s financial firepower is considerable, as the latest Ministry of Finance (MoF) budget report of October 2018 shows a surplus of USD 21.5bn for the first 10 months of 2018. As such, in addition to the surplus of USD 1.5bn for 2017, this means that the government could easily achieve the estimates made here over the last few months—a two-year surplus of USD 24.5bn by end of 2018.

The immediate consequence of government spending would be improvements in consumer and business sentiment leading to a pick-up in consumer and business spending, and subsequently an economic recovery as the multiplier effect works through the economy. The long term sustainably of the upcoming economic recovery would be driven by the implementation of the government’s non-oil investment programme for 2019 of about USD 12.5bn, which would be equivalent to about a 7.5% stimulus to the estimated non-oil GDP for 2019.

The recovery in M0 that is leading to a gradual recovery in M2 seems to be happening in a mirror image of Ernest Hemingway’s phrase on going broke, i.e. “Gradually and then suddenly” (attributed in error here in the last few months to Mark Twain), and so the next few months should see this translate into actual economic recovery.

If we are to go on similar experiences in other frontier markets (of declining markets while fundamentals show gradual recovery following a long basing period) then the market’s declining trend of the last few months should be followed by a sharp reversal and the beginning of a new trend.

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: 2018 Review and Outlook 2019

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.

December 2018 was probably the worst month in a decade for global equities, however the month’s sharp declines are eerily similar to those that drove the markets lower in December 2015 with the similarity extending to almost a replay of the start of 2019 to that of 2016.

The reasons, now and then, are fears of a slowing world economy with the world’s engine, China, showing signs of a meaningful slowdown. But the drivers of the slowdown this time are increasing evidence of the damage from the US-China trade war, echoing the Iraqi saying that “while reasons are many, death is the same”. However, now and then, the slowdowns were months in the making, but the markets ignored them until late in 2018.

The Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISUSD Index, on the other had quietly eked out a modest gain throughout the month to end up +1.9%. A gain which came despite sharp declines in the price of oil for the month that took Brent crude prices down about –40% from the October multi-year peak.

The ISX’s negative –15.0% return for 2018 marked the fifth year-over-year decline, on the back of declines of –11.8% in 2017, –17.3% in 2016, –22.7% in 2015, and –25.4% in 2014. The ISX further spent most of the last two years trying to break out; only to revisit the major May 2016 lows as each year came a close. This contrasts sharply with most global equities as the December sharp sell-offs took them down to about –20% off recent multi-year highs. This makes the risk-reward profile more attractive for the ISX vs. these markets as portfolio allocations are rebalanced in the light of the changed global environment.

Supporting the risk-reward profile for the ISX is the prospect of a recovery in corporate earnings. Iraqi equities should emerge from a multi-year severe economic contraction with the Telecoms being the first to emerge. Two of the major mobile operators out of three national operators reported Q3/2018 earnings that displayed the markers of recovery in earnings, margins and profits. Of the two, AsiaCell (TASC), listed since 2013, has a reported earnings span of 2012-2018 reflecting the operating environment before, during and after the ISIS conflict.

For TASC, the recovery started in late 2017 with the liberation of Mosul and the gradual return of customers lost since the 2014 ISIS invasion of a third of the country. As reported last month, TASC signalled its confidence in its future outlook with a distribution of a 12% dividend on the back of last year’s dividend yield of 14% –which in absolute terms is about a third higher than last year’s dividend. (See “Telecoms dial up Recovery” for further details on TASC).

The recovery for TASC extended to its stock price, which ended 2018 up +47%, following declines of –17% and –11% for the prior two years. TASC was joined by Baghdad Soft Drinks (IBSD), which was up +34% in 2018 on the back of 2017’s increase of +7%. IBSD is unique among the ISX’s listed companies as it continued to churn out healthy earnings growth through the downturn. Earnings for IBSD grew +13% in the first nine months of 2018, on the back of growth of +11% in 2017, +25% in 2016 and +37% in 2015 (pre-tax earnings).

TASC and IBSD’s performances stand in stark contrast to those of the banks which, as a group, had a dismal performance with the leading bank, the Bank of Baghdad (BBOB) down –52% in 2018 on the back of declines of –33% and –22% for the last two years. Other banks fared just as poorly with declines for a selected group ranging from –63% to –4% for the year. These negative returns don’t include income from dividends –which were quite high for some banks such as Mansour Bank (BMNS) or Commercial Bank Of Iraq (BCOI) that ended the year with dividend yields of 8% and 10% respectively. (See “Of Banks and Budget Surpluses” for more details on the banks).

Looking to 2019, the recovery of the banking sector would hinge on an economic recovery and a return of liquidity to economic activity, which for most of 2018 were held back by political uncertainties surrounding the May parliamentary elections.

Political uncertainty before the May 2018 elections was followed by indecisive election results, which in turn resulted in further uncertainties as the different political parties entered lengthy negotiations for the formation of a coalition government. Adding to these uncertainties was the eruption of massive demonstrations in the south demanding reform and investment into basic services. Things became clearer in early October with the promising appointments of a president and a prime minister in a fashion that broke the failed mould of the past. These were followed with the formation of a working government, which while still incomplete, can begin to act on the needed spending for a post-conflict recovery.

Paradoxically, while the political uncertainties paralyzed the government process, the government’s revenues soared with the recovery in oil prices, which has put the government on course for a two-year accumulated surplus of up to USD 24.5bn by the end of 2018. The oil markets decline from the un-sustainably high levels of the summer however are an un-welcome development but should not alter the country’s improving financial position as long as the government continues with the fiscal discipline brought on by the IMF’s 2016 Stand-By Arrangement (SBA). Moreover, Brent crude prices in a range of USD 50-60/bbl, would ensure that the government maintains this fiscal discipline and focus on reinvestments, a focus and discipline that are normally forgotten during periods of high oil revenues.

The healing effects of higher oil revenues over the last two years should begin the filter down into the broader economy over the next few months. The first evidence of this comes with the recent recovery in broad money, or M2 which acts as a proxy for economic activity, as can be seen in the chart below: –

(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 Dec.)

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 can be seen M2 was moving sideways since oil revenues recovered in January 2016, but it began to accelerate in June 2018-Septemebr 2018 –and estimates for October suggest a continuation of this trend.

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. Ultimately, this should filter down into the stock market, which should bring to an end the market’s divergence from its past close relationship with oil revenues – which currently is at the widest it has been for the last few years (see chart below).

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

(Note: Oil revenues as of Dec.)

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 (declining markets while fundamentals show gradual recovery following a long basing period) then the trend of the last few months could be followed by a sharp reversal.

However, for Iraq significant challenges remain with the huge demands for reconstruction, winning the peace, defeating a likely emerging ISIS insurgency, and controlling violence. In particular, the fragmented politics of the new parliament will continue to be a marker of risk for the government’s future stability, which would in turn pose a risk to 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), 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: 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.

A Review of Iraq’s 2019 Budget Proposal

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, for 1001 Iraqi Thoughts.

The proposed budget law, prepared by the prior government and adopted by the current one (with some minor revisions), resembles the ongoing negotiations on completing the formation of the government.

Just as the participants in these negotiations had left behind the pretence of responding to popular demands and are engaged in a replay of the prior squabbles over the spoils of war.

This budget too is a replay of the prior budgets and a continuation of the old rentier state practices and socialist policies.

For both cases, the old Iraqi saying “رجعت حليمة لعادتها القديمة” or “Halima has gone back to her old ways” is an apt depiction.

Click here to read the full article.

The Economic Perils of Youth Nostalgia for Authoritarianism

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, for 1001 Iraqi Thoughts.

The Economic Perils of Iraqi Youth’s Nostalgia for the Return of Authoritarianism

Although Iraqi youth’s nostalgia for authoritarianism in the form of a powerful presidential system as a cure to their country’s ills is understandable, the economic costs of Turkey’s increasing move toward such a system over the last few years argue otherwise, as this paper asserts.

The Turkish experience, nevertheless, provides valuable lessons for Iraq — to avoid the failures and to mirror the successes — as it reconstructs its own post-ISIS economy.

Click here to read the full article.

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.

A Thriving Entrepreneurial Culture takes root in Iraq

By Ahmed Tabaqchali and Emily Burlinghaus. Originally published by bite.tech; re-published by Iraq Business News with permission of the author. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Most of the coverage and analysis of Iraq post-2003—by international, regional, and local journalists and analysts—has focused on the dysfunctional state and warring political elites whose failures to provide basic services to an already alienated population has come in sharp focus during the recent Basra demonstrations.

However, despite the vital nature of this coverage, it has missed a new entrepreneurial Iraq—represented by its youth—that has emerged and flourished in the new cultural openness and interconnectedness of post-2003 Iraq.

Since 2003, Iraqis’ and Westerners’ sentiments of blame and guilt in response to the 2003 invasion—as legitimate as they are—overlook the silver lining that accompanied it. For all its ills, Iraq experiences freedom from state censorship, unfettered access to the world, and life that is mostly free from state interference.

It is this openness that has provided youth with an opportunity to create exciting new businesses. They inhabit a parallel Iraq—one that is undiscovered by both the outside world and many Iraqis whose spirits have been crushed by the trauma of conflict and daily grind of living in a country largely defined by corruption and mismanagement.

The opening of “The Station,” the first purpose-built co-working space for young entrepreneurs in Baghdad, in early 2018 brought much neededyet fleeting, attention to this parallel Iraq. The Station, however, is just a small taste of the vibrant entrepreneurial space operating in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.

A recent trip to Baghdad by members of the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative (AEI) provided a brief opportunity to explore the scene at The Station, Al-Faisaliya Restaurant & Café, and IQPeace—three different manifestations of the co-working space in the Baghdad. Each location—along with the startups it supports—has a story worth telling.

Over the past several years, a rich culture of entrepreneurship has developed in Baghdad upon which these new co-working spaces and their supported startups have flourished. Some of the most well-known of these success stories include Miswag and Mishwar, online and app-based delivery platforms, and the first “Escape the Room” game in Iraq.

Recently-founded startups such as Hilli, Bilweekend, Daraj, Tech4Peace, and Ikfal Nakhla have taken inspiration from these initial success stories and expanded the need and market for co-working spaces, mentorship, and training programs. They have joined the ranks of others such as Brsima, Indigo Canvas, The Book Cafe, and Mirsha Media, as well as training organizations such as re:coded, Tech Hub, and Five One Labs based in Sulaimani and Erbil. These, in turn, are part of a broader network that extends all the way from northern Iraq down to Najaf and Basra.

 (below is an overview of three Baghdad-based co-working spaces and a major virtual support network, a list of some unique established and emerging start-ups in Baghdad, and an overview of some additional startups operating at various stages in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.)

The visons, business models, and growth challenges of Iraq’s start-ups are no different than start-ups elsewhere in the world; however, they face additional Iraq-specific challenges as detailed in a 2017 report by IRIS “Obstacles and Opportunities for Entrepreneurship in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.” These broadly fall into three main categories.

Bureaucracy

The first category, bureaucracy, involves an extensive network of public sector requirements to incorporate and maintain companies. Such lengthy procedures place huge financial, time, and operational demands on these start-ups. As a result, most of them opt to operate in the shadow economy—a decision that stunts their growth prospects and hinders their abilities to develop into sustainable growth companies that would expand the private sector.

Infrastructure

The second category, infrastructure challenges, is defined by a number of problems, the most notable of which is the under-developed banking sector and its very slow adoption of mobile banking and payment systems despite the wide adoption of mobile phones. Almost all transactions with suppliers, trade counter-parties, and customers are performed in cash, which strains working capital and affects start-ups’ cash flows and operating flexibility, security, and transaction paper trail, and increases the costs of handling cash. Other infrastructure challenges include a cumbersome legal structure and poor enforcement of existing regulations, both of which affect trade and payment disputes and weaken intellectual property and copy rights.

Access to Capital

The third and the most crucial category is the very limited access to capital. The main sources of growth capital in Iraq come from savings, family, and friends. Entrepreneurs face extremely limited access to or availability of bank lending and local investors. In the rare cases that either of these options are available—i.e.  banks and investors—they demand high collateral and immediate high returns in the form of interest payments or dividends. These limit investments and business options to those that generate quick returns rather than encourage ongoing investments in the form of reinvested earnings that generate sustainable businesses.

The solutions provided by these co-working spaces and AUIS’s upcoming Entrepreneurship Initiative go a long way in providing a nurturing environment essential to encouraging and sustaining the entrepreneurial culture. However, long-term and patient investment capital is crucial for these efforts to be translated into a thriving start-up scene in which existing start-ups can evolve into larger sustainable companies.

Iraq’s challenging environment means that the sustainability of start-ups is fraught with uncertainty. Therefore, only long-term and patient investment capital can accept the high risks and the long wait time for financial returns – which is what is necessary for these start-ups to transform into successful companies. 

In more developed economies, this long-term capital is provided through an ecosystem of angel investors, venture capital firms, and private equity funds. However, the development of these mechanisms in Iraq requires considerable time and the introduction of new laws, regulations, and policies. The dilemma for Iraq is that the need for such long-term capital is immediate, and therefore the need to find solutions to bridge this gap is urgent.

A viable solution is the creation of an investment fund that combines the attributes of angel investment, venture capital, and private equity funds to provide the growth and expansion capital for commercially promising start-ups. However, the risk profile of the underlying investments means that initial funding will come from neither the traditionally risk-averse and short-term focused private sector nor the Iraqi public sector given the enormous demands placed upon it and its strained resources. Therefore, initial investment capital must come from Iraq’s international stakeholders as part of their support and development aid. Private sector capital will, in time, be attracted to the fund once the risk-profile is lowered by evidence of its success and higher possibilities of financial returns.

The fund’s success will, to a large extent, be dependent on the existing entrepreneurial culture that has succeeded despite all odds and prevailing pessimism, and therefore would build upon an existing success story. Its establishment would fuel the enthusiasm and achievement of these young, bright start-ups by providing them with the essential capital required to build upon and sustain their achievements. Their success will invite others to join, and therefore herald the emergence of an independent private sector in Iraq.

Baghdad offers a variety of spaces that provide support in the form of mentorship, and networking, and skills development. These range from a state-of-the-art coworking space to a startup-hosting cafe and community center designated to creativity and innovation.

Al-Faisaliya Restaurant & Cafe

  • Founded in March 2017 in Karrada
  • Cafe and restaurant with live music and local bands like Project 904
  • Features local startups Hili, Daraj, Tech 4 Peace, Razouna, and Jakaroo
  • Hosts game nights, films, speakers, and literary sessions

IQPeace

  • Founded in 2011 in Karrada
  • Center that offers daily support for young innovators and a space for music and art production
  • Develops programming in 5 categories: music production, entrepreneurship, photography, computer programming, and peacebuilding and conflict resolution
  • Helps individuals and groups establish and build membership in specialized clubs on a variety of topics, including music, jazz, chess, and nutrition
  • Uses recyclable and sustainable material in building structures, including a solar-powered phone charging station
  • Organizes the annual Baghdad City of Peace Carnival, which at its most recent celebration in September 2018, attracted approximately 30,000 visitors

The Station

  • Founded in February 2018 in Karrada
  • State-of-the-art co-working space and maker space that offers events, workshops, and talks for innovators and entrepreneurs at different levels of membership for a fee
  • Helps tech, cultural, and social entrepreneurs such as Bilweekend, Baghdad Toastmasters, World Merit Iraq, Daraj, Zuqaq13, Ariika and Ikfal Nakhla by providing physical space, mentorship, and training to develop and expand their businesses

Zain Innovation Campus

  • Support hub for entrepreneurs, currently with a physical space in Amman, Jordan, but with virtual support for entrepreneurs in Iraq in the form of resources, activities, and workshops. Zain augmented this with its youth empowerment platform, ZY, aimed at unlocking opportunities for the youth
The following is just a small list of successful and emerging startups in Baghdad, both independently and with the support of startup spaces such as those listed above:

Miswag: First internet-based startup e-commerce platform in Iraq founded in 2014; delivery service operating out of two main branches in Baghdad and Erbil. Upwards of 700,000 Iraqi users can buy more than 250 brands from over 200 local and international merchants through the online service

Mishwar: Online and mobile-app based home grocery delivery service founded in 2015

Hilli: Founded in December 2016 as a physical and online store based in Baghdad and Erbil to sell handicrafts inspired by Mesopotamian culture; promotes domestic production and empowerment of women IDPs by providing them with employment opportunities

Escape the Room Iraq: First escape room game in Baghdad founded in 2017 for group activities and team-building events

Bilweekend: Travel and tourism startup with the goal of promoting cultural heritage as a factor of country development; organizes group camping trips, museum visits, and adventures to natural sites such as Dukan Lake in Sulaimani and the marshes of southern Iraq

Zuqaq13: Baghdad-based and inspired streetwear brand that designs t-shirts and other souvenirs influenced by pop culture and Iraqi heritage

Ariika: Distributor of beanbags and other alternative furniture, based virtually and at The Station Baghdad

Tech4Peace: Online platform with physical location at Faisaliyya cafe dedicated to exposing the credibility of public statements and social media postings in Iraq and the region. Its mission is to “expose lies, spread truth, and protect individual privacy”

Daraj Library: Book-selling and renting vendor for Arabic and English-language texts and novels with three locations in Baghdad and one in Mosul

Ikfal Nakhla (Palm Tree Subscription): Youth-powered project initiated by a group of entrepreneurs aiming to retain the numbers and productivity of the Iraqi palm tree by providing a date palm tree maintenance service on subscription. The project–whose goal is to encourage the growth and use of domestic palms and dates–remains sustainable by selling a portion of the dates from the trees they maintain on the domestic market. Annual subscriptions vary on the basis of the percentage of dates customers retain in their homes.

Project 904: Youth band that remixes old Iraq songs with modern rock and roll and performs in local venues such as Al-Faisaliya Cafe

Supernova: Computer coding and programming school with online and in-person learning options and Arabic-language content; supported by re:coded

The vibrant start-up ecosystem is not unique to Baghdad; support networks, training organizations, and young creative businesses are emerging all across Iraq. Here are just a few:

Five One Labs: An Erbil and Sulaimani-based start-up incubator that provides entrepreneurs with training, mentorship, and a network of innovators from across the region

re:coded: An Erbil-based organization that supports start-ups through coding bootcamps and a tech start-up academy

The Book Cafe: An Erbil-based café, bookstore, and creative co-working space that hosts speakers, events, film nights, and language learning groups

Brsima: An app-based food delivery service based in Sulaimani and Erbil that connects local restaurants with customers and delivers food to their doors

Peyk Bookstore: Sulaimani-based independent online bookstore that delivers books from all over the world after customers place orders via Facebook and Instagram

Mirsha Media: Erbil-based digital media consultancy that provides virtual reality and augmented reality content, 360° video, and social media marketing and management

Indigo: Sulaimani-based advertising agency that curates and develops brands for companies by using media, buses and taxis, and billboards

Ekaratay: An online real estate platform developed by an Erbil-based team to connect potential home-buyers with sellers; supported by re:coded

Dakakenna: A Mosul-based shopping delivery service that offers nearly 2,000 items to buy via an iPhone app and shipped directly to customers; the service has already sold over 9 million IQD ($7,578 USD) worth of products and contracted 14 suppliers since inception in July 2018

Girfan Bazaar: Online and app-based platform connecting shoppers to stores in the Erbil bazaar to streamline the shopping experience and connect buyers and sellers with exactly what they are looking for

Erbil Delivery: Online and app-based grocery delivery service that operates its own warehouses in Erbil

Opportunity: Online and app-based platform that connects job seekers with potential employers, volunteer options, and skills development opportunities

Mowja: A Najaf-based self-financing NGO and miniature library and bookstore whose physical space relies on recycled materials

Science Camp: collaborative laboratory and maker space in which innovators can design and create tech and engineering-focused projects

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. 

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.

Budget Surplus Soars, but Markets continue to Bottom

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 followed through with its longer-term bottoming process as the July interim bottom was tested this month. After having rallied 14.5% in July from an important technical level, August saw a retest with the index retracing to 6-8% above it. The market ended the month down -5.9% and -6.0% for the year.

Trading volumes have been low (see chart below) with August being the hottest month of the year and the peak of the summer holidays. This year it coincided with the Eid holidays, the continuation of the demonstration that began in July and the prolonged uncertainty over the government formation – all of which put the market’s action in perspective.

Monthly Turnover Index (green) vs RSISUSD Index (red)

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

From a longer perspective, the current test of the July bottom is part of a much larger bottoming process, in which the index is testing the major multi-year low made in May 2016. Given the significantly improving macro picture for Iraq, the most likely outcome is for a continuation of the bottoming process, with the uptrend’s timing highly dependent on the return of liquidity into the broader economy.

The thesis of the return of liquidity is supported by the latest budget data from the Ministry of Finance showing a budget surplus of about USD 12.5bn for January-June 2018, which argues for a year-end surplus higher than the USD 18.8bn that was argued for here a few months ago. The variance is driven by higher oil prices and exports than assumed earlier. Based on data showing an average price of about USD 65.5/bbl for January-August 2018, and the direction of oil prices, it would be reasonable to assume that the average Iraqi oil price in 2018 could be higher still by USD 3-5/bbl.  Coupled with higher oil exports, they would imply a year-end budget surplus of potentially USD 24.5bn – equal to about a 19% stimulus for the non-oil GDP vs. the earlier estimated 14.5%.

Supporting this line of thinking is the gradual appreciation of the market price of the USD vs. the IQD over the last few weeks. This premium has been range bound between about 1.5% to over 2% over the few weeks, after hitting lows of around 1.2% in June. This is likely to be a function of a recovery of government spending and a tentative recovery in consumer spending with the resultant increase in demand for imports – it should build on the first signs of this recovery as seen by the 13% year-over-year increase in imports in 2017 as the chart below shows.

Iraq’s Imports 2003-2017

(Source: https://tradingeconomics.com/iraq/imports)

The link between the market price of the USD versus the IQD and recovery in consumer spending is a result of the dollarization of the economy, in that that the strength or weakness of the IQD is a function of the demand-supply balance for USD, and not a specific USD weakness or strength. While, this could be due to the re-imposition of the sanction on Iran and the likely higher demand of USD, as argued in “Iran, Sanctions and Iraq: The Bigger Picture” this is unlikely given that Iran’s access to the USD was severely restricted following the signing of the JCPOA.  As such, there is no reason to expect that the re-imposition of sanctions would change thigs much, and thus the most likely explanation is increased demand for imports due to a tentative recovery in consumer spending.

The implications for this line of thinking can be substantial for the oversold banking sector given its leverage to the recovery in imports. It was shown in “Of Banks and Budget Surpluses” that trade finance revenues – a major source of revenue growth – suffered severely during the years of conflict and low oil prices, which contributed to the decline in their earnings, and subsequent dismal price performance in 2018.

Further recovery in consumer confidence, once liquidity returns, should lead to higher imports, which in turn should lead to an increase in the premium of the market price of the USD over the official rate to a range of 2-4%, if not higher. For commercial banks’ earnings, this means a recovery in trade finance revenues and increased FX margins, which with improvements in deposit growth and quality of loans, should imply a resumption of earnings growth.

However, this improving outlook is yet to be discounted by the market. While all stock markets are a discounting mechanism, they need data to discount. Local trading on the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX) is dominated by speculators, who tend to appreciate the true values of local assets especially at extreme valuations. However, their discounting mechanism is mostly a rear-view mirror extrapolation of the prior negative trends into the future and thus would not have taken into account this potential change in fortunes for the banking sector.

Trade Finance vs Imports 2010-2017

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

The chart above shows the trends over the last few years in commercial banks’ trade finance revenues, Iraq’s imports and the link to government budget surplus/deficit – given the centrality of the government’s role in the economy. As can be seen from the chart, the improved imports have yet to translate to a recovery in trade finance earnings for the banks. This continues to underscore the opportunity to acquire assets that have yet to discount a full 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), 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.

Budget Surplus Soars, but Markets continue to Bottom

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 followed through with its longer-term bottoming process as the July interim bottom was tested this month. After having rallied 14.5% in July from an important technical level, August saw a retest with the index retracing to 6-8% above it. The market ended the month down -5.9% and -6.0% for the year.

Trading volumes have been low (see chart below) with August being the hottest month of the year and the peak of the summer holidays. This year it coincided with the Eid holidays, the continuation of the demonstration that began in July and the prolonged uncertainty over the government formation – all of which put the market’s action in perspective.

Monthly Turnover Index (green) vs RSISUSD Index (red)

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

From a longer perspective, the current test of the July bottom is part of a much larger bottoming process, in which the index is testing the major multi-year low made in May 2016. Given the significantly improving macro picture for Iraq, the most likely outcome is for a continuation of the bottoming process, with the uptrend’s timing highly dependent on the return of liquidity into the broader economy.

The thesis of the return of liquidity is supported by the latest budget data from the Ministry of Finance showing a budget surplus of about USD 12.5bn for January-June 2018, which argues for a year-end surplus higher than the USD 18.8bn that was argued for here a few months ago. The variance is driven by higher oil prices and exports than assumed earlier. Based on data showing an average price of about USD 65.5/bbl for January-August 2018, and the direction of oil prices, it would be reasonable to assume that the average Iraqi oil price in 2018 could be higher still by USD 3-5/bbl.  Coupled with higher oil exports, they would imply a year-end budget surplus of potentially USD 24.5bn – equal to about a 19% stimulus for the non-oil GDP vs. the earlier estimated 14.5%.

Supporting this line of thinking is the gradual appreciation of the market price of the USD vs. the IQD over the last few weeks. This premium has been range bound between about 1.5% to over 2% over the few weeks, after hitting lows of around 1.2% in June. This is likely to be a function of a recovery of government spending and a tentative recovery in consumer spending with the resultant increase in demand for imports – it should build on the first signs of this recovery as seen by the 13% year-over-year increase in imports in 2017 as the chart below shows.

Iraq’s Imports 2003-2017

(Source: https://tradingeconomics.com/iraq/imports)

The link between the market price of the USD versus the IQD and recovery in consumer spending is a result of the dollarization of the economy, in that that the strength or weakness of the IQD is a function of the demand-supply balance for USD, and not a specific USD weakness or strength. While, this could be due to the re-imposition of the sanction on Iran and the likely higher demand of USD, as argued in “Iran, Sanctions and Iraq: The Bigger Picture” this is unlikely given that Iran’s access to the USD was severely restricted following the signing of the JCPOA.  As such, there is no reason to expect that the re-imposition of sanctions would change thigs much, and thus the most likely explanation is increased demand for imports due to a tentative recovery in consumer spending.

The implications for this line of thinking can be substantial for the oversold banking sector given its leverage to the recovery in imports. It was shown in “Of Banks and Budget Surpluses” that trade finance revenues – a major source of revenue growth – suffered severely during the years of conflict and low oil prices, which contributed to the decline in their earnings, and subsequent dismal price performance in 2018.

Further recovery in consumer confidence, once liquidity returns, should lead to higher imports, which in turn should lead to an increase in the premium of the market price of the USD over the official rate to a range of 2-4%, if not higher. For commercial banks’ earnings, this means a recovery in trade finance revenues and increased FX margins, which with improvements in deposit growth and quality of loans, should imply a resumption of earnings growth.

However, this improving outlook is yet to be discounted by the market. While all stock markets are a discounting mechanism, they need data to discount. Local trading on the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX) is dominated by speculators, who tend to appreciate the true values of local assets especially at extreme valuations. However, their discounting mechanism is mostly a rear-view mirror extrapolation of the prior negative trends into the future and thus would not have taken into account this potential change in fortunes for the banking sector.

Trade Finance vs Imports 2010-2017

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

The chart above shows the trends over the last few years in commercial banks’ trade finance revenues, Iraq’s imports and the link to government budget surplus/deficit – given the centrality of the government’s role in the economy. As can be seen from the chart, the improved imports have yet to translate to a recovery in trade finance earnings for the banks. This continues to underscore the opportunity to acquire assets that have yet to discount a full 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), 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.