Iran Risks Crash With Record Stock Market Boom, Say Economists
By Robert Tait,
A record boom in Tehran's stock market
will end in a spectacular crash that could trigger a prolonged depression
producing multiple bankruptcies, mass unemployment, and acute economic hardship,
The warning follows months of soaring share prices that have
prompted officials in Iran's Islamic regime to proclaim that the country's
economy is flourishing despite fresh international sanctions aimed at combating
its nuclear program.
The Tehran bourse index passed 17,900 on August 30, compared to 12,537 points on
the final day of the last Iranian year in March, following a sustained wave of
stock sales and purchases. The upward trend has pushed the exchange's total
value to more than $80 billion, up from $70 billion in mid-July.
However, the bull market has been dismissed as a "state-created bubble" by
seasoned analysts who attribute it to the deliberate buying and selling of
assets by supposedly private companies that are in reality owned by
organizations like the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which has been
playing an increasingly dominant role in Iran's economy.
Tehran Stock Exchange
One economist says a stock-market crash is "inevitable" and
could result in a disastrous financial collapse comparable to those that
afflicted Russia in 1998 and Argentina in 2001, with grave consequences for
Iran's political and social stability.
Iranian officials have dismissed such criticisms. Ali Sahraei, the Tehran Stock
Exchange's operations manager, said the rise reflected an overall improvement in
the Iranian economy.
"Concern about bubble growth are unfounded," the foreign-based "The National"
newspaper quoted him as saying in a statement released through the bourse. "The
reason for the rise in the index is the flow of cash into the stock market."
Beneath The Surface
The warnings mirror disquiet in Iran's parliament, the Majlis, which has ordered
an inquiry amid doubts among lawmakers over the boom's causes and potential
Mehrdad Emadi, a London-based Iranian economic consultant for the European
Union, conducted an investigation that he says uncovered solid grounds for
suspicion. After examining the share prices of seven of Iran's biggest companies
-- including the giant Mokhaberat telecommunications corporation, taken over
last year by an IRGC-led consortium -- he concluded that the increases were
driven by government-led manipulation.
"There is absolutely no rational explanation in a country where productivity has
been falling in the last 28 months consistently, [where] every quarter
profitability has been negative for 92 percent of state-owned banks, and the
banking system is highly indebted, to see such a boom in stock prices," Emadi
warns. "They do not reflect the profitability, they do no reflect the confidence
in the economy, so it tallies that it is the reflection of the injection of new
demand and money. Obviously this is kind of a bubble. But it is a state-created
bubble, instead of sort of a market-induced bubble."
But it lacks the hallmarks of a classic stock-market boom, Emadi's investigation
found. Three of the companies surveyed actually showed losses and negative rates
of return over a period after April 2009, once inflation was accounted for.
Private individuals wishing to sell shares were quoted lower rates than the
official market price for transactions between companies -- effectively meaning
a two-tier system was in place. And the high trade volume and increased
profitability normally associated with such booms was absent.
The upward cycle benefits both buying and selling companies by enabling them to
borrow more -- something all firms in Emadi's survey have sought to do.
Increased borrowing is in line with official policy, as reflected by Iran's
Central Bank governor, Mahmud Bahmani, last week when he asked parliament's
approval to use $15 billion from emergency foreign-currency reserves to finance
greater lending by the banks, which are thought to be near bankruptcy.
The goal, Emadi believes, is two-fold: to encourage confidence in
the economy and thereby prevent capital flight; and to prevent a banking
collapse by persuading small depositors to keep faith in the banks.
Critics say Iran's banking system
is highly indebted.
"The government has acknowledged that the biggest front they are fighting in
managing the country is economic, and in that aspect of crisis management banks
are an early warning system," he says. "When people feel really insecure about
the ability of banks to meet their obligations, they pull out their money. We
have seen this in Mexico, in Argentina, in South Africa. They pull out their
deposits, convert it into hard currency and buy gold. If this happens, it's
conceivable that within a couple of months we could see very big state-owned
banks going bankrupt and that would be an outcome that government really would
not be able to manage and cope with."
One other motive could be the government's policy of dispensing "justice shares"
under Iran's privatization law, which reserves 20 per cent of all privatized
shares for the poor. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government may be seeking to
placate a constituency already hit by sanctions and facing the prospect of
further hardship with the phasing out, due to begin later this month, of state
subsidies on energy products and other goods. Subsidies cost the Iranian
treasury an estimated $100 billion a year but critics have warned that their
abolition could stoke inflation and provoke social unrest.
Meir Javadenfar, an Iranian-born commentator with the Middle East Economic and
Political Analysis company in Israel, says rising share values helps the
government offset the effects of sanctions and the abolition of subsidies.
"The government knows that both are going to create a lot of dissatisfaction
amongst the poor," he says, "And by keeping the share prices higher, it is
trying to deflect criticism and the repercussions of such criticism from people,
especially the lower income brackets of society who are mostly government
The downside of the boom is that it is almost certainly unsustainable -- and the
Iranian economy is unlikely to enjoy the benefit of a soft landing. Instead,
economists like Emadi fear a crash that could prompt the panic-selling of assets
at knock-down prices, companies defaulting on their debts and bankruptcies
leading to mass joblessness, already estimated to have risen by at least 40 per
cent during Ahmadinejad's five-year tenure.
"If you have a crash in the stock market and lots of these companies -- say,
just for the sake of argument, 20 percent of them -- go bankrupt. Given that 75
percent of private sector employment is really through state-owned companies,
that could easily translate to another 1.5 million people losing their jobs,"
Emadi says. "You have the typical components of a financial crash leading to
very, very deep and probably longish -- maybe longer than a year -- depression,
where you will have more companies going bankrupt, more banks declaring
bankruptcies and people losing their jobs. They will start selling their
household furnishings. And once you have that, it's going to be very, very
difficult for people to survive."
The decision by parliament -- many of whose members have been fiercely critical
of Ahmadinejad's economic policies, including the plans to abolish subsidies --
to investigate may be fueled by such fears, according to Javedanfar.
"It is very possible that those people in the Majlis are worried about the
repercussions of a sudden crash," he says. "If and when it does happen, the
political repercussions could be massive and they could impact the stability of
the country. After the disturbances we saw consequent to Ahmadinejad's
reelection, this is a blow which some elements in the regime do not want and do
not need. There's nothing wrong with Tehran's stock exchange increasing. Iran
has fantastic potential to do that. But there's everything wrong when it's done
in such an artificial way because if and when the house falls apart, the
repercussions will be felt everywhere in Iranian society and also very likely,
within the corridors of power inside the supreme leader's office."
Copyright (c) 2010 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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