July 09, 2017

Iraq gambles its future on currency reserves

In jeopardy. An Iraqi (not pictured) pays for groceries with 10,000-Iraqi dinar banknotes, on June 22.
(AFP)

Washington - The world’s central banks were, until recently, na­tional institutions that symbolised sovereignty but little else. In 2007, fear of an impending cash short­age that would have clogged the US economy prompted the Federal Reserve to ship piles of cash to help American banks through the worst of the economic crisis. By 2009, documents published by Bloomb­erg News showed, Washington’s central bank had pumped — off its books — $13 trillion (the size of the entire US economy at the time) to rescue the country’s sinking finan­cial institutions.

With inflation rates lower than the 2% goal, the Federal Reserve turned its money-printing experi­ment into an official programme, known as Quantitative Easing, through which it used new cash to buy non-performing bonds. To­gether with keeping interest rates low, the programme gave the US economy a jolt. Europe’s central banks followed with similar pro­grammes.

Creating wealth out of thin air, however, is only possible for coun­tries that have currencies that serve as world reserves. In countries such as Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq, central banks risk sending inflation out of control if they print money whim­sically. For these countries, the stability of the national currency depends on hoarding foreign bank­notes — mainly US dollars, euros and British pounds.

Baghdad is the latest govern­ment to find itself struggling with its thinning foreign-exchange re­serves, putting the country’s fi­nances in jeopardy and threatening the stability of the dinar. Iraq’s tur­bulence does not come on advice from the World Bank or the Interna­tional Monetary Fund (IMF), which advise central banks to maintain “healthy reserves” — defined as six months’ worth of governmental expenditures. Rather, Iraq’s prob­lems stem from mismanagement of the central bank, whose former governor, Sinan al-Shabibi, was re­portedly fired for his resistance to executive meddling. Shabibi was replaced by Ali Allaq.

By the end of 2011, Iraq’s allies — Iran and Syria — were facing severe shortages in foreign currencies, the former due to strict international sanctions and the later because of a raging civil war. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki wanted Sha­bibi to look the other way, as Irani­an and Syrian exchange operatives syphoned US dollars from Baghdad to their economies. The fact that more than 70% of the Iraqi econo­my is cash-based made it easier for outsiders to load on Iraqi reserves.

From 2005-11, the Iraqi govern­ment tailored its budget based on the assumption that a barrel of oil would fetch $75 on the internation­al market but with oil hitting lows in the $20-$30 range, Baghdad’s deficit skyrocketed. To pay for its expenses, the government opened the vaults of the central bank and, instead of issuing bonds, reverted to foreign borrowing.

In addition to Iranians and Syr­ians soaking Iraq’s foreign curren­cies and the government using foreign-exchange reserves as its exchequer, the Iraqi Central Bank suffered from rampant corruption. Some bank officials reportedly buy dollars at the bank’s auction at a rate of 1,190 dinars for the dollar and then sell those dollars on the market for 1,250 dinars, allegedly pocketing a handsome profit.

On May 7, the bank auctioned $159 million. On June 19, the bank auctioned $165 million more. The bank’s frequency of pumping dol­lars into the local market has been expedited, presumably to keep the dinar stable but such frequency might prove unsustainable, a fact that has alarmed the IMF, which urged Iraqi officials to replenish re­serves and keep them closer to $50 billion.

Even though IMF sources say that Iraqi officials promised to heed the advice, the Iraqi Central Bank’s reserves seem to be lower, after hitting a peak of $78 billion in 2013. The bank does not publish statements about its reserve levels, similar to Lebanon’s central bank, which has also stopped publishing its levels. These central banks rea­son that confidence in the national currency can sometimes be boost­ed through bluffing and pretending that foreign-exchange reserves are higher than they actually are.

Some estimates stated that Iraqi foreign-exchange reserves will go as low as $30 billion in 2017, an alarming development, if true. The Iraqi government should un­derstand that borrowing is a better way to fund itself, no matter the corruption and that foreign-reserve reserves are a weapon of last resort without which the national econo­my loses its anchor.

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