A collection of “inspiring” quotes from some of Egypt’s biggest international investors have been making the rounds on social media:
“Advice: Stop whining. The future will come down to the private sector. … This is a democracy with an enormous amount of legitimacy. I know what an illegitimate government looks like and smells like.” —Timothy Collins, CEO, Ripplewood Advisors
“You don’t commit to a $12 billion investment unless you believe in what is going on in the country.” —Bob Dudley, Group CEO, BP
“Everyone decides on which risks he’ll bite into, and in Egypt, I’ll bite into any risk, any day.” —Emaar Chairman Mohamed Alabbar
“I wish we had as many opportunities in Europe as we have in Egypt” —Joe Kaeser, President and CEO, Siemens
Rebel Economy cannot verify whether these are real quotes or made-up by people who got a bit too much sun in Sharm.
It is an impressive display of support and a vote of confidence for Egypt, the “democracy.” But as Egypt basks in the financial and political support of the world, as deal after deal is signed, and $138 billion dollars of investment is secured for the country in just a couple of days, the truth behind this high-profile economic conference in Sharm El Sheikh is a little harder to swallow.
The floor-to-ceiling glossy signage declaring, somewhat ambiguously, “Egypt the Future”, ignores the fact that Egypt needs to do a lot more than ask for investment. The tourism industry, which at one point contributed over 10% of GDP, is in a pathetic state: the number of visitors last year was a third below the level of 2010.
But more critically, it is the bones of the country that are creaking. Egypt needs power, proper roads, better and more schools, hospitals and housing. Jobs are scarce and the ones available are low quality and pay below what is considered an internationally acceptable minimum wage.
The population is predicted to grow to 116 million by 2030. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah El Sisi, wants to ditch the 1000-year-old Cairo, for a brand-spanking new $45 billion, Dubai-style capital in the desert. But we all know that’s pie in the sky.
So what about all these deals? The Gulf has promised $12 billion to Egypt. The reality is that the country has spent $12 billion several times over in the last three to four years. What is another $12 billion going to do but keep Egypt operating weakly at a unsatisfactory level.
But most importantly, most of the companies investing are ones already in the country (BP, Siemens, ENI, etc), and all these Gulf companies (Masdar, Emaar etc) are merely doing as their government’s tell them – “Keep the Brotherhood out.’
Officials, business people and Egyptians are genuinely excited for the future, there’s no denying judging by the inordinate number of Sisi Selfies, and exclamation marks punctuating lofty ideals about the country. But the multi-billion dollar PR push to showcase the North African nation as a place worth pumping money into betrays the truth, not just because of the country’s inescapable human rights atrocities but because Egypt is lacking the bread (literally) and butter infrastructure it needs to survive.
— Mohamed El Dahshan (@eldahshan) March 15, 2015
Sissi said so himself in this bizarre interview with the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth where he talks about himself in the third person (He said, “Sissi reflects the popular will of Egyptians.”). He tells Weymouth that the country needs $130 million subsidies to support 90 million people:
Where can we get the money to provide for these needs? Who would come to invest in this country if it is not stable? We have an overwhelming unemployment rate of 13 percent.
So what is his response? More money of course. Another $300 billion to be exact. This economic conference is not The Future, it is a mirage that shines the light away from the population’s plight, where thousands are wrongfully imprisoned and thousands more are still hungry, with no access to basic resources and education.
One person asked on Twitter: Does investing in an economy of a potentially unstable and authoritarian regime make business sense? It’s not business anymore. It’s politics when it comes to the Gulf and it’s cautious agreements, with disclaimers as long as scrolls for the companies involved.
A private equity fund launched by Gamal Mubarak managed to reel in millions of dollars of investment from Egypt’s elite, revealing the depths to which political and business connections ran as he began rising in stature in the late 1990s.
According to a document obtained by Rebel Economy, Gamal Mubarak’s $54 million Horus I Fund, created in 1997, attracted some of the country’s most controversial businessmen including steel fugitive tycoon and Mubarak-confidante Hussein Salem, steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, who was acquitted in June after being charged with monopolising the country’s steel market, and the ex-CEO of Egyptian investment bank EFG Hermes, Hassan Heikal. Heikal is a defendant in an insider trading case involving both of the Mubarak sons. His former colleague, Yasser El Mallawany, who is still officially an employee of EFG, is another investor in the Horus Fund.
The fund, which was operated by EFG Hermes and invested in Egyptian projects and companies, attracted millions of dollars of investment from members of Egypt’s old guard, some of whom have been targeted in corruption cases since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Although there is no evidence the fund engaged in corrupt activity, the connections between the people named as investors on the account has never been properly investigated by the Egyptian authorities.
The list of individuals and companies published above raises questions that have so far been left unanswered by Egyptian investigators.
The document, which details how much individuals and companies committed to the fund at the time of launch, also provides a window into the everlasting influence of Mubarak’s old guard and their long-standing ties to Gulf nationals in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
It represents the beginning of Gamal Mubarak’s foray into private equity, where his financial interests in the Egyptian economy, from tourism to agriculture to oil, began to grow. The fund was created prior to Gamal’s entry into political life, when he acquired 18% of EFG Hermes Private Equity.
Among the handful of Gulf companies listed is First Arabian Development and Investment Company, run by Hamza al Kholi, a prominent Saudi Arabian businessman, and Yahya Al Yahya, the chief executive director of Gulf International Bank.
The ZAD Global Direct Investments Fund is also a notable appearance on the list. This investment company, founded by Prince Mishaal Al-Saud, second child of the Prince Abdullah bin Turki bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in Jeddah is a privately controlled investment company, organized, owned, controlled and operated as the investment vehicle for the family of Prince Mishaal for the purpose of managing the family’s investments.
Some businessmen have used clever ways to hide their investment activity. A company connected to Hussein Salem appears on the document. Clelia Assets Corporation, a Panama registered company, is linked to his name.
Salem fled Egypt in 2011 when he came under fire for tax evasion and his complicity in a corrupt gas deal.
Other controversial names on the list include Mohammed Abou El Enein, the chief executive of Cleopatra Ceramics, a major Middle East ceramics firm that has faced repeated labour strikes.
Abou El Enein, who once called himself “the noblest businessman on Earth”, was at one point under investigation for allegedly violating labour laws. Workers have staged sporadic strikes asking for improved working conditions and higher wages.
The fund is a worrying sign of how little progress Egypt has been made in defeating a tight circle of Egypt’s mafia, some of whom were subject to now forgotten corruption cases.
And now, there is evidence that some of Mubarak-era moguls may make a reappearance on Egypt’s political and business scene. Hussein Salem, who is currently exiled in Spain, has reportedly asked to make a deal with the interim government that would end any court cases against him. He has said he is presenting a new initiative to the interim government which includes funding for the unemployed in the tourism sector, as well as restoration of police stations, churches and mosques.
Hassan Heikal, who resigned from EFG Hermes earlier this year, has indicated that he will be acting in a consultancy basis to the Egyptian government. He has signalled he will offer ideas and launch new initiatives “that offer long-term solutions to Egypt’s fiscal challenges and economic development,” according to a statement he made when he resigned.
But the army has a strategy of its own. It’s interest is in preventing an examination of its own assets and business interests, which not only is likely to affect other investigations but focus on a shift away from Mubarak-era crimes toward the Muslim Brotherhood and the former president Mohammed Morsi.
So as the army continues its assault against the Muslim Brotherhood, journalists and civilians, the more these characters will disappear into the background, leaving them free to operate, uninterrupted.
One of the key markers of a thriving economy is whether investors are committed.
For Egypt, attracting investors has remained a point of contention in the last three years – are they or are they not putting money in Egypt?
Marshall Stocker, an American venture capitalist, was among a band of businessmen drawn to Egypt’s transformation from a sleepy Arab socialist country to one that embraced the market.
The 2004 cabinet had cut the top rate of tax, launched a series of special economic zones and encouraged a rush of construction activity. This robust economic expansion plan, led by Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, hit its stride in 2008, when foreign investment reached dizzying heights of $13 billion. Economic growth clocked in at a consistently high 7%.
The global business community applauded Mubarak’s rule as “bold”, “impressive” and “prudent”. On the surface, the country was a haven for investors like Stocker.
But once he had arrived in Cairo to launch his urban redevelopment real estate company, Stocker’s optimism was short-lived and he was forced to shut down his business just a year after it had hit its peak. He subsequently documented his experiences in a memoir published this year, “Don’t Stand Under A Tree When It Rains”.
Rebel Economy spoke to him about his experience as a foreign investor during the height of the revolution and why he won’t be investing Egypt again, at least for now.
A populist government panders to voters by preventing rents from rising. After several years tenants are paying much less rent than they otherwise should and this makes for lost income to the landlord and significantly lessens the value of an apartment building.
We intended to buy 12 large buildings in Cairo, and instead of buying building by building we could buy them all in a week and redevelop them.
Our team started raising money in 2009 for properties that were a particularly illiquid investment with a lock-up of 8 years. But the aftermath of the financial crisis prompted everyone to demand very, very liquid investments.
That meant that even though we solicited lawyers, doctors, colleges – all types of wealthy people, in the end the people we found to invest were all people we knew and they were all professional investors; people who managed mutual funds, hedge funds, they apparently have a better appreciation of the market liberalisation thesis in Egypt.
We were able to raise money to do that – $50 million of equity – and we started formally in 2010.
I had already advised the President of Yemen and his son on market liberalisation and the positive consequences of liberalising their economy. I always felt that direct investment in this type of liberal environment is where the real excitement is.
Egypt had both boxes checked - a nice liberalisation environment and it had rich opportunities in urban development. Egypt had the single greatest increase in economic freedom in the years leading up to 2008 and 2009, inflation had been brought under control, corporate taxes were halved to 20% and foreigners could own 100% of a business.
What you saw was direct investment increase collectively. And it was relatively easy to set up a business. The General Authority For Investment (GAFI) is a one-stop shop so the whole process of getting a company going was quite easy.
We had another dilemma: whether it is ethical to do business under an autocratic regime and what business are ethical in such environments. Ours was completely voluntary, as in sellers and tenants were free to refuse our offers. That, I thought, was the ultimate measure of ethics.
The peak came after the revolution had begun. Post-revolution there were genuine economic stresses and market prices were falling on buildings.
I negotiated inside a building on Mohammed Mahmoud Street that had its windows duct-taped shut.
The cost of the asset was dropping under tenants were under increased economic stress. So paying tenants to leave was easier to do, and redevelopment, another major component of our business, got easier to manage even though imported goods cost were going up as well as labour. The business made sense post-revolution.
There has been no economic policy post-revolution except to peg the currency. The volatility of the Egyptian foreign currency rate hit an all-time low post-revolution, and that’s absolutely not what should be happening.
In my opinion, economic policy took a backseat. Islamist president Mohammed Morsi had free-market ambitions at the micro level but didn’t show that he understood this at a macro level. So once he was in power, we had started hearing anecdotal evidence that people couldn’t move money out of the country.
GAFI told us this was not the case but we endeavoured to move a modest amount offshore. It took 7 months.
Luckily, we never had much money onshore but come August 2012, we made the decision that informal capital controls and lack of reliable economic policy meant that we would not be able to continue our business.
The business was still excellent. Profits were higher because asset prices dropped and those are the operational risks we were willing to take, but at the end of the project, if you can’t move your money out of the country, woe is the investor who makes the investment.
I have no money left in Egypt. Would I pursue a direct investment strategy that has a decreasing level of economic freedom? No, absolutely not. I wouldn’t go back.
The government has a blank cheque from a number of Gulf states but there is a credit limit and the risk is that this credit limit is reached before sound economic policy is enunciated and deployed.
And in the absence of policy, I have to believe that the money is going to run out first.
The Egyptian government visiting Gamal Abdel Nasser’s tomb also signals a certain level of respect toward his thinking but also of his socialist economic policies, which I don’t agree with. Those type of activities should not be ignored.
Stocker has published a memoir of his experience in Cairo. “Don’t Stand Under A Tree When It Rains” exposes the dilemmas of investing during the Egyptian uprising and provides advice on working in a foreign country.
Among the first reactors to the Arab Spring back in January 2011 were the oil markets. The oil price, already volatile in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, became even more unstable as concerns that the oil supply would be choked off if the political problems of the Middle East affected global oil production.
Now, the world is dependant on a few Gulf countries, namely Saudi Arabia, to fill the supply gap. But should the Arab Spring countries, the majority of whom are not big oil producers, be a primary concern for unstable oil markets? Indeed, sometimes the oil market can be wrong, like it was on Egypt. Sometimes the oil market can prepare for the worst case scenario as it did on Syria.
Rebel Economy asked Justin Dargin, an energy and Middle East scholar at the University of Oxford, to break down the misconceptions we have about the oil market and its relation to Arab countries in transition.
Dargin has advised some of the largest oil companies in the world and worked in the legal department at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries also advising on multilateral initiatives.
The oil market has been at one of its most unstable points since World War Two. Many have linked the risks from the countries of the Arab Spring to this tumultuous period. Is this a fair assumption?
There was a chain reaction in the global economy. After the protests began in Tunisia and spread to other MENA countries, for a period of time, investors speculated that the instability would reach the major oil producing Arab countries. The trepidation that the major Arab oil producing countries were at risk for sustained political unrest caused the global oil market to react.
But, what is problematic for the global economy is not elevated oil prices, per se, rather it is that the oil market is much more volatile because of the tenuous political situation in the MENA region. Additionally, the Arab Spring began at an already delicate time for the global economy that was still reeling from the global financial crisis.
Much of the fluctuation in the global oil market is driven by what is known as the “fear premium.”
The fear premium is basically a rise in the price of a commodity, such as oil, that is based on the expectation that a certain event will happen that would significantly impact the market in a negative way. This relates to the Arab Spring as there was a fear that several events could potentially happen. Global investors speculated that in the beginning months of the Arab Spring, there could be oil production disruption in the oil producing Gulf countries.
There was also the fear that perhaps several important sea-lanes and canals, such as the Strait of Hormuz or the Suez Canal, could be blocked. Furthermore, a bit later on during the Arab Spring, terrorism fears grew and it was thought that the regional power vacuum could encourage militant groups to launch attacks on MENA energy infrastructure.
While these fears have largely subsided (although not completely), the international price of oil still remains extremely unstable because of this uncertainty.
So when we examine global energy price instability because of political instability in the MENA region, we must realize that this is “political risk” premium that keeps oil prices artificially high.
The oil market fundamentals are relatively sound at the moment, with increased oil and natural gas production occurring in North America due to the shale oil production boom and increased production in Iraq and other areas around the world.
Nonetheless, when we assess the actual impact of the Arab Spring, the oil producing country of note that had notable disruption was Libya. And, when viewed in context, Libya supplies a minor amount of the global oil supply, while Syria, Egypt, Yemen and other Arab countries that had their own “Arab Springs” are not major oil producers of any note.
The fear premium is based on the fear that the major oil producing Arab countries of Algeria and the Gulf (and perhaps Iraq) will have their production disrupted which would significantly reduce available oil on the market.
But the perception that the oil supply could be affected, even if it is incorrect, can still make more impact than real pressures. What is the long-term impact of this on oil markets?
The oil market is uniquely vulnerable to fluctuation based on fears, whether justifiable or not. This is because most oil exports hail from regions whereby state formation occurred relatively recently and nation-state legitimacy is still being constructed.
Because many of the nation-states in the MENA region are relatively recent creations, political stability is still evolving. The primary perception in most commodity markets especially that of oil, is that the region is prone to wars, coups, terrorism and civil disturbances in ways that can definitively disrupt production of the lifeblood of the global economy.
Ultimately, the long-term impact of investor perception in the oil market, or in other words, the fear premium, is that the oil price will become increasingly divorced from the supply fundamentals thereby leading to a much more volatile market. And, as commodity markets in general become more computerized and investors are able to make split second decisions regarding investments, this problem will be exacerbated.
We may not like it, but Egypt desperately needs Gulf money.
So why not change the way the Gulf lends money to Egypt to make it count. It won’t be just about wasting away cash to address a symptom without resolving the underlying problem.
Indeed, without Gulf aid, the government would have struggled to pay for vital imports and would have fallen far behind on its supply of fuel, prompting nationwide riots and unrest. The pound would have depreciated rapidly in the absence of sufficient central bank deposits and would have been worth closer to LE7.5 or LE8 to a dollar instead of LE6.89.
Egypt had no-one else to turn to.
International donors, including the likes of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the African Development Fund, had too many strings attached for far less money to make it worth while for Egypt. These organisations also promised a whole lot of interference (or as they call it “technical expertise) into economic policy-making – another unpopular prospect for the foreign-wary Egyptians.
Meanwhile the Gulf was a perfect lender to Egypt. It has acted more like a generous Uncle, pouring money (and petroleum products) into Egypt’s coffers whenever needed and with few questions asked. As long as the Muslim Brotherhood are out, the Saudis are in.
But beyond throwing money at the problem, the Gulf has done little in the way of long-term restructuring in Egypt. They’re not interested in reforms and overhauling the tax system, but wielding control in the most populous Arab country and leverage over the Brotherhood.
Though the Gulf can afford to keep playing this game, Egypt can’t.
The government has been given too much free rein with more than $12 billion in cash and oil. None of that has gone towards supporting the budget deficit, or towards reforms that will benefit the lives of millions of Egyptians.
Adly Mansour’s government, or more likely the government that follows after elections, should consider making the most of connections with the Gulf by striking deals in infrastructure and energy.
Rather than just taking money to plug holes that will reappear in a few months time, Egypt would do well to get the same money siphoned off into long-term investment projects.
There are many avenues for joint ventures: Egypt’s factories, the bread and butter of the industrial sector, are shutting down because of difficulty securing loans in the credit market.
Low-income residential projects to house thousands of Egyptians living on-top of one another in Cairo has stalled as contractors struggle to find the funds to keep working.
Labour-intensive infrastructure projects, on roads, railways, water and sewage treatment plants, are in desperate need of investment.
Egypt’s interim government boasted about launching a $3.2 billion “economic stimulus plan” yet very little has been said about reinforcing ties with the Gulf, which is surely the easiest way to implement such a “stimulus plan”. The only mention of Gulf investment is a possible agreement with the United Arab Emirates to finance medical projects and 10 wheat silos.
But that is not enough. There should be a full-scale collaboration with Gulf countries, not only to benefit Egypt, but to show the international community that the money is working hard for the nation.
1) Egypt and Turkey – Bloomberg
It’s amazing how fickle Egypt’s government can be when it drops an old friend.
Egypt’s new government has made it clear it is not prepared to cooperate with Turkey, an ally and donor of the Muslim Brotherhood. Tensions have grown between the two countries since the army toppled Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and Turkey is suffering for it, with exports dropping as much as 30% since July 3, the day of the coup.
The Federation of the Egyptian Chambers of Commerce this week announced they will suspend all official trade relations with the Turkey after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Morsi’s ouster as an “unacceptable military coup”.
But with the volume of trade between the two countries estimated at about $5 billion, excluding tourism and joint investment projects, Egypt will also end up paying a price for its bad diplomacy.
Not so much an economic story, but one that alludes to the growing influence of Egypt’s “old guard”, symbolically represented by the release of Hosni Mubarak.
The evidence is clear: the army has marshalled support from Egyptians as the country becomes exhausted by two and a half years of turmoil. Investigations against the January 25 killings and politically corrupt individuals during the Mubarak era have been put on hold. Censorship is back, with propaganda infiltrating most TV channels and even some state-run newspapers calling the January 25 revolution a “setback”.
This story makes very clear that Egypt has turned a worrying corner in the quest for democracy and therefore equality, which is really what the revolution was all about.
3) Apache - Wall Street Journal
The oil and gas company, Apache has agreed to sell 33% of its Egypt business to China’s Sinopec Group. It will continue to be an operator on the projects.
Though this story may, on first reading, look like Egypt’s oil sector is vulnerable to asset sales because of increasing debt to oil companies and mismanagement on the part of the Egyptian government, it’s not that simple.
The operations are located in the Western Desert, far from any political unrest that would impact exploration. In fact, this transaction reflects more of Apache’s goal to use the proceeds to reduce debt, buy back shares and fund the company’s capital spending.
What it does highlight is the value of Egypt’s oil and gas sector, which will always be attractive to companies, even despite such political risk.
4) Egyptian government temporarily halts IMF negotiations - Egypt Independent
This story is misleading for a number of reasons. Egypt didn’t halt IMF negotiations, rather the IMF stopped communicating with Egypt partly because of the way the Brotherhood have been almost banished from not just the political sphere but from daily life in Egypt. Most Brotherhood members are in hiding now.
The story also refers to the Gulf as a kind of saviour that will tackle the deficit, but none of the $12 billion will be used to cut the deficit. It will be used to keep the pound afloat and imports flowing. In other words, it’s a running tap that is wasting cash that could be used more shrewdly.
What about making a deal with Saudi Arabia to invest in projects in Egypt? Wouldn’t that be more helpful than throwing billions of dollars into the Central Bank to support a currency that many consider is overvalued?
5) Libya oil - Economist
One of the biggest issues standing in the way of Libya’s economic success is the government’s control over key sectors, especially oil. Now a port that allows the trade of Libyan oil has been shut off and its closure is representative of the power the state wields over the energy sector.
Basically the state believes that a large amount of oil is being “smuggled” out of Egypt. But the party responsible for the potential sale, the Petroleum Facilities Guard, say it is a valid transaction.
The stand-off is part of a bigger political agenda between various factions in Libya, but as this Economist article concludes, if the state-owned “National Oil Company cannot keep its legal monopoly on oil exports it will be taken as yet another sign of the increasing level of political risk in Libya”.
This report, from the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, evaluates the Libyan economy and progress since popular uprisings in February 2011 and the eventual ouster of the Muammar Qaddafi regime.
On the surface, it appears Libya’s economy is back to pre-revolution levels with oil production and GDP at comfortable levels. But this report sets out how the government has failed to come up with a single economic plan.
In this useful read, three main priorities are laid out for Libya’s government including diversifying the economy away from oil, reducing youth unemployment and modernising the financial system.
After several months hiatus (and readers saying they are having sleepless nights without it) the daily wrap is back!
I’ll be linking to a handful of the most important economic stories from the transitioning countries of the Arab world, namely Egypt, Syria and Libya, and to a lesser extent Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and Morocco. (The Gulf is there in the background too, but only because of its connections to these countries).
1) Energy groups rethink commitment to Egypt - Financial Times
This story has become evergreen for Egypt and it seems like every couple of months a new story crops up to remind us that debts to oil companies are not going to disappear anytime soon.
The story repeats much of what has already been reported, mentioning companies owed millions of dollars including BG group, ENI and the Dana Gas. However the premise of the story may be unfounded. Although oil companies may be acting cautiously at the moment, and holding off any expansion plans, it’s very unlikely that these companies will pull out of Egypt altogether. Not only would this prove costly for these companies to pull out their equipment and human resources, but those firms would miss out on costs they are making at the moment. Because, as the FT story says:
Egypt’s oil and gasfields continued to produce as if nothing had happened.
Reading this story made my blood boil.
The government has already introduced some stimulus measures including lowering interest rates (and more controversially printing money, though that’s more rumour than fact). But increasing spending at a time when the budget is reeling from over-expenditure on wasteful subsidies (for both energy and food) masks a difficult truth: the government doesn’t actually want to make any cuts, or raise taxes to keep its own reputation in tact and avoid any public backlash. Essentially, it’s a cowardly move that will mostly benefit the current interim government who has so far been completely ineffective after the killings of hundreds of Egyptians.
And that perception that $12 billion of Gulf money will save Egypt is very naive. That money is not being targeted at the budget. At best it may be used for some investments, but really it will be used to keep the pound afloat and the country’s imports flowing.
Capital Economics, the London-based consultancy elaborates. This is their bottom line:
Egypt’s newly-announced stimulus package stands a chance of boosting the beleaguered economy in the near-term. But with the package being funded by Gulf aid, over the longer-term, it could actually take the country further away from making much-needed reforms to improve the business environment.
3) Energy stocks rise over Syria – Reuters
I will be writing on the economic impacts of US intervention in Syria later but for now, there are some gems hidden in this stock market story. Capital markets have been responding wildly to this. Gulf stock markets suffered record losses. Though it’s not clear that any escalation of the Syrian civil war would have a pronounced effect on Gulf economies, these same countries have been supporting Syrian rebels for some time.
As a result, investor rushed to the safest commodity around (well it was safe until a few months ago when the gold price plunged…). Gold prices rose to three and a half month highs above $1,430 per ounce as Syria tensions raised its appeal as a safe-haven asset.
Take a look at this chart, which the Central Bank has been proudly parading this month:
It shows how the pound’s official price, controlled by the central bank, has been appreciating slowly since the overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
If we were to take this graph at face value, we might conclude that the pound has strengthened as the interim government (and military) took over, and billions of dollars worth of Gulf aid is helping the country’s currency stabilise.
However, traders on the black market tell a very different story, and say the Central Bank is ensuring the pound strengthens just to give the impression that the economy is stable and improving despite the turmoil.
Here, where the pound is traded illegally, the domestic currency has actually weakened to LE7.20 (from LE7.10 a few days earlier, according to Reuters) reflecting Egypt’s volatile economic and political situation.
The pound actually fell as low as around LE8 per dollar at one point earlier this year on the black market, prompting the central bank to turn to a few different measures to reduce pressure on the currency and revive the economy:
But none of that is working. This graph puts the currency’s performance in context, showing how the pound has rapidly fallen in value this year:
And as the pound depreciates further, the more foreign currency reserves are drained and the less the central bank can support the official rate for the currency. This is why the country is spending foreign currency at a rate of about $1.5 billion a month.
Add to that, the few foreign investors left are moving to withdrawals but currency controls are making it difficult to convert Egyptian pounds to dollars. Earlier this month, Emad Mostaque, a strategist at Noah Capital Markets in London told me around half a billion dollars worth of investment is trying to leave Egypt at the moment.
So the picture isn’t as rosy as the interim government may want you to think.
In fact, the volatility we see on Egypt’s currency cycle will be another black mark to add to the nation’s problematic currency history, marked by the Central Bank’s repeated efforts to keep the pound’s value elevated, sometimes at the expense of the country’s precious foreign reserves.
The people at Dcode, an Egyptian business consultancy, put together a comprehensive graph detailing just how volatile the Egyptian pound has fared in the last three decades:
As long as the central bank and government refuse to accept that massive political turmoil and violence on the streets alarmed investors and traders, the pound will continue to fall, foreign reserves will bleed faster and the Gulf will have even more power over Cairo as it comes to the rescue once more with billions of cash.
Egypt’s army has put the country on a path to economic destruction.
Not only will foreign investors stay away from Egypt for at least a year, but the cabinet is going to fall apart and aid will be hard to come by.
The nation, now more vulnerable than at any time since Hosni Mubarak was deposed two and a half years ago, is on its own.
Promises of aid from the EU and US may now be delayed indefinitely. No one wants to be seen as supporting an illegitimate government that has sat back quietly as hundreds of Egyptians are massacred.
Of course, on one level, foreign aid is less important now given the $12 billion the interim government has been able to solicit from Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. Western diplomats told Reuters that it would last less than a year, buying time for officials to iron out political issues.
But the events of the last 24 hours have destroyed any chance of political reconciliation and with another impending huge hit on tourism and foreign investment, Gulf money will run out fast.
The Gulf is not going to keep funding Egypt’s ballooning deficit, especially as the country keeps spending foreign currency at a rate of $1.5 billion a month.
Egypt’s so-called high-powered economic dream team are being weakened with every death on the street.
Not only has the resignation of Mohammed El Baradei totally undermined the government, but there are already rumours of others following in Baradei’s path, including the government’s chief economist and deputy prime minister, Ziad Bahaa ElDin.
So when Egypt inevitably runs out of cash in less than a year (if not a matter of months), there is only one place government officials will be looking to attract aid and that is from the same international donors, including the International Monetary Fund, African Development Bank and World Bank, it has ignored and asked to stay out of Egypt’s affairs.
Except this time, the negotiations for a loan will be tougher. Stricter conditions may be enforced for Egypt to prove it has what it takes to use aid to benefit the poorest Egyptians. No government has managed to prove that since Mubarak was overthrown in 2011.
Besides, the real reason Egyptian officials have avoided intense negotiations with foreign donors is because the government does not care about working in the best interests of the people. Meeting the conditions for those loans would entail too much politically contentious work. And what politician in their right mind would implement these controversial reforms? (No leader in 60 years of Egyptian history).
So maybe this time international donors should take heed of this request and leave Egypt to fail economically (there is already pressure on the US to cut military aid to Egypt – read Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy, the FT’s editorial, and the New York Times’ editorial for why).
Egypt is completely off track where it started off two and a half years ago. Maybe taking Egypt’s politicians, and particularly the army, off life support is just the shock the country needs after decades of dependence.
As the months drag on and the prospect of a recovery for Egypt’s economy seem to slip further away, the key question on most investors’ minds is whether the government can push through reforms.
But while it is clear that successive governments have failed to ease hardship, it’s worth addressing whether Egyptians are ready for reforms.
The loudest opposition to the International Monetary Fund loan, energy subsidy reforms and higher taxes was from Egyptian citizens. That’s not surprising considering Egypt’s rocky history with the IMF and the (inaccurate) perception that reforms will make life worse for the poorest.
But perhaps its time for an attitude change. Indeed, it is the very real fear of a popular backlash to reforms that has so far stopped any government imposing anything too harsh.
But as Rebel Economy argued earlier this week, a dose of austerity with some stimulus is better than no austerity at all.
Take Latvia, which has provided “a rare boost to champions of the proposition that pain pays”, where it is perceived as shameful for people who earn any salary, no matter how small, to go on strike, New York Times reporter Andrew Higgins writes:
When a credit-fueled economic boom turned to bust in this tiny Baltic nation in 2008, Didzis Krumins, who ran a small architectural company, fired his staff one by one and then shut down the business. He watched in dismay as Latvia’s misery deepened under a harsh austerity drive that scythed wages, jobs and state financing for schools and hospitals.
Then there was light:
But instead of taking to the streets to protest the cuts, Mr. Krumins, whose newborn child, in the meantime, needed major surgery, bought a tractor and began hauling wood to heating plants that needed fuel. Then, as Latvia’s economy began to pull out of its nose-dive, he returned to architecture and today employs 15 people — five more than he had before. “We have a different mentality here,” he said.
Does Egypt need to change its mentality? Rather than protest dislikes (which is all too easy) what about focusing energy into lobbying organisations to work harder for job creation and inclusive growth?
It worked for Latvia.
The Baltic tiger’s economy grew by 50% during 2004 and 2007, but the global financial crisis of 2008-09 hit the country hard and it endured one of the worst recessions of the European Union. Deep public spending cuts introduced by the new government led to discontent and protests at home, but impressed international lenders enough to earn Latvia an IMF/European Union $10 billion bailout.
Rather than cause uproar, the cuts (including slashed wages, wide-scale sackings of public sector workers and reduced welfare) calmed fears in the international markets and rather than throw the government out of office, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, who presided over the austerity, was re-elected.
Of course it would be short-sighted to suggest that if there were no protests then life would improve for the neediest. Demonstrations have been a key tool for Egyptians to communicate their grievances. However, persistent political instability, labour strikes and violent street confrontations are only delaying a recovery.
To be sure, economists have estimated that the military’s overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi led to losses of around $3 billion to $5 billion. That mostly reflects a sharp fall in foreign investment, declining production as factories and production facilities stopped working and a major reduction in tourism revenue as security concerns mount.
But is it naive to consider Latvia’s recovery, dubbed a “neo-liberal success story”, a model for Egypt, a country that recoils at the mere mention of “neo-liberal”?
Not necessarily. The reason why the military was so welcomed in its power-grab last month was partly because Egyptians want a return to normality. Few people want Mubarak to return but they are viewing his regime a little softer and moaning that life has gotten worse since the 2011 revolution.
At one point, Egyptians will have to recognise that there must be hardship to reach the desired result. Not everyone will get what they want, but protesting every time you don’t get it won’t make any difference either.
Of course, Latvia and Egypt are hardly comparable. While Latvia was reeling from the global recession, Egypt experienced one of the fastest growth rates in the Middle East under reforms that began in 2004 to increase trade, promote growth and facilitate doing business. But as wealth accumulated, this did not trickle down to the poorest and soon stirred the discontent that ultimately led to the 2011 uprising.
Though the January 25 revolution was the harbinger of growth for Egypt, that day cannot be replicated as we have seen with Morsi’s rule and now the military’s caretaker government.
Egyptians must accept reforms and approach these with the mentality that the country won’t recover unless people are willing to try to fulfil their ambitions for a better future, rather than undermine their opponents or protect their own interests at whatever cost.
CORRECTION: This article originally linked to a story by Middle East Monitor that suggested Egypt was hit by losses of $17.1 billion after the military overthrew the former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. The article has been corrected to reflect losses of around $3 to $5 billion, according to economists Rebel Economy consulted.