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Iran’s finance

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Iran’s leadership is not satisfied with the pace and the way in which international sanctions are about to be lifted definitively. On the one hand, Iran still has many difficulties in having access to global financial markets by using standard procedures; on the other hand there are significant shortcomings and delays in the domestic banking system.

The current yearly inflation rate is 11.9%; the maximum interest rate has fallen from 24% to 22% while, as announced by President Rowhani, the trade surplus is now positive for the first time after 37 years.

At the end of March 2016, the oil and non-oil exports were 41 billion and 42 billion Us dollars, respectively, with an expected annual growth of 0.7% only.

The exports of the free economic zone of Anzali, in the Northern province of Gilan, are growing to an impressive level of 40 million US dollars as against the 20 million US dollars of last year.

Iran’s economy clearly needs to quickly reduce its dependence on oil sales, while the Bandar Abbas refinery will be doubled in terms of extraction and condensation of natural gas, with capital and equipment largely of Iranian origin.

Here the real problem is cultural and political: the Iranian banking system has been segregated for many years with respect to international flows and now the country’s financial leaders do not know how to handle the new, inevitable globalization of the Shiite Iran.

In the research centres of European financial companies there are those who maintain that the Iranian banking system is so badly run, and with such a dominance of political and sectarian mortmain, that the structural crisis of the sector is supposed to break out in three years, at the maximum.

Furthermore the Finance Minister, Ali Tayyebna, has long been maintaining that the government should refinance banks due to the losses resulting from the fall in international oil prices, while the Iranian Central Bank states that the government debt to banks is 33 billion US dollars or even more.

The cases of economic and financial corruption are commonplace and the Iranian banking institutions are accustomed to obscure, personal and ambiguous operations and transactions, partially because of the old closure to international markets.

An international Forum of Iranian banks is scheduled in Berlin in mid-May.

While, as is likely, a global recession will take place in the coming months, due to the fact that the US banks are not convinced of the effectiveness and solvency of the new loans and of the possible 2% inflation rate, the US bankers believe that, with the current North American growth pace, recovery will occur in 2020.

If these are the US forecasts, we can imagine Iran’s geoeconomic difficulties, especially in a much more fragmented, competitive, non-OPEC oil market than the one which has characterized the religious Welfare State since 1979.

After the end of sanctions, however, Iran’s real problem is the lack of productive investment and the weakness of internal technologies for extraction and diversification.

Either they buy them abroad, but banks are mistrustful, or they produce them inside, with higher costs and less effective technological efficacy.

Here the book by the economist Arghiri Emmanuel comes to our mind, namely the Unequal Exchange, which takes place when the economic exchange between the First and the Third World stabilizes at an internationally equalized average rate of profit.

Thus it happens that the third world country’s terms of trade always tend to decrease in real terms.

Hence a similar phenomenon happens, though in a geopolitical context very different from the one of the 1960s, when Emmanuel wrote.

Iran’s average income tends to decrease even at exchange rate parity.

Considering their low quality in terms of certifications against money laundering, Iranian banks’ debts cannot be “internationalized” and contribute to increase, up to reaching exorbitant usury rates, the interest rate for domestic loans. Or they contribute to make banks themselves go bankrupt and hence move State money which could be better used elsewhere.

Obviously, in this case, the prevailing link is the one between creditors and politicians, or between government institutions, that get money anyway, and individuals, who basically remain outside the credit market.

The non-performing loans (NPL) account for at least 20% of the total loans granted by the Iranian banks. Hence, if international finance does not trust the Iranian banking market – and rightfully so – at least 37% of the capital needed in the short term to renew and diversify Iran’s productive structure would be lacking.

If this did not happen, in three-four years, at the maximum, the Iranian banking crisis would be followed by the resumption of a free rider behaviour by Iran, which would have no reason to reduce its points of strategic friction and attrition: Yemen, the Shiite networks in the Emirates, Iraq, the Golan border, Syria and, in the future, Central Asia.

The International Monetary Fund predicts a fall in GDP by 3 to 0.5% over the next two years, which will be crucial.

As we have seen, inflation tends to decline, but it is a cyclical effect of the lower prices of food and other basic commodities.

Optimistically the IMF has forecast that, after the end of sanctions, the GDP should rise to a yearly 5-6% rate but – as another economist of the Emmanuel’s Marxist tradition, James O’Connor, said – the real problem is Iran’s fiscal crisis.

International banks are asking to the Iranian financial holdings and the Shiite government to pursue strong disinflation (which also increases the debt duration) and greater autonomy for the Central Bank, which is still a direct expression of the Supreme Leader.

There is also the problem – shared by many oil-producing countries in the Middle East – of the subsidies to fuel consumption, but the Iranian organization distributing them has reached the break even point since 2015.

So far Iran’s crude oil exports have risen by about one fifth earlier this year, up to 1.5 million barrels per day.

Both for geological and technological reasons, the real production cost of the oil barrel is particularly low, even 1.5 US dollars per barrel.

During the sanctions the production cost per barrel was 5 US dollars. Today oil overproduction is 2%, but Iran wants to get to 500 billion barrels per year, which account for 0.5% of world production, so as to spread its credit weaknesses on a large mass of exports and acquire “easy money.”

It is true, however, that many calculate the break even point of the Iranian oil barrel at a much higher price, namely 136 dollars per barrel, but we must not forget that, in this case, the costs also include the FOB marketing expenses, transportation costs and taxes.

Iran, however, has a break even point which is lower than Nigeria’s and Venezuela’s (which is the most expensive oil barrel in the world in terms of extraction costs), but much higher than Bahrain’s, where there are many Shiites, and Saudi Arabia’s (93.1 US dollars) where the followers of Imam Ali are the majority precisely among oil workers and in the extraction areas.

With the money from large oil sales, Iran wants to renew its infrastructure, support economic diversification and, above all, expand its domestic market.

But will it be an operation without dangers? It is too early to say so, as Zhou Enlai said to Kissinger, when he asked him what the Chinese Communists thought of the French Revolution of 1789.

But the net cost for supporting the Iranian ruling classes is such as to make it difficult to reach these goals.

Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Guide, the Rahbar, has a personal business empire of 95 billion US dollars.

Other members of the Shiite nomenklatura manage similar assets.

As is happening in Italy and in other Western countries, we are faced with the ruling classes’ corruption, which becomes the main impediment to economic growth.

Nevertheless only Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Canada have larger oil reserves than Iran.

Iran has more oil than Iraq, Kuwait and Libya put together.

Therefore, on the basis of these data and statistics, some geopolitical options can be inferred: the contrast with Saudi Arabia is bound to increase, while Iran will have every interest in limiting the Sunni expansion in Libya and Kuwait, as a Shiite minority survives in the latter.

Hence an oil geopolitics uniting all the followers of Imam Ali under Iran’s guidance and leadership, for a clash with Saudi Arabia which will be not only military, but also financial.

However, will Iran succeed in having capital available in the short to medium term, which will be used for oil production expansion without limiting the growth of the internal market, which is the key to its political stability?

If the “power circles” step aside, and Iranian banks’ efficiency improves, something positive could happen.

Conversely, if political and private corruption increases or remain stable, either the investments for the oil upgrade or the internal market’s growth, which could trigger off many and unpredictable mass revolts, will be negatively affected.

Nevertheless, if the ruling class’ liquidity decreases, also the right and left electoral base of a large part of the regime shrinks – an electoral base that is often patronage-based

At strategic level, whatever happens to the Iranian banking issue, the end of sanctions will bring Iran closer to the United States, which will probably not fail to support some sectoral investments of the Shiite regime.

While, in this new scenario, Saudi Arabia will play some of its cards as free rider in the Middle East, by funding – despite its financial crisis which is more severe than Iran’s – some proxy wars in the Gulf, in the Maghreb region and, possibly, even in Central Asia.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Economy

Is Myanmar an ethical minefield for multinational corporations?

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Business at a crossroads

Political reforms in Myanmar started in November 2010 followed by the release of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and ended by the coup d’état in February 2021. Business empire run by the military generals thanks to the fruitful benefits of democratic transition during the last decade will come to an end with the return of trade and diplomatic sanctions from the western countries – United States (US) and members of European Union (EU).  US and EU align with other major international partners quickly responded and imposed sanctions over the military’s takeover and subsequent repression in Myanmar. These measures targeted not only the conglomerates of the military generals  but also the individuals who have been appointed in the authority positions and supporting the military regime.

However, the generals and their cronies own the majority of economic power both in strategic sectors ranging from telecommunication to oil & gas and in non-strategic commodity sectors such as food and beverages, construction materials, and the list goes on. It is a tall order for the investors to do business by avoiding this lucrative network of the military across the country. After the coup, it raises the most puzzling issue to investors and corporate giants in this natural resource-rich country, “Should I stay or Should I go?”

Crimes against humanity

For most of the people in the country, war crimes and atrocities committed by the military are nothing new. For instances, in 1988, student activists led a political movement and tried to bring an end to the military regime of the general Ne Win. This movement sparked a fire and grew into a nationwide uprising in a very short period but the military used lethal force and slaughtered thousands of civilian protestors including medical doctors, religious figures, student leaders, etc. A few months later, the public had no better options than being silenced under barbaric torture and lawless killings of the regime.

In 2007, there was another major protest called ‘Saffron Uprising’ against the military regime led by the Buddhist monks. It was actually the biggest pro-democracy movement since 1988 and the atmosphere of the demonstration was rather peaceful and non-violent before the military opened live ammunitions towards the crowd full of monks. Everything was in chaos for a couple of months but it ended as usual.

In 2017, the entire world witnessed one of the most tragic events in Myanmar – Again!. The reports published by the UN stated that hundreds of civilians were killed, dozens of villages were burnt down, and over 700,000 people including the majority of Rohingya were displaced to neighboring countries because of the atrocities committed by the military in the western border of the country. After four years passed, the repatriation process and the safety return of these refugees to their places of origin are yet unknown. Most importantly, there is no legal punishment for those who committed and there is no transitional justice for those who suffered in the aforementioned examples of brutalities.

The vicious circle repeated in 2021. With the economy in free fall and the deadliest virus at doorsteps, the people are still unbowed by the oppression of the junta and continue demanding the restoration of democracy and justice. To date, Assistant Association for Political Prisoner (AAPP) reported that due to practicing the rights to expression, 1178 civilians were killed and 7355 were arrested, charged or sentenced by the military junta. Unfortunately, the numbers are still increasing.

Call for economic disengagement

In 2019, the economic interests of the military were disclosed by the report of UN Fact-Finding Mission in which Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (MEHL) were described as the prominent entities controlled by the military profitable through the almost-monopoly market in real estate, insurance, health care, manufacturing, extractive industry and telecommunication. It also mentioned the list of foreign businesses in partnership with the military-linked activities which includes Adani (India), Kirin Holdings (Japan), Posco Steel (South Korea), Infosys (India) and Universal Apparel (Hong Kong).

Moreover, Justice for Myanmar, a non-profit watchdog organization, revealed the specific facts and figures on how the billions of revenues has been pouring into the pockets of the high-ranked officers in the military in 2021. Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE), an another military-controlled authority body, is the key player handling the financial transactions, profit sharing, and contractual agreements with the international counterparts including Total (France), Chevron (US), PTTEP (Thailand), Petronas (Malaysia), and Posco (South Korea) in natural gas projects. It is also estimated that the military will enjoy 1.5 billion USD from these energy giants in 2022.

Additionally, data shows that the corporate businesses currently operating in Myanmar has been enriching the conglomerates of the generals and their cronies as a proof to the ongoing debate among the public and scholars, “Do sanctions actually work?” Some critics stressed that sanctions alone might be difficult to pressure the junta without any collaborative actions from Moscow and Beijing, the longstanding allies of the military. Recent bilateral visits and arm deals between Nay Pyi Taw and Moscow dimmed the hope of the people in Myanmar. It is now crystal clear that the Burmese military never had an intention to use the money from multinational corporations for benefits of its citizens, but instead for buying weapons, building up military academies, and sending scholars to Russia to learn about military technology. In March 2021, the International Fact Finding Mission to Myanmar reiterated its recommendation for the complete economic disengagement as a response to the coup, “No business enterprise active in Myanmar or trading with or investing in businesses in Myanmar should enter into an economic or financial relationship with the security forces of Myanmar, in particular the Tatmadaw [the military], or any enterprise owned or controlled by them or their individual members…”

Blood money and ethical dilemma

In the previous military regime until 2009, the US, UK and other democratic champion countries imposed strict economic and diplomatic sanctions on Myanmar while maintaining ‘carrot and stick’ approach against the geopolitical dominance of China. Even so, energy giants such as Total (France) and Chevron (US), and other ‘low-profile’ companies from ASEAN succeeded in running their operations in Myanmar, let alone the nakedly abuses of its natural resources by China. Doing business in this country at the time of injustice is an ethical question to corporate businesses but most of them seems to prefer maximizing the wealth of their shareholders to the freedom of its bottom millions in poverty.

But there are also companies not hesitating to do something right by showing their willingness not to be a part of human right violations of the regime. For example, Australian mining company, Woodside, decided not to proceed further operations, and ‘get off the fence’ on Myanmar by mentioning that the possibility of complete economical disengagement has been under review. A breaking news in July, 2021  that surprised everyone was the exit of Telenor Myanmar – one of four current telecom operators in the country. The CEO of the Norwegian company announced that the business had been sold to M1 Group, a Lebanese investment firm, due to the declining sales and ongoing political situations compromising its basic principles of human rights and workplace safety.

In fact, cutting off the economic ties with the junta and introducing a unified, complete economic disengagement become a matter of necessity to end the consistent suffering of the people of Myanmar. Otherwise, no one can blame the people for presuming that international community is just taking a moral high ground without any genuine desire to support the fight for freedom and pro-democracy movement.

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Economy

The Covid After-Effects and the Looming Skills Shortage

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coronavirus people

The shock of the pandemic is changing the ways in which we think about the world and in which we analyze the future trajectories of development. The persistence of the Covid pandemic will likely accentuate this transformation and the prominence of the “green agenda” this year is just one of the facets of these changes. Market research as well as the numerous think-tanks will be accordingly re-calibrating the time horizons and the main themes of analysis. Greater attention to longer risks and fragilities is likely to take on greater prominence, with particular scrutiny being accorded to high-impact risk factors that have a non-negligible probability of materializing in the medium- to long-term. Apart from the risks of global warming other key risk factors involve the rising labour shortages, most notably in areas pertaining to human capital development.

The impact of the Covid pandemic on the labour market will have long-term implications, with “hysteresis effects” observed in both highly skilled and low-income tiers of the labour market. One of the most significant factors affecting the global labour market was the reduction in migration flows, which resulted in the exacerbation of labour shortages across the major migrant recipient countries, such as Russia. There was also a notable blow delivered by the pandemic to the spheres of human capital development such as education and healthcare, which in turn exacerbated the imbalances and shortages in these areas. In particular, according to the estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO) shortages can mount up to 9.9 million physicians, nurses and midwives globally by 2030.

In Europe, although the number of physicians and nurses has increased in general in the region by approximately 10% over the past 10 years, this increase appears to be insufficient to cover the needs of ageing populations. At the same time the WHO points to sizeable inequalities in the availability of physicians and nurses between countries, whereby there are 5 times more doctors in some countries than in others. The situation with regard to nurses is even more acute, as data show that some countries have 9 times fewer nurses than others.

In the US substantial labour shortages in the healthcare sector are also expected, with anti-crisis measures falling short of substantially reversing the ailments in the national healthcare system. In particular, data published by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), suggests that the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care.

The blows sustained by global education from the pandemic were no less formidable. These affected first and foremost the youngest generation of the globe – according to UNESCO, “more than 1.5 billion students and youth across the planet are or have been affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. On top of the adverse effects on the younger generation (see Box 1), there is also the widening “teachers gap”, namely a worldwide shortage of well-trained teachers. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), “69 million teachers must be recruited to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030”.

From our partner RIAC

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Economy

Accelerating COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake to Boost Malawi’s Economic Recovery

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Lunzu market in southern Malawi. WFP/Greg Barrow

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries including Malawi have struggled to mitigate its impact amid limited fiscal support and fragile health systems. The pandemic has plunged the continent into its first recession in over 25 years, and vulnerable groups such as the poor, informal sector workers, women, and youth, suffer disproportionately from reduced opportunities and unequal access to social safety nets.

Fast-tracking COVID-19 vaccine acquisition—alongside widespread testing, improved treatment, and strong health systems—are critical to protecting lives and stimulating economic recovery. In support of the African Union’s (AU) target to vaccinate 60 percent of the continent’s population by 2022, the World Bank and the AU announced a partnership to assist the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) initiative with resources, allowing countries to purchase and deploy vaccines for up to 400 million Africans. This extraordinary effort complements COVAX and comes at a time of rising cases in the region.

I am convinced that unless every country in the world has fair, broad, and fast access to effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines, we will not stem the spread of the pandemic and set the global economy on track for a steady and inclusive recovery. The World Bank has taken unprecedented steps to ramp up financing for Malawi, and every country in Africa, to empower them with the resources to implement successful vaccination campaigns and compensate for income losses, food price increases, and service delivery disruptions.

In line with Malawi’s COVID-19 National Response and Preparedness Plan which aims to vaccinate 60 percent of the population, the World Bank approved $30 million in additional financing for the acquisition and deployment of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. This financing comes as a boost to Malawi’s COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness project, bringing World Bank contributions in this sector up to $37 million.

Malawi’s decision to purchase 1.8 million doses of Johnson and Johnson vaccines through the AU/African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) with World Bank financing is a welcome development and will enable Malawi to secure additional vaccines to meet its vaccination target.

However, Malawi’s vaccination campaign has encountered challenges driven by concerns regarding safety, efficacy, religious and cultural beliefs. These concerns, combined with abundant misinformation, are fueling widespread vaccine hesitancy despite the pandemic’s impact on the health and welfare of billions of people.  The low uptake of COVID-19 vaccines is of great concern, and it remains an uphill battle to reach the target of 60 percent by the end of 2023 from the current 2.2 percent.

Government leadership remains fundamental as the country continues to address vaccine hesitancy by consistently communicating the benefits of the vaccine, releasing COVID data, and engaging communities to help them understand how this impacts them.

As we deploy targeted resources to address COVID-19, we are also working to ensure that these investments support a robust, sustainable and resilient recovery. Our support emphasizes transparency, social protection, poverty alleviation, and policy-based financing to make sure that COVID assistance gets to the people who have been hit the hardest.

For example, the Financial Inclusion and Entrepreneurship Scaling Project (FInES) in Malawi is supporting micro, small, and medium enterprises by providing them with $47 million in affordable credit through commercial banks and microfinance institutions. Eight months into implementation, approximately $8.4 million (MK6.9 billion) has been made available through three commercial banks on better terms and interest rates. Additionally, nearly 200,000 urban households have received cash transfers and urban poor now have more affordable access to water to promote COVID-19 prevention.

Furthermore, domestic mobilization of resources for the COVID-19 response are vital to ensuring the security of supply of health sector commodities needed to administer vaccinations and sustain ongoing measures. Likewise, regional approaches fostering cross-border collaboration are just as imperative as in-country efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. United Nations (UN) partners in Malawi have been instrumental in convening regional stakeholders and supporting vaccine deployment.

Taking broad, fast action to help countries like Malawi during this unprecedented crisis will save lives and prevent more people falling into poverty. We thank Malawi for their decisive action and will continue to support the country and its people to build a resilient and inclusive recovery.

This op-ed first appeared in The Nation, via World Bank

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