Since the implementation of the JCPOA in January of 2016, and throughout the current period of accelerating investment by foreign enterprises in Iran, many participants have taken for granted that in the event of a “Snapback” or the reimposition of UN, U.S. and EU sanctions under the provisions of the JCPOA, foreigners must perforce exit all investments in Iran and Iran’s major industries would be relegated to the shadows as an unlawful destination for foreign capital.
The operative assumption has been that any such reimposition of sanctions under a Snapback scenario would make it “impossible” for such foreign participants to maintain, lawfully, their investments in the various projects within Iran, investment they have made a huge effort to structure and uphold in the still-new era of significantly relaxed sanctions. In fact, the very idea of the impossibility of maintaining significant investments in Iran under such sanctions has become something of a fixation. To the dismay of Iranian partners in various ventures, their foreign partners tend to focus on securing their own interests, rights, and recompense under a Snapback. An efficient exit strategy is often sought.
In reality, those who are here on the ground in Iran know that, regardless of the whims of the American President or the vicissitudes of foreign capital flows, the continued development and renovation of Iran’s domestic economy, both in terms of absolute production, as well as in terms of sophistication, efficiency, and integration, will continue apace, and therefore, the wiser among the stewards of foreign investment in Iran understand that it is as much a question of ensuring business continuity for their Iranian-Foreign joint venture projects despite changing international sanctions regimes, which have been imposed by the West against Iran for decades.
As a result, the most basic and fundamental considerations for any prospective foreign project participant and its Iranian partner become:
1. How the foreign participant can, through appropriately drafted “Impossibility Clause(s)”, remain invested in the Iranian venture for as long as possible under the threat of renewed or reimposed sanctions, and without incurring unacceptable risk.
2. How the foreign participant can contractually envision the broadest range of adverse sanctions scenarios through a single and efficient impossibility mechanism.
3. How the foreign participant can provide for a gradual approach to any putative withdrawal procedure, as opposed to the simplistic solution of outright termination upon Snapback after a period of suspension.
4. How the foreign participant can, in the event of the extinguishment of impossibility, subsequent relaxation or obtained exemption of sanctions, reasonably provide for the right, or at least the option, for itself to reenter an investment project which it may have exited because of Snapback.
The legal thought process underpinning successful solutions which industry practitioners may be likely to embrace is beyond the scope of this article, but the conceptual summary can be a useful guide for all of us as we come to grips with what can be made possible by “Impossibility Clauses”.
1. Remaining invested, minimizing risk: Of course, it is true that for many projects, a direct investment by the foreign participant though its stake in an Iranian joint venture entity may be the most straightforward means of effecting the transfer of capital that allows the foreign party to have a stake in a project. It also allows for the simplest mechanism by which a foreign party may apply for and successfully obtain an investment license in accordance with the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act.
Nonetheless, such a direct investment may, particularly in the case of European entities which also do business in U.S. jurisdictions or in jurisdictions which have significant links with the U.S. financial system, provide little or no cushion under even the most benign reimposition of any form of secondary sanctions. This is because the direct investment leaves the foreign party little room to maneuver by way of restructuring or otherwise allocating its participatory interest in the project as sanctions change.
For this reason, a more effective solution could include the formation of a foreign special purpose vehicle to act for the project entity. In the case of a joint venture, an SPV incorporated in a jurisdiction less likely to be adversely affected by reimposition of sanctions would allow for a more flexible platform to facilitate intelligent solutions such as exit and re-entry options, trustee or agency relationships, and contingent sale-repurchase strategies to prepare for the worst outcome of a sanctions scenario which may force a foreign party to exit Iranian investment.
2.Knowing unknowns, counting uncountables: Even now, with the most recently issued ultimatum by the American President declaring that the end of the JCPOA as we know it is nigh (to be either amended or abrogated, if Mr. Trump is to be believed), there exists a wide variety of circumstances involving the reimposition of sanctions, ranging from those that would make the maintenance of an interest in a project by a foreign party merely inconvenient to those which would make maintaining such an interest lawfully untenable. These may range from largely toothless, otherwise symbolic targeted secondary sanctions which apply only to the entities of specific countries, as we have continued to see since Trump’s October 2017 decertification, or those which may apply only to certain economic sectors or types of goods or projects, to those which render further financial flows in support of such a project functionally impracticable. Most challenging of all would be the failure of the UN to continue to waive the imposition of sanctions against Iran.
Thus, a single mechanism to classify sanctions in some way as materially adverse changes and evaluate consequences seems a more pragmatic solution than contemplating what may constitute an “impossibility” event, and including it under grounds for termination.
Under a scenario in which the foreign party has made appropriate structuring preparations as suggested, the determining exit remedies depends on compliance with mandatory applicable laws of the project vehicle’s jurisdiction. To put it another way, the most straightforward test of whether the foreign party may have to adjust, or exit from its participation, comes down to whether it can fulfill project obligations while abiding by all applicable regulations that may apply to it. Beyond such a litmus test, imagining or prognosticating about the myriad complexities of a possible Snapback scenario may be fruitless and contractually inefficient.
3.Avoiding the black-and-white trap: Of course, a foreign project participant can easily avail itself of the opportunity to stipulate that under any kind of scenario of project impracticability caused by sanctions, certain or envisioned, termination shall be the one and only prescribed remedy.
But this is likely to disadvantage the foreign party in the context of negotiations over comprehensive project terms with its Iranian counterparty, and it may limit the scope of the project work itself and fail to allow for a more complex investment structure which cannot survive the threat of termination overnight due to a “Snapback” of one kind or another.
Aside from termination, and its precursor remedy, suspension, there should also be the possibility to contemplate a variety of concepts including assignment, agency and delegation, in order to benefit from the vagaries of sanctions regulations and their exemptions. In some cases, project obligations which would be in violation of sanctions for some foreign entities may not be so for others. As has been shown by the agreements between foreign export credit agencies (“ECA”s) such as EKF, BPI and Invitalia, developments at an international level, especially where adequate sovereign support and sufficiently ringfenced banking facilities exist, are being contemplated to facilitate the kind of continuity required for the decades-long projects now underway in Iran. In addition to these ECAs, other parties such as quasi-sovereign corporations, particularly those from less dollarized jurisdictions, can play a role as fallback transferees of the exiting foreigner’s project interest or shares under Snapback. Moreover, it should always be noted that under even the most negative circumstances, the potential for a foreign party to obtain a waiver does exist and can be specified for the benefit of all parties.
4.Saving face, weighing options: Although some foreign entities have a checkered past derived from cutting and running under the threat of or the actual imposition of sanctions against Iran, time has shown that many of the same foreign parties which were forced, or chose, to exit their project ventures are the first ones to have returned since the JCPOA. Such is the compelling nature of Iran as a destination for foreign capital.
Iranian parties to a project know both this history itself and its implications. Foreign participants may wish to keep close to the exits, but foreign companies that have been victimized by their own government’s whims regarding sanctions, and the slippage inherent in exiting and reentering, cannot be understated.
For this reason, foreign project partners may choose to consider the solution of exit and entry “options” for themselves under adverse sanction scenarios, and thus it is important for all parties involved to understand what an “option” precisely means, and how to value such an option.
In financial speak, an option is defined as the right but not the obligation to sell (or buy) an asset in a fixed quantity at a fixed price on (or before) a fixed date in time. In the case in question, the asset is the participatory interest of the foreign party in the Iranian project, and the date is that point in time at when the parties to a project agree that the foreign party must leave due to sanctions (or is able to re-enter due to easing of sanctions).
However, it is not obvious immediately what the fixed price should be for foreign project interest at the time of exit or re-entry, and, most importantly, what may be overlooked is the tremendous value that such an option has. In finance, the greater the underlying uncertainty about an asset, the more valuable any option on that uncertain asset is. Similarly, the longer the life of an option on an asset, the more valuable that option is. In the context of long term investments, any option to exit (or re-enter) should be linked with a significant premium (that is, the worth of the option), and the contract parties should ensure that they successfully negotiate an appropriately fair value for the flexibility the options offer. As an illustrative example, the alternative to any exit put option for the foreign party is a fire-sale in the face of illiquid conditions for its share interest under the menace of reimposed international sanctions, or more problematic still, the inability to exit its share interest altogether, which an option is supposed to protect against.
Absent a foreign investor’s legal immunity to the whims of the UN, OFAC, or other authorities, there is no perfect panacea for fool proofing long-term Iranian projects against the kind of uncertainty which the spectre of sanctions create. But although this threat, to a certain extent, has forestalled the growth in Iran’s industry and economy despite the strengthening of Iran’s relationships with the international community, it is now apparent, moreso than ever before, that foreign parties can be expected to take an increasingly pragmatic approach in efforts to remain engaged with their Iranian projects for as long as possible. They can effectively do so by allowing for the most flexible and broad classification of sanctions-related termination risks, by specifying a menu of contractually stipulated responses to reimposed sanctions (in conjunction with intelligent and pre-emptive project structuring) and by exchanging due consideration with the Iranian party for the invaluable options which allow them to remain confident that they can, if absolutely necessary, exit the project and someday re-enter, at a fair price.
Thus, it seems that the operative watchword for all foreign investors in Iran is continuity: continuity of the progression towards innovation, development and growth, and continuity of the participation of foreign interests in that process, bolstered by intelligent structuring solutions, both legal and financial, for dealing with the complicated reality of international economic sanctions. With a measure of foresight, and a functional, flexible contractual framework, all participants in long-term, large-scale project joint ventures can move closer to the ideal of mitigating most, if not all, of the adverse consequences of sanctions regulations on investment decisions and risk management.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
The Politico-Economic Crisis of Lebanon
Dubbed as a failed state. The Middle Eastern country, also known as the ‘Lebanese Republic’, is already leading towards a humanitarian crisis. The country is witnessing the worst financial crisis since the 1975-90 civil war. The financial catastrophe has done most of the damage as the country currently stands as one of the top 10 worst economic disasters witnessed over the past 150 years. If the economists are put true to their word, it means that Lebanon rates as the most dismal economic crash since the 19th century. As the state of Lebanon undergoes a significant political shift since last year, the social and economic fissures are subsequently broadening. A fragile democracy (for namesake) and a constant disequilibrium in the parliamentary stratosphere, have led to an economic depression that is rapidly expanding as the country fails to adopt a unified political stance and adhere to corrective measures to hold the toppling economy from a collapse.
More than half of the Lebanese population has slumped below the poverty line as escalating inflation continues to reel the populace. The main cause underpinning such brutal inflation is the hyper-devaluation of the Lebanese pound. The currency was originally pegged at a fixed rate of 1500 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar. However, over the past three decades, the economic crunch has crippled the economic nucleus of Lebanon. According to World Bank estimates, the Lebanese pound has devalued by 95% and currently trades at 22000 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar in the black market – roughly 15 times above the official rate. The resultant inflation has driven the government to push the prices to unfathomable levels – even pushing necessities beyond the reach of an average citizen. The fact could be witnessed by the rapid increase in the price of bread – which was hiked by another 5% last month to value at 4000 Lebanese pounds per loaf.
The dire social crisis could be gauged by the fact that an average Lebanese family requires a spending worth five times the minimum wage mandated by the government just to afford basic food requirements. Most of the families can’t suffice to consume utilities such as medicine, gas, or electricity. Astounding research revealed that even hospitals dealing with the Covid outbreak are not afforded gas and electricity which has led to a hike in petroleum consumption due to heavy usage of generators. The resulting shortage of petroleum has driven rage across the country as businesses fail to thrive while multiple wings of the airports are rendered powerless. The recent World Bank report signified that the food prices have inflated by roughly 700% over the past two years – a swell of 50% in just under a month. The regional countries have shown concern as Lebanon is heading towards a health crisis with a strengthening Delta variant in the Middle East and no room for recovery.
The main cause of such a debilitating situation is primarily the rampant corruption in the echelons of the government followed by the instability that ensued last year. Following the catastrophic blast in Beirut’s port that claimed an estimated 200 lives, the government resigned in the aftermath of virulent protests across Lebanon. The political vacuum, however, further pushed the state into despair. The caretaker government, led by the former Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, failed to consolidate a government as ideological differences between the President and the Prime Minister continued to displace the essential debates of the country. The contention between President Michel Aon, a stout supporter of the Shite militant group Hezbollah, and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a Sunni Centrist, caused the efforts to falter as the country continued to plunge into crisis without an elected government to handle the office.
Hariri drove the narrative that due to President’s strong ties with the Hezbollah, which is arguably supported by Iran, Lebanon has suffered a shuffle of power to entrust financial support to the militant group. The narrative caused institutions like IMF and the World Bank to hesitate in injecting desperately needed social stimulus into the country despite continual warnings of an impending humanitarian crisis by France and the United States. A political vacuum coupled with the destruction caused last year along with the prudence of global financial institutions to pivot the country have ultimately resulted in the chaos that describes the landscape of Lebanon today.
However, Hariri resigned last month after failing to form a government even after nine months. The resulting political thaw helped President Aon to appoint Najib Mikati, a lucrative businessman, and former prime minister, as an interim Prime Minister entrusted to form a mandated government in Lebanon.
With a renewed Cabinet support, something that Hariri rarely enjoyed, Mikati is expected to assuage the concerns of the IMF and support economic reforms with the help of states like France. The Paris conference, scheduled on 4th August, is now the focal point as Mikati plans to convince the French diplomats regarding his schemes to pull Lebanon out of the puddle. Prime Minister Mikati recently reflected on his aspirations: “I come from the world of business and finance and I will have a say in all finance-related decisions”. He further stated: “I don’t have a magic wand and can’t perform miracles … but I have studied the situation for a while and have international guarantees”. It is clear that Mikati envisages repairing the economy which is already long overdue.
Under the French plan aiding Mikati’s regime, he would need to enforce significant political reforms to gain international aid. The diplomats, however, envision a far graver reality. It is touted that the IMF would likely focus on two facets before granting any leverage to the Mikati-regime: political-social reforms and progress towards parliamentary elections. However, with grueling Covid cases springing into action, the road to recovery would probably be highly tensile.
While Mikati doesn’t stem from any particular political bloc unlike his failed predecessors, he was elected primarily by the backing of Hezbollah. A question emerges: would Mikati be able to navigate through the interests of an organization subjected as a terrorist fraction by most of the Western world. An organization that arguably serves as the primary reason why Lebanon stands as one of the highly indebted countries in the world. An organization that could be the decisive factor of whether financial support flows to Lebanon or sanctions cripple the economy further similar to Iran. The question stands: would Mikati refuse the dictation of Hezbollah and what would be the consequences. The situation is highly complex and time is running out. If Mikati fails, much like his predecessors, then not only Lebanon but the proximate region would feel the tremors of a ‘Social Explosion’.
Bangladesh-Myanmar Economic Ties: Addressing the Next Generation Challenges
Bangladesh-Myanmar relations have developed through phases of cooperation and conflict. Conflict in this case is not meant in the sense of confrontation, but only in the sense of conflict of interests and resultant diplomatic face-offs. Myanmar is the only other neighbor that Bangladesh has on its border besides India. It is the potential gateway for an alternative land route opening towards China and South-East Asia other than the sea. Historically, these two countries have geographic and cultural linkages. These two bordering countries, located in separate geopolitical regions, have huge possibilities in developing their bilateral economic relations. At the initial phase of their statehood, both countries undertook numerous constructive initiatives to improve their relations. Nevertheless, different bilateral disputes and challenges troubled entire range of cooperation. Subsequent to these challenges, Bangladesh and Myanmar have started negotiation process on key dubious issues. The economic rationales over political tensions in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations prevail with new prospects and opportunities.
Bangladesh-Myanmar relations officially began from 13 January 1972, the date on which Myanmar, as the sixth state, recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. They signed several agreements on trade and business such as general trade agreement in 1973. The two countries later initiated formal trade relations on 05 September 1995. To increase demand for Bangladeshi products in Myanmar, Bangladesh opened trade exhibitions from 1995 to 1996 in Yangon, former capital of Myanmar. However, that pleasant bilateral economic relations did not last for long, rather was soon interrupted mainly by Myanmar’s long term authoritarian rule and isolationist economic policy. In the twenty-first century, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations are expected to move towards greater economic cooperation facilitated by two significant factors. First, the victory of Myanmar’s pro-democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in 2011 has considerably brought new dimensions in the relations. Although this relation is now at stake since the state power has been taken over by military. Second, the peaceful settlement of Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime dispute in 2012 added new dimension in their economic relations.
Bangladesh and Myanmar don’t share a substantial volume of trade and neither is in the list of largest trading partners. Bangladesh’s total export and import with Myanmar is trifling compared to the total export and import and so do Myanmar’s. But gradually the trades between the countries are increasing and the trend is for the last 5 to 6 year is upward especially for Bangladesh; although Bangladesh is facing a negative trend in Balance of Payment. In 2018-2019 fiscal year, Bangladesh’s total export to Myanmar was $25.11 million which is more than double from that of the export in 2011-12. Bangladesh imported $90.91 million worth goods and services from Myanmar resulting in $65 Million deficit in Balance of Payment in 2018-2019 fiscal year. For the last six or seven years, Bangladesh’s Balance of Payment was continuously in deficit in case of trade with Myanmar. The outbreak of COVID-19, closure of border for eight months and recent coup in Myanmar have a negative impact on the trade between the countries.
Bangladesh mainly imports livestock, vegetable products including onion, prepared foodstuffs, beverages, tobacco, plastics, raw hides and skin, leather, wood and articles of woods, footwear, textiles and artificial human hair from Myanmar. Recently, due to India’s ban on cattle export, Myanmar has emerged as a new exporter of live animals to Bangladesh especially during the Eid ul-Adha with a cheaper rate than India. On the hand, Bangladesh exports frozen foods, chemicals, leather, agro-products, jute products, knitwear, fish, timber and woven garments to Myanmar.
Unresolved Rohingya crisis, Myanmar’s highly unpredictable political landscape, lack of bilateral connectivity, shadow economy created from illegal activities, distrust created due to different insurgent groups, maritime boundary dispute, illegal drugs and arms smuggling in border areas, skeptic mindset of the people in both fronts and alleged cross border movement of insurgents are acting as stumbling block in bolstering economic relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Bangladesh-Myanmar relations are yet to blossom in full swing. The agreement signed by Sheikh Hasina in 2011 to establish a Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation is definitely a proactive step for enhancing trade. People to people contact can be increased for building mutual confidence and trust. Frequent visit by business, civil society, military and civil administration delegates may be organized for better understanding and communication. Both countries may explore economic potential and address common interest for enhancing economic co-operation. In order to augment trade, both countries may ease visa restrictions, deregulate currency restrictions and establish smooth channel of financial transactions. Coastal shipping (especially cargo vessels between Chittagong and Sittwe), air and road connectivity may be developed to inflate trade and tourism. Bangladesh and Myanmar may establish “Point of Contact” to facilitate first-hand information exchange for greater openness. Initiative may be taken to sign Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) within the ambit of which potential export items from both countries would be allowed to enter duty free. In recent year, Bangladesh was badly affected by many unilateral decisions of India such as onion crisis. Myanmar can serve as an alternative import source of crops and animals for Bangladesh to lessen dependence upon India.
Myanmar’s currency is highly devaluated for a long time due to its political turmoil and sanctions by the west. Myanmar can strengthen its currency value by escalating trade volume with Bangladesh. These two countries can fortify their local economy in boarder areas by establishing border haats. Cooperation between these two countries on “Blue Economy” may be source of strategic advantages mainly by exporting marine goods and service. Last but not the least, the peaceful settlement of maritime boundary disputes between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2012 may be capitalized to add new dimension in their bilateral economic relations. Both nations can expand trade and investment by utilizing the Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of a Joint Business Council (JBC) between the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI).
With the start of a new phase in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations, which has put the bilateral relations on an upswing, it is only natural that both sides should try to give a boost to bilateral trade. Bilateral trade is not challenge free but the issue is far easier to resolve than others. At the same time, closer economic ties could also help in resolving other bilateral disputes. For Myanmar, as it is facing currency devaluation and losing market, increased trade volume will make their economy vibrant. For Bangladesh, it is a good opportunity to use the momentum to minimize trade deficits and reduce dependency on any specific country.
The Monetary Policy of Pakistan: SBP Maintains the Policy Rate
The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) announced its bi-monthly monetary policy yesterday, 27th July 2021. Pakistan’s Central bank retained the benchmark interest rate at 7% after reviewing the national economy in midst of a fourth wave of the coronavirus surging throughout the country. The policy rate is a huge factor that relents the growth and inflationary pressures in an economy. The rate was majorly retained due to the growing consumer and business confidence as the global economy rebounds from the coronavirus. The State Bank had slashed the interest rate by 625 basis points to 7% back in the March-June 2020 in the wake of the covid pandemic wreaking havoc on the struggling industries of Pakistan. In a poll conducted earlier, about 89% of the participants expected this outcome of the session. It was a leap of confidence from the last poll conducted in May when 73% of the participants expected the State Bank to hold the discount rate at this level.
The State Bank Governor, Dr. Raza Baqir, emphasized that the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has resorted to holding the 7% discount rate to allow the economy to recover properly. He added that the central bank would not hike the interest rate until the demand shows noticeable growth and becomes sustainable. He echoed the sage economists by reminding them that the State Bank wants to relay a breather to Pakistan’s economy before pushing the brakes. The MPC further asserted that the Real Discount Rate (adjusted for inflation) currently stands at -3% which has significantly cushioned the economy and encouraged smaller industries to grow despite the throes of the pandemic.
Dr. Raza Baqir further went on to discuss the current account deficit staged last month. He added that the 11-month streak of the current account surplus was cut short largely due to the loan payments made in June. The MPC further explained that multiple factors including an impending expiration of the federal budget, concurrent payments due to lenders, and import of vaccines, weighed heavily down on the national exchequer. He further iterated that the State Bank expects a rise in exports along with a sustained recovery in the remittance flow till the end of 2021 to once again upend the current account into surplus. Dr. Raza Baqir assured that the current level of the current account deficit (standing at 3% of the GDP) is stable. The MPC reminded that majority of the developing countries stand with a current account deficit due to growth prospects and import dependency. The claims were backed as Dr. Raza Baqir voiced his optimism regarding the GDP growth extending from 3.9% to 5% by the end of FY21-22.
Regarding currency depreciation, Dr. Baqir added that the downfall is largely associated with the strengthening greenback in the global market coupled with high volatility in the oil market which disgruntled almost every oil-importing country, including Pakistan. He further remarked, however, that as the global economy is vying stability, the situation would brighten up in the forthcoming months. Mr. Baqir emphasized that the current account deficit stands at the lowest level in the last decade while the remittances have grown by 25% relative to yesteryear. Combined with proceeds from the recently floated Eurobonds and financial assistance from international lenders including the IMF and the World Bank, both the currency and the deficit would eventually recover as the global market corrects in the following months.
Lastly, the Governor State Bank addressed the rampant inflation in the economy. He stated that despite a hyperinflation scenario that clocked 8.9% inflation last month, the discount rates are deliberately kept below. Mr. Baqir added that the inflation rate was largely within the limits of 7-9% inflation gauged by the State Bank earlier this year. However, he further added that the State Bank is making efforts to curb the unrelenting inflation. He remarked that as the peak summer demand is closing with July, the one-way pressure on the rupee would subsequently plummet and would allow relief in prices.
The MPC has retained the discount rate at 7% for the fifth consecutive time. The policy shows that despite a rebound in growth and prosperity, the threat of the delta variant still looms. Karachi, Pakistan’s busiest metropolis and commercial hub, has recently witnessed a considerable surge in infections. The positivity ratio clocked 26% in Karachi as the national figure inched towards 7% positivity. The worrisome situation warrants the decision of the State Bank of Pakistan. Dr. Raza Baqir concluded the session by assuring that despite raging inflation, the State Bank would not resort to a rate hike until the economy fully returns to the pre-pandemic levels of employment and production. He further assuaged the concerns by signifying the future hike in the policy rate would be gradual in nature, contrast to the 2019 hike that shuffled the markets beyond expectation.
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