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Dollar in doldrums

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Iranians have been dealing with an ever-increasing devaluation of the rial since the beginning of the present Iranian calendar (March 21, 2017) but the major and unexpected depreciation occurred almost a month ago, in mid-February, when is supposed to be the biggest crackdown on foreign exchanges in six years.

At the time, U.S. dollar broke all records and jumped to almost 50,000 rials in Tehran’s currency exchange shops, while it used to be bought almost 37,500 rials earlier in past April, 38,000 rials in past September, 41,000 rials in past December and 43,000 rials in early January, 2018.

What has contributed to recent events? 
Some critics discuss that since taking office in August 2013, Rouhani administration has tried to artificially keep the foreign exchange market at a level of stability in a bid to cover the inflationary impacts of rial devaluation, adding that the currency disturbances are due to a lack of clear monetary policy and mismanagement. The recent rial depreciation, as they further discuss, can be the result of government’s decision to benefit from the difference between the official and free market rates as a temporary solution to compensate for the wide budget deficit.

Some, in addition, blame Central Bank of Iran (CBI) for the volatility, since the state-run body has a full control over the free currency market and interferes with balance supply and demand as well as the prices by pumping dollar whenever it decides. The issue, in their view, is also justifiable via CBI’s short of funds to inject the needed hard currency to the market.

Besides, the recent decrease in banking interest rates made by CBI and the dominant stagnation in housing sector can also account for the forex market predicament. The two factors have increased Iranians’ demand for purchasing Bahar Azadi gold coins and hard currency as new investment options, for they believe via changing their cash money into dollar or gold, they can prevent devaluation of their assets.

Moreover, the impact of Iran’s current political tensions should not be neglected, they say. Trump is tightening its grip on Iran again, threatening it to re-impose sanctions lifted in 2015 and withdrawing from JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). There has been some news of a coordinated move by the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies to up pressure on Iran by restricting its access to hard currencies. Iranians often obtain dollars via the United Arab Emirates, but implementation of new value added tax law in this country since the beginning of 2018 has practically locked the gateway of trade transactions between Iranian businessmen and their Emirati counterparts, which used to let the flow of dollar into Iranian market.

Major measures taken

To tackle one of the unprecedented slides in the value of the rial, which, if not curbed, would have a negative effect on attracting foreign investment and would end in inflationary consequences, the government took some major steps.

On February 14, Iranian police force and CBI initiated a joint operation to control the foreign exchange market when they detained almost 100 currency middlemen and frozen bank accounts reportedly worth 200 trillion rials ($5.3bn). The act could immediately pull down the dollar rate by 1,000 rials.

In late February, CBI issued permission for banks to issue rial bonds with an annual 20 percent interest rate and preselling of Bahar Azadi coin in the hope for absorbing some of the market liquidity. Furthermore, the central bank introduced hard currency bonds with a four percent to 4.5 percent return. In its other attempt to bolster rial, on February 28, CBI, who has always sought to switch to non-dollar based trade, clamped down on dollar trading and introduced new restrictions on it by blocking imports priced in the currency. Purchase orders by merchants which are based on U.S. currency are no longer allowed to go through import procedures in Iran’s customs offices since then. The decision, according to Iranian officials, is not expected to create major trouble for traders because the share of the greenback in Iran’s trade activities, as they say, is not high. The state-run body, moreover, has prepared a set of 19-sections policies as a blueprint to regulate the unsettlements of domestic monetary and foreign exchange markets, which is to be applied in near future.

Followingly, when currency prices cooled down a bit, CBI, which has always been seeking unification of the present dual forex regime in the market, issued permit for a limited number of currency exchange shops to sell foreign currency at official rate, less that the free market rate about 7,000 rials to 10,000 rials. The introduced exchange bureaus are allowed to sell up to $5,000 to customers who present their ID cards or passports and travel tickets.

Addressing the 57th annual general assembly of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) on March 4, the central bank’s Governor Valiolah Seif announced that implementation of the described policies since mid-February has successfully curbed the fluctuations of Iran’s foreign exchange market and has restored confidence back.

Blaming the forex market fluctuations on currency traders, speculations in the market and the U.S. which was trying to destabilize Iran’s economy, Seif vowed that CBI will be able to manage the market not only by the current yearend but also by the end of the next Iranian calendar year (ending March 20, 2019).

However, some do not agree with him.

Controversy aroused

Referring back to the applied expanding policies and reduction of banking interest rates in September 2017, CBI critics explain that via doing proper analysis of domestic monetary system and foreign exchange market, the government could have managed to control foreign currency rate, but mismanagement has left the harvest ruined.

As they underline, the inappropriate policies of CBI, mainly injecting dollar to the market at official rates, has pulled out dollar from the economic wheel of Iran to Iranians’ piggy banks and in the pockets of the dealers. They explain that the issued rial bonds or the preselling of Bahar Azadi Coin are temporary remedies, effect of which will be removed in the short-run. Consequently, the future of forex market will not be brighter than its present.

Addressing the prohibition of dollar-based purchase order, which seems to be a win for the Euro, some express worry that the extra layer of currency swapping involved may add to the cost of imports into Iran and push the prices higher in the country.

Offering dollar and other currencies at official rates in some specific currency exchange shops is another tranquilizer which has caused major problems. Long queues are formed at the door of official foreign exchange bureaus and people are asked to stay in them since the sunrise. Some quarrels happen in the queues, which make the police interfere. A lot of non-official currency exchange shops are semi-closed; they do not sell dollar at all but buy if there is any.  An amalgamation of customers has been created; some are fake ones i.e. the middlemen who sell the purchased dollar at the official rate in the free market for making benefit, some customers are those who do not need foreign currency but just prefer to save them at home, and some are the Iranian travelers to foreign countries who face difficulties with finding hard currency. Foreign currency prices still experience fluctuations and even an increasing trend. Dealers and middlemen are still active although worried about the interference of the policemen. More importantly, the foreign currency price increase has already had its impact on inflation and the situation will predictably get aggravated.

Speaking on a televised program on Tuesday night, Seif admitted that dollar price should be matched with the reality of Iran’s economy. He criticized the opinion which accuses the government of controlling liquidity in an effort to reduce inflation, saying that despite the increase in liquidity, inflation is controlled and even decreased.

The central bank governor also discussed that the CBI act to reduce interest rates was an effort to convert short-term accounts into the long-term ones and to control inflation.

He underlined that the government’s monetary policies are not longstanding but flexible ones which can be changed in different conditions.

In fact, what is happening at the market does not entirely match with what is expected by the government to occur. Foreign currency rates are experiencing unsteadiness and the future seems murky but officials believe they have a good handle on the market.

Some economists suggest the CBI permit the rial to be devalued so that the economy can find a new balance, although the decision will be at the worth of another round of rampant inflation.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

Economy

Deeper reforms in Korea will ensure more inclusive and sustainable growth

MD Staff

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Short-term prospects for the Korean economy are good, with an uptick in world trade and fiscal policy driving growth, but productivity remains relatively low and the country faces the most rapid population ageing in the OECD area, according to a new report from the OECD.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of Korea looks at recent economic developments, as well as the challenges to ensure that the benefits are shared by all. The Survey projects growth of about 3% for the 2018-19 period, and lays out an agenda for ensuring broader-based and more inclusive growth going forward.

The Survey, presented in Sejong by the head of the OECD Korea/Japan Desk, Randall Jones, highlights the need for new policies to help the government overhaul the traditional export-led growth model and to promote innovation led by SMEs and start-ups. It discusses reforms to the large business groups (chaebols), to achieve higher productivity and more inclusive growth, and proposes policies to enhance dynamism in SMEs and boost entrepreneurship. It also outlines the key challenges for reaching higher levels of well-being.

“Korea has rebounded after several years of sub-par growth, and the expansion is expected to continue,” Mr Jones said. “However, the traditional economic model of manufacturing and export-led growth is running out of steam. The challenge going forward will be to develop a new growth model that addresses today’s economic and social polarisation and leads to a more sustainable and inclusive economy for all Koreans.”

Despite the important role of the large business groups in Korea’s economic growth, the Survey says that a more balanced economy with larger roles for services and SMEs would promote inclusive and sustainable growth. The Survey suggests that strengthening product market competition, by relaxing barriers to imports and inward foreign direct investment and liberalising product market regulation, would reduce rent-seeking behaviour by large firms. Corporate governance reform is also necessary.

Beyond chaebol reform, the Survey identifies measures that would enhance dynamism and productivity growth in SMEs, including regulatory reforms, better access to credit, changes to the insolvency framework and improvements to the vocational education system.

The Survey proposes a range of potential reforms to boost well-being in Korea, including measures to expand female employment; labour market reforms to break down the segmentation between regular and non-regular workers; policies to reduce elderly poverty; and the use of economic instruments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

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Economy

Extending people’s working lives could add US$3.5 trillion to OECD GDP in long run

MD Staff

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Extending people’s working lives to reflect the ageing of their populations could release massive untapped value for their economies to the tune of US$3.5 trillion across the OECD as a whole in the long run.

Iceland, New Zealand and Israel are the leaders in boosting employment rates among older workers, setting a model for others to follow, according to the latest research by PwC.

Between 2015 and 2050, it’s estimated that the number of people aged 55 and above in the 35 OECD countries will increase by almost 50% to over 500 million. But how many of these half a billion people will be working?

PwC’s Golden Age Index benchmarks, ranks and analyses the performance of OECD countries in fostering older people’s participation in the workforce through employment and training data. It reveals how large potential economic gains are available if employment rates for those over 55 can be raised to those of the top performers.

Current employment rates for workers aged 55-64 vary dramatically across the OECD, from 84% in Iceland and 78% in New Zealand to 38% in Greece and 34% in Turkey.

For example, increasing the over-55 employment rate to New Zealand levels could deliver a long-run economic boost worth around US$815 billion in the US, US$406 billion in France and US$123 billion in Japan – with the total potential gain across the OECD adding up to around US$3.5 trillion. This economic uplift would be combined with significant social and health benefits from older people leading more active lives and having higher self-worth through continuing to work where they wish to do so.

John Hawksworth, Chief Economist at PwC UK, comments:

“Of course, it’s good news that we’re living longer. But an ageing population is already putting significant financial pressure on health, social care and pension systems, and this will only increase over time. To help offset these higher costs, we think older workers should be encouraged and supported to remain in the workforce for longer. This would increase GDP, consumer spending power and tax revenues, while also helping to improve the health and wellbeing of older people by keeping them mentally and physically active.”

For governments, ways to realise these benefits include reforming pension systems and providing other financial incentives to encourage later retirement – steps that several countries are already prioritising.

Significantly, the top-performing countries on the Index tend to share a number of characteristics, including a labour market that supports flexible working and the implementation of reforms targeted at older workers, such as redesigning jobs to meet physical needs. Successful policy measures include increasing the retirement age, supporting flexible working, improving the flexibility of pensions, and providing further training and support help older workers become ‘digital adopters’.

To help governments take the right actions, PwC has used this year’s update of the Golden Age Index to carry out a rigorous statistical analysis of the underlying drivers of higher employment rates for older workers across 35 OECD countries.

The findings from this analysis include that financial incentives like pension policy and family benefits can influence people’s decision to stay employed, and that longer life expectancy is associated with longer working lives. The study also shows that flexible working and partial retirement options can pay dividends for employers, as can redesign of factories, offices and roles to meet the changing needs and preferences of older workers.

A further area that the latest Golden Age Index examines concerns the implications for older workers of rising use of artificial intelligence (AI) and related automation technologies in the workplace. It finds that these technologies raise both potential opportunities and challenges for the over-55s.

Up to 20% of the existing jobs of older workers could be at risk of automation over the next decade, so retraining and lifelong learning will be critical to enable older workers to take up the many new job opportunities that AI and related technologies will create.

PwC UK Chief Economist John Hawksworth explains: “AI technology can boost economic growth, generate more labour demand and support longer working lives, for example through the use of digital platforms that allow older workers to market their skills more widely. However, our estimates suggest that older workers do face a higher risk of job automation compared to other age groups, with up to 20% of the existing jobs of over-55s at potential risk of automation over the next decade. Measures to support lifetime learning and retraining for older workers will be critical to maximising the gains from these technologies while mitigating the costs.”

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Economy

Further reforms needed for a stronger and more integrated Europe

MD Staff

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The European economy is growing robustly, helped by accommodative monetary policy, mildly expansionary fiscal policy and the global acceleration. The current economic expansion should be used to speed up implementation of reforms to the euro area architecture and EU policies that would support greater European integration and ensure stronger, more inclusive long-term growth, according to two new reports from the OECD.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of the European Union and Economic Survey of the Euro Area look at the factors behind the strong recovery, as well as the challenges facing Europe. The Surveys project growth topping 2% for the 2018-19 period, and lay out an agenda for boosting long-term growth and living standards across Europe.

The Surveys, presented in Brussels by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, highlight the need for EU budget reform, more efficient cohesion policies to reduce regional divides and further efforts to deepen the single market. The OECD also discusses how completing the banking union, creating a common fiscal support scheme and simplifying fiscal rules would strengthen the euro area by making it more resilient to economic shocks.

“After years of crisis, positive economic momentum has taken hold across Europe,” Mr Gurría said. “Growth continues at a solid pace, and has broadened across sectors and countries. The conditions are right for a new wave of reforms to revive the European project and ensure that the benefits are shared by all.”

The Surveys say that macroeconomic policy must be tailored to support economic expansion while reducing imbalances. Monetary policy should remain accommodative until inflation is durably back to the objective, even as the ECB prepares for a very gradual normalisation of its policy. With an economic expansion under way, governments should reduce debt-to-GDP ratios. Simplified fiscal rules and a stronger focus on expenditure growth should help achieve this objective without derailing the recovery.

Ensuring the stability of the monetary union and enhancing the common currency’s resilience to downturns will be critical to future economic progress. More risk sharing will be necessary. The Survey calls for a European unemployment reinsurance scheme to cope with economic shocks too large to be dealt with solely by national fiscal policies or monetary policy. Reforms to develop the capital markets union along with a rapid reduction of non-performing loans are also important to allow a better functioning of the Economic and Monetary Union.

Additional reforms to complete the banking union are also necessary, in particular the setting up of a common European deposit-insurance scheme and using the European Stability Mechanism as a backstop for the Single Resolution Fund; both reforms would help prevent any future banking crisis developing into a sovereign debt crisis. The introduction of additional capital charges for banks holding high levels of government debt from their own country should occur alongside the creation of a new European safe asset. This would favour the diversification of banks’ exposure to government debt and mitigate negative feedback loops between weak banks and stressed public finances.

Reforms to the EU budget can enhance growth and make it more inclusive. There is scope to increase member states’ contributions, including by reassessing how the European budget is financed, as the current financing does not reflect countries’ ability to pay. The EU Survey suggests that resources to finance growth-enhancing spending, including R&D, be freed up by phasing out production-based payments in the Common Agricultural Policy and better targeting regional policy to lagging regions.

Improving the functioning of the Single Market would boost growth and living standards, the Surveys said. There is scope to ease regulatory burdens and address barriers to trade in services, improve cross-border cooperation in the energy sector through better power system operation and trade, and help member states boost digital skills acquisition.

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