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Getting around sanctions with crypto-rial

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In April 2018, the Central Bank of Iran banned domestic banks and people from dealing in foreign cryptocurrency because of money laundering and financing risks.

However, the CBI decided to take a more moderate stance toward the digital money and blockchain technology following the imposition of a new round of U.S. sanctions, hoping that the digital technology would facilitate Iran’s international money transfers and let the country evade the sanctions.

Meanwhile, as an oil producer with an oil-reliant economy dominated by petrodollars, Iran settled on the plan to utilize cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology to make up for any drop in oil revenues due to the economic sanctions designed to cut its oil sales.

Moving on the same track as China, Russia and Venezuela, Iran also hopes that blockchainization of state-backed fiats would lead to the demise of the dollar and put an end to the tyrant U.S. policies.

Under the toughest U.S. sanctions ever and blacklisting of Iran from the Belgium-based international financial messaging system (SWIFT), the country’s plan to create an indigenous cryptocurrency is improving incrementally and thanks to highly dynamic nature of the cryptocurrency, it can act as a good means for Iran to skirt certain sanctions through untraceable banking operations.

The CBI has been working with domestic knowledge-based companies to develop a digital currency, called crypto-rial, supported by HyperLedger Fabric technology.

As reported, the Informatics Services Corporation, affiliated to the CBI but run by the private sector, has accomplished development of rial-based national cryptocurrency and when the CBI approves the uses of national cryptocurrency, it will be issued to financial institutions such as banks to test payments and internal and interbank settlements.

Transactions at the state-backed virtual currency are carried out on an online ledger called a blockchain, just the same as Bitcoin, but since the infrastructure is privately-owned it will not be possible for people to mine it.

In fact, Iran is mainly aimed at testing the potentials of blockchain and crypto technology in running its financial system, making banks able to use the tokens as a payment instrument in transactions and banking settlement at the first phase of the blockchain banking infrastructure. The country seems inclined to enjoy the new virtual currency businesses which includes little notice or footprint and has also prepared the required infrastructure for trading cryptocurrency in its stock exchange.

However, in spite of the CBI’s prohibition from trading cryptocurrencies, Iranians had commenced using cryptocurrency and Bitcoin mining for transactions with the rest of the world before its use was banned by the CBI in the country.

Individuals and businesses in Iran have had access to virtual currency platforms through “Iran-located, internet-based virtual currency exchanges; U.S. or other third country-based virtual currency exchanges; and peer-to-peer (P2P) exchangers,” according to reports.

But the U.S. embargo on a number of cryptocurrency exchange platforms, including Binance and Bittrex, restricted Iran from receiving services, however, no assets belonging to Iranians were blocked. U.S. sanctions have also ensnared Iranian bitcoin traders.

Furthermore, in December, the U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as Fincen, issued a warning in an advisory to assist U.S. banks and other financial actors such as cryptocurrency exchanges in identifying “potentially illicit transactions related to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Bitcoin.com reported.

Fincen claimed that since 2013 Iran’s use of virtual currency includes at least $3.8 million worth of bitcoin-denominated transactions per year. The organization noted that “while the use of virtual currency in Iran is comparatively small, virtual currency is an emerging payment system that may provide potential avenues for individuals and entities to evade sanctions.”

Fincen believes that P2P cryptocurrency exchangers are a significant means through which Iran can dodge economic sanctions.
Following the Fincen’s announcement, the United States lawmakers introduced a bill (HR 7321) to impose more sanctions on Iranian financial institutions and the development and use of the national digital currency, Cointelegeraph reported.

The act prohibits transactions, financing or other dealings related to an Iranian digital currency, and introduces sanctions on foreign individuals engaged in the sale, supply, holding or transfer of the digital currency.

In the wake of the U.S. restrictions, thus, cryptocurrency trades are limited into Iran’s domestic market and not possible at the international level and Bitcoin is sold at a significant premium relative to the global average price in Iran.

Unfortunately, the basic and premier regulations of using cryptocurrencies have not been ratified in Iran and Iranians are obliged to refer to stock exchange shops abroad to do their crypto-transactions, most of which are American obedient to U.S. regulations and of course, sanctions.

To make using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology legal and official in the country, the Iranian government is drafting a policy framework by the help of the CBI and the Stock Exchange Organization which clarifies all its regulations and policies over cryptocurrency and mining.

Being legislated, it is believed that SWIFT can be replaced by the digital money, i.e. the rial-pegged national currency, and transactions would be done faster and at lower prices.

Due to a lack of required regulations, cargos of equipment for mining cryptocurrency are seized by the customs administration. They are said to be released as soon as the government legalizes cryptocurrency use in the country.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Economy

China’s Descending Rise

Todd Royal

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China is in a sustained economic slowdown. This is causing malignant unease among the political and economic leadership of the communist party in Beijing that governs China. Investing in China will be different, because:

“The country’s first sustained economic slowdown in a generation. China’s economic conditions have steadily worsened since the 2008 financial crisis. The country’s growth rate has fallen by half and is likely to plunge further in the years ahead, as debt, foreign protectionism, resource depletion, and rapid aging take their toll.”

Chinese social structures are under duress over their aging society. Formerly in the 1990s-early 2000s: “China had the greatest demographic dividend in history, with eight working-age adults for every citizen aged 65 or older.”

Once societies age, marital numbers decrease, and overall productivity plunges. China’s explosion of older citizens versus working-age will bring unique circumstances for global consumers. Factual evidence of slower productivity is evident throughout China, and will have to be considered for any financial or economic decision for decades ahead. The Chinese economic miracle bursting is largely due to aging demographics.

No one in western or eastern economic analysis circles or think tanks realistically saw this coming former President’s Deng Xiaoping opening of China. This was termed, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics (and/or) ‘socialist market economy,’” still ongoing. This slowdown will have deep ramifications for the global investment community, liberal order in place for over seventy-five years, and Chinese financial wealth that now spans the globe.

When countries age, and use reproductive rights to control populations, they become more assertive abroad, and repressive to its citizenry; this describes China’s social, political and economic philosophies that govern over a billion people. Since its one-child policy was enacted, Chinese economic productivity will plummet, “because it will lose 200 million workers and young consumers and gain 300 million seniors in the course of three decades.”

Suppressive economies have difficulty innovating, producing enough goods domestically, and integrating into world economic mechanisms that intends to distribute wealth globally. But this isn’t the first time these warnings have been made publicly.

Former Premier, Wen Jiabao gave a prescient declaration in March 2007 during the long march of economic progress when Mr. Jiabao had misgivings about China’s growth model by stating, “(Chinese growth had become) ‘unsteady, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable.” Recent numbers indicated China’s official GDP “has dropped from 15 percent to six percent – the slowest rate in 30 years.”

Expansionary Chinese growth hasn’t experience this level of downturn since the end of the Mao into post-Mao era. What this does for the Belt and Road Initiative that is paving the way for investments into Central Asia up to the Arctic Circle is uncertain? Deep investment difficulties could witness China stopping the flow of billions of infrastructure projects into countries and continents such as Africa desperate for growth.

Public figures from the Chinese government generally have the economy growing at six percent, but many analysts and economists peg the number(s) at “roughly half the official figure.” China’s GDP has consisted of bad debt that typical financial institutions and western governments will transfer from the state to public sector and ultimately costs passed onto consumers. For China’s wealth to increase when so much domestic wealth is spent on infrastructure projects to increase GDP these official numbers need context.

China has bridges, and cities full of empty office and apartment buildings, unused malls, and idle airports that do not increase economic productivity, and if that isn’t the case then infrastructure increasing economic measurements will decrease. Unproductive growth factors officially known are: “20 percent of homes are vacant, and ‘excess capacity’ in major industries tops 30 percent.” According to official Chinese estimates the government misallocated $6 trillion on “ineffective investment between 2009-14.” Debt now exceeds 300 percent of GDP.

What’s discovered is the amount of China’s GDP growth “has resulted from government’s pumping capital into the economy.” Private investments have trouble overtaking government stimulus spending, and Foreign Affairs ascertains “China’s economy may not be growing at all.”

Chinese economic growth – post-Mao – saw the country’s self-sufficiency in agriculture, energy, and water almost complete by the mid-2000s. Through economic malfeasance, population control, and resource decimation, “water has become scarce, and the country is importing more food and energy than any other nation.” Environmental degradation is destroying the basic necessities for every day survival.

This is where the world community and financial resources of east and west can meet needs, and grow interconnected, global economies. Energy is one of the biggest areas that China will engulf global energy supplies

The U.S. Energy Information Administration believes China will continue being the largest natural gas user in non-OECD Asia, and by 2050:

“Expects that China will consumer nearly three times as much natural gas as it did in 2018. China’s projected increase in natural gas consumption is greater than the combined growth of natural gas consumption in all other non-OECD Asian countries.”

Opportunities for liquid natural gas (LNG) facilities to be built globally, and in China to spur domestic and international economic activity are unlimited. As China goes, so goes Asia, and the world is now in the “Asian Century.” Investors, geopolitical strategists, and anyone concerned with global security should never believe it is wise to let China continue to falter economically and societally. Setting up investment mechanisms and diplomatic vehicles that benefit China, and the world community is a prudent choice.

When military choices defeat sound fiscal and monetary polices, the past 150 years have brought “nearly a dozen great powers experienced rapid economic growth followed by long slowdowns.” Normal, civilized behavior was pushed aside. What’s needed for Chinese economic growth is the free flow of information, managed wealth, consumer goods, and research/innovation.

Decades ahead, and current economic realities point to China being a great power that is under pressure, but still needs capital. A weak, unsecure China who isn’t satisfied with its place in the Asian hemisphere or global economic system isn’t good for continued prosperity. It would be smarter to engage and invest within China in the areas of energy, water, agriculture, and electricity where opportunities still abound.

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Agribusiness: Africa’s New Investment Frontier

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Authors: Mariam Yinusa and Edward Mabaya*

In the past decade, a stroll along the aisles of any African supermarket is revealing: there is a new wave of home-brewed brands that are fast becoming household names. Products like Dangote rice from Nigeria, Akabanga pepper oil from Rwanda and Tomoca coffee from Ethiopia attest to the gradual but persistent evolution towards greater agro-processing and value addition in the domestic agriculture sector.

Africa’s agribusiness sector is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2030, so there is certainly cause for optimism. Consumer demand for food in Africa is growing at an unprecedented rate. But what is fuelling this growth?

First, size matters. At a population of 1.2 billion people, Africa is currently the second most populous continent in the world, superseded only by Asia. According to United Nations projections, Africa’s population could reach 2 billion by 2030 and 2.5 billion by 2050. This means that one in five consumers globally will be African.

Second, quality counts. Sustained GDP growth rates in several countries across the continent have translated into rising incomes for some segments of the population. According to the African Development Bank’s African Economic Outlook Report, the middle-class population is expected is projected to reach 1.1 billion by 2060 which will make up 42% of the population. The average African middle-class consumer is becoming relatively more affluent, sophisticated and discerning in the food they choose to buy and eat. Concerns about price/quality trade-offs, convenience, nutritional content and food safety, amongst others, are central in their minds.

Third, concentration can be powerful. Although most growth poles are small to medium cities, megacities with populations of over 10 million inhabitants, such as Cairo, Lagos and Kinshasa, have gained increased prominence. These metropoles offer ripe opportunities for investment, as a result of the triad of high consumption, concentrated spending power, and agglomeration (i.e. lower and fixed distribution costs).

On the supply side, there is significant untapped potential. Over 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land is in Africa.

Policy makers recognize the huge opportunities these trends present and are making concerted efforts to create and maintain an enabling business environment to attract both local and foreign investors. The African Development Bank is at the forefront of this coalition of the “ready” to transform African agriculture.

Under its Feed Africa Strategy, the Bank is supporting its regional member countries to address both demand and supply side constraints along agricultural value chains. Through initiatives like the Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT), the Bank is boosting historically low yields in priority commodities such as rice, maize and soybeans. In Sudan for example, the TAAT-supported heat-resistant wheat variety has increased wheat self-sufficiency from 24% in 2016 to 45% in the 2018-2019 farming season.

At the same time, Special Agro-Processing Zones (SAPZs) are attracting both hard and soft infrastructure and creating value addition to increased agricultural produce. Together with partners, including Korea-Exim Bank and the European Investment Bank, the African Development Bank has invested $120 million in SAPZs in Guinea, Ethiopia and Togo, which will significantly expand local agro-processing activities along numerous agricultural value chains.

Along with these key investments in Africa’s agricultural value chains, the continent is starting to consolidate its wins. A case in point is regional integration, exemplified by the recent ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which has the potential to make Africa the largest free trade area in the world.

Agribusiness has already caught the eye of investors. Last year, it was one of the main attractions at the inaugural Africa Investment Forum conference, which is becoming the continent’s premier marketplace for global and pan-African business leaders, and an innovator in accelerating deals.

Agriculture was one of the nine sectors that attracted investor interest at the 2018 Africa Investment Forum. The sector held its own against big hitters like financial services, infrastructure, energy, and ICT. One such transaction was the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) deal in which $600 million loan financing was mobilized from the African Development Bank and other investors to boost annual production of cocoa beans from 880,000 tons to 1.5 million tons. Within the next three years, the project is also expected to promote growth in the domestic cocoa value chain by increasing processing capacity two-fold from 220,000 tons to 450,000 tons per annum.

Africa’s expanding consumer base will undoubtedly lead to more spending on food and beverages on the continent. This should be enlightening for would-be investors in food processing and value addition ventures.

The front door to these opportunities is the Africa Investment Forum, scheduled for November 11-13 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

*Edward Mabaya, Principal Economist and Manager, respectively, in the Agribusiness Development Division of the African Development Bank.

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Asian Reserve Managers Navigate Increasingly Complex Risks

Ingrid van Wees

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Reserve asset management in Asian economies is becoming more and more complex. 

There has been a marked shift in the reserve currency asset markets over the last year. Central bankers in developed markets have moved from policy normalization to an easing bias mainly due to macro-economic risks. This has resulted in a downward trend in yield curves of traditional reserve assets, and some asset markets have even sunk deeper into negative yield territory. The stock of negative yielding debt has doubled globally to $17 trillion as of August 2019 from $8 trillion as of December 2018. 

The US Treasury market is one the last remaining positive yielding traditional reserve asset markets. Given this environment, reserve managers have ventured into “riskier” asset classes, including equities, exchange traded funds, corporate credits, and commodities for greater diversification and expected returns. 

In fact, gold as a reserve asset has regained popularity. According to IMF data, central banks held 34,000 tons of gold as of Q1 2019, making it the third largest reserve asset in the world. 

The current environment is marked by economic uncertainty as the effects of deepening trade tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China are being felt across Asia. Other risks—including the potential for a sharper slowdown in major advanced economies and rising geopolitical tensions in some other regions—have intensified investor anxiety and increased financial market volatility. This uncertainty has exacerbated the several challenges already faced by reserve asset managers in the previous years.

Foreign exchange reserves are a key component of the monetary and exchange rate policies in most countries. Developing economies have accumulated reserves at an impressive pace, after the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Global holdings of reserves have grown at annualized rate of 4.8% since 2008 and now stand at $12.4 trillion. Asia has accounted for more than 55% of the total growth, mostly because of the trade dynamics in Asia and the importance policy makers place on reserve accumulation. 

Traditionally, reserves are kept by emerging economies as a precautionary measure to build confidence in the currency, and as a stabilization mechanism against disorderly markets. However, reserve managers must now balance these with other motives as well. These include supporting the conduct of monetary policy; accumulating assets for intergenerational purposes; or influencing the exchange rate for export competitiveness. 

Given the different motivations for holding reserves, the question of reserve adequacy and the associated cost of holding reserves assumes greater importance. 

The growth of reserves has brought to the fore risk management issues like liquidity and concentration for the preservation of capital to be balanced with return considerations. Adequacy of reserves must be assessed against each objective and the portfolios segmented to address them.

Sovereign wealth funds, or SWFs, have grown as a structure to segment return objectives and provide the governance structure to achieve them. Globally, as of 2018, assets under management of SWFs have grown to $8 trillion. Governance standards around the management of SWFs have emerged as the Santiago principles set out a common global set of international standards regarding transparency, independence, and accountability for SWFs.

Reserve adequacy must consider assessments of developing risks through forward-looking scenario analysis. Such scenario analysis must consider the evolution of factors that drives reserve needs. However, each country is different. Advanced economies need different adequacy measures compared to emerging economies. The lessons from the global financial crisis has taught us that no country is immune from external or internal shocks. Reserves provide a valuable buffer in these stress events.   

Reserve managers face a complex task in investing these resources. With emerging risks clouding the outlook for the global economy, balancing risks with return expectations and with the mandate to provide liquidity during market dislocations has become a more delicate predicament for them. 

They must constantly monitor the operating environment as it can change quite dramatically in a short period of time with new challenges such as the emergence of new crytocurrencies. Challenges of reserve adequacy, asset concentration, and risk management will need to be assessed for sound and effective management of reserves. The role of reserve managers will assume even greater importance going forward.

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