Global Investing

What chances true democracy in oil-rich Iran?

Truly, oil can be a curse. Having it may enrich a country (more likely its rulers) but it does not seem condusive to democracy. And the more oil a country produces, the less likely it is to make the transition to democracy, according to research from investment bank Renaisssance Capital.

So as Iran goes to the polls today, what are the chances it will become a democracy? (Iran itself could argue, reasonably enough, that it is the most democratic country in the region — everyone over the age of 18, including women, are allowed to vote, though the choice of candidates is restricted)

Surprisingly, the Renaissance report’s author Charles Robertson concludes, Iran does have a chance to achieve democracy, though probably not this year. He says no oil exporting country that produces more than 150,000 barrels per day of oil per million of population has ever achieved a transition to democracy (note Norway was already a democracy before it found oil). But others which produce less oil have done so, notably Algeria, Gabon, Congo Indonesia, Nigeria and Ecuador (Some of these democracies are clearly flawed). Robertson writes:

This suggests that the Gulf states, Equatorial Guinea, and Brunei willl not change their political systems until their energy wealth dries up. ..Yet Iran’s net exports are 32,000 bpd per million people. This is insufficient to immunise it from democratisation pressures.

If Iran was not blessed with oil however, its per capita income of over $10,000 means it would probably have been a democracy. (Though it is equally possible that without the oil it may not have that wealth) Robertson’s “democratisation database” tells him an autocracy with per capital incomes of $6000 to $10,000 has a  6.4 percent chance of a transition to democracy. If incomes are shrinking the odds rise to 15.5 percent.

Emerging bonds this year. The riskier the better.

Politics have turned nastier than usual this year in emerging markets. Nonetheless, if you were a buyer of emerging bonds, you would have been ill-advised to play safe. That’s because the best performing emerging credit so far this year is Ivory Coast, which at the end of January effectively defaulted on its $2.3 billion dollar bond. Yes really, according to JP Morgan, which runs the most widely-used emerging debt indexes.

That’s because the bond has risen about 15 points since the start of the year on hopes Alassane Ouattara — seen as the rightful winner of last year’s election — would wrest back the presidency from Laurent Gbagbo who had refused to quit ofIVORYCOAST/fice. Ouattara, now installed in the presidential palace, is expected to honour the bond. So if you’d bought this bond at the end of December you would have earned a notional return of 25 percent, according to JP Morgan. The index overall has returned just 1.6 percent.

In second place? Ecuador. It too defaulted in 2008 — on $3.2 billion in bonds — but has benefited recently from oil prices at well over $100 a barrel. That should help its economy grow 5 percent this year.  Another oil power, Venezuela, is in third place. Its bonds may be trading at a 10 percent yield premium to U.S.  Treasuries, reflecting its riskiness, but Venezuelan bonds returned close to 10 percent so far this year, JP Morgan told clients. Many fund managers have piled in, noting  that despite the unpredictability of its President Hugo Chavez, he is raking in oil export revenues and  has never shied away from repaying debt.