Global Investing

Iran: a frontier for the future

Investors trawling for new frontier markets have of late been rolling into Iran. Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital (which bills itself as a Frontier bank) visited recently and his verdict?

It’s like Turkey, but with 9% of the world’s oil reserves.

Most interestingly, Robertson found a bustling stock market with a $170 billion market cap — on par with Poland – which is the result of a raft of privatisations in recent years.  A $150 million daily trading volume exceeds that of Nigeria, a well established frontier markets. And a free-float of $30 billion means that if Iranian shares are included in MSCI’s frontier index, they would have a share of 25 percent, he calculates.

What of the economy? Renaissance estimates its size at $437 billion, which if accurate would place it higher than Austria or Thailand. Foreign investors are keen — a thawing of relations with the West has triggered a race among multinations to explore business opportunities in the country of 78 million. Last month, more than 100 executives from France’s biggest firms visited Iran. Robertson writes:

Iran is beyond the final frontier for portfolio investors, but many on the ground appear to believe there is a good chance it will become investable (at least to frontier funds) within the next 6-18 months..Most interesting of all, there is a dynamic reform team now in charge of the government and central bank, which is undertaking the classic monetary and fiscal reforms EM investors usually like. This looks to us like a potential re-ratingplay that could – in an investable scenario – attract those investors who have recently invested in Saudi Arabia, like those who invested in Turkey after 2001 and Russia since the 1990s.

Not so fast.  Despite last year’s initial agreement between Teheran and six world powers, sanctions on Iran remain and until these are removed, few  investors will venture there. Second, fathoming Iran’s idiosyncratic markets could prove a challenge for foreigner, Robertson acknowledges, citing the banking sector and bond markets as an example:

‘Peace-ing’ together the world…

If only it were this easy.

 

The United Nations General Assembly begins its annual meeting next week with the overhang of chemical weapons diplomacy in Syria and a diplomatic dance over Iran’s nuclear aspirations (and the distrust by much of the West of Tehran’s intentions). That creates a tantalizing prospect of the two, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, taking a face-to-face spin together on the global stage.

But it was all about getting down to business on Friday at the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York where the UN Global Compact and the LEGO Foundation unveiled a 1.65 meter tall replica of the UN headquarters. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon playfully pointed out his office. He was joined by LEGO Foundation chairman Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen and its chief executive officer Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, who want the way children play to be re-defined and the learning process to be re-imagined.

 

 

Ban placed the final piece into the model, which took around 500 hours and more than 90,000 pieces to construct.

Golden days of the Turkey-Iran trade may be gone

Global Investing has discussed in the past what a golden opportunity the Iranian crisis has proved for Turkey. Between January and July 2012 it ratcheted up gold exports to Iran ten-fold compared to 2011 as inflation-hit Iranians clamoured for the precious metal. Since August exports appear to have been routed via the UAE, possibly to circumvent U.S. sanctions on trade with Teheran.

The trade has been a handy little earner. Evidence of that has shown up in Turkey’s data all year as its massive current account deficit has steadily shrunk. On Friday, official data showed the Turkish trade gap falling by a third in October from year-ago levels. And yes, precious metal exports (read gold) came in at $1.5 billion compared to $322.4 million last October. In short, a jump of 370 percent.

But the days of the lucrative trade may be numbered, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Tevfik Aksoy. Aksoy notes that the gold exports can at least partly be accounted for by the considerable amounts of lira deposits that Iran held in Turkish banks as payment for oil exports. (Yes, there’s an oil link to all this. Turkey buys oil from Iran but pays lira due to Western sanctions against paying Teheran hard currency. Iranian firms use liras to shop for Turkish gold. See here for detailed Reuters article). These deposits are being steadily converted into gold and repatriated, Aksoy says.

Golden Time for Turkey

One would have thought the brewing tensions in neighbouring Iran — an unravelling economy and the likelihood of an air strike by Israel– would only be a source of concern for Turkey. Every cloud, though….

Data released last week shows how the geo-political crisis has helped Turkey to shrink its massive current account deficit by a third this year. That’s because Iranians, scrambling to ditch their crumbling riyal currency and without access to dollars, have been buying up enormous amounts of gold as an inflation hedge, most of it from Turkey.

Turkey sold gold worth $6.2 billion to Iran in the January-July period this year, more than 10 times the $54 million that it exported to its neighbour in the same period in 2011. While sales to Iran officially dipped in August to $180 million from July’s $1.8 billion, that figure is deceptive as  exports appear to have been routed through the UAE, according to Capital Economics.

Iran currency plunge an omen for change?

In recent days Iranians all over the country have been rushing to dealers to change their rials into hard currency. The result has been a spectacular plunge in the rial which has lost a third of its value against the dollar in the past week. Traders in Teheran estimate in fact that it has lost two-thirds of its value since June 2011 as U.S and European economic sanctions bite hard into the country’s oil exports. The government blames the rout on speculators.

According to Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital,  the rial’s tumble to record lows  and inflation running around 25 percent may be an indicator that Iran is moving towards regime change.  Robertson reminds us of his report from back in March where he pointed out that autocratic countries with a falling per capita income are more likely to move towards democracy. (Click here for what we wrote on this topic at the time)

He says today:

The renewed collapse of the currency recently suggests sanctions are working towards that end.

Shadow over Shekel

Israel’s financial markets had a torrid time on Monday as swirling rumours of an imminent air strike on Iran caused investors to flee. The shekel lost 1.4 percent, the Tel Aviv stock exchange fell 1.5 percent and credit default swaps, reflecting the cost of insuring exposure to a credit, surged almost 10 percent.

There has been a modest recovery today as the rumour mills wind down. But analysts reckon more weakness lies ahead for the shekel which is not far off three-year lows.  Political risks aside, the central bank has been cutting interest rates and is widely expected to take interest rates, currently at 2.25 percent, down to 1.75 percent by year-end. Societe Generale analysts are among the many recommending short shekel positions against the dollar. They say:

Expect the dovish stance of the Bank of Israel to remain well entrenched for now.

Three snapshots for Wednesday

Saudi Arabia has repeated publicly it would prime its pumps to meet any shortfall in exports from fellow OPEC member Iran, this chart shows their production since 1980:

Unwelcome news for British finance minister George Osborne ahead of today’s budget – February public sector borrowing comes in at £15.2bn against expectations for £8bn.

Along with the rise in bond yields, expectations for interest rates at end 2013 and 2014 have started to pick up:

Oil prices — Geopolitics or growth?

It’s the economy, stupid. Or isn’t it?

Brent crude has risen 15 percent since the end of last year, focusing people’s minds on the potential this has to choke off the recovery in world growth. But some reckon it is the recovery that’s at least partly responsible for the surging oil prices — economic data from United States and Germany has been strong of late. There are hopes that France and the United Kingdom may escape recession after all. And growth in the developing world has been robust.

Geopolitics of course is playing a role  as an increasing number of countries boycott Iranian oil and fret over a possible military strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear installations.  But Deutsche Bank analysts point out that world equity markets, an efficient real-time gauge of growth sentiment, have risen along with oil prices.

Their graphic (below) shows a remarkably close relationship between oil prices and the S&P 500. Click to enlarge

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:

Emerging beats developed in 2012

Robust growth from the emerging market basket in January was always going to be tough to beat, but research from February’s gains show just how strong these markets are performing against developed ones, and not just from the traditional BRICs either, research from S&P Indices shows.

Egypt has been a prime example. Following a bout of political unrest and subsequent removal of Hosni Mubarak after nearly 30 years in power, Egypt’s market returns have rocketed, climbing 15.3 percent in February on top of January’s 44.3 percent take-off.

Thailand, Chile, Turkey and Colombia are also on the to-watch list as these emerging lights have all flashed double-digit returns in the first two months of this year, while all twenty emerging markets included in the S&P data were up, gaining an average of 6.62 percent, making gains in the year-to-date a mouth-watering 18.95 percent.