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Central Bank gets New Governor

By John Lee.

The Secretary General of the Council of Ministers, Ali Mohsin Ismail (pictured), has been appointed Governor o the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), replacing Dr Abdulbasit Turki [Abdul Basit Turki Saeed].

His position as GSCOM is to be filled by Dr. Hamed khalaf Ahmad.

Mr Ismail said he was leaving his former position with full confidence and trust in his successor.

(Source: Iraqi Govt)

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Has ISIS Killed Its Golden Goose?

By Mark DeWeaver.

While it has long been assumed that ISIS gets most of its money from donors in the Gulf, recently declassified documents suggest otherwise.

Researchers at the RAND Corporation found that donations actually accounted for less than 5% of the group’s funding during the period from 2005 to 2010. (See this article.)

The city of Mosul, rather than Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, turns out to have been, as one researcher put it, “the area that was keeping the group afloat”—through extortion rackets, kidnapping, and robbery.

Following the fall of the city on June 10, it’s hard to see how this can continue to be the case. Out of a population of 1.8 million, the BBC has reported that 500,000 have fled. Presumably the wealthiest residents will not be returning any time soon. It is also unclear how Mosul’s remaining state employees are going to be paid. Obviously it won’t be possible to extort money from businesses without customers or collect ransoms from people who can’t afford to leave town. You can’t get blood from a stone after all.

It’s not even clear that ISIS could have stolen as much US$ 420 million from the Mosul branch of the Central Bank of Iraq (or, in some accounts, from a combination of the CBI and private banks). While this figure has been widely reported in the media, some analysts have dismissed it as wildly exaggerated.

In any case, looting can be only a short-term source of funds. Once the city’s homes and businesses have been stripped of cash and salable assets, this bonanza will come to an end as well.

ISIS apparently had a pretty good thing going in Mosul, where it could help itself to a share of the economy of one of Iraq’s largest cities with all but complete impunity. Once this golden goose has stopped laying, I wonder if they won’t end up concluding that they should have left well enough alone.

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Why Two Exchange Rates?

By Mark DeWeaver.

Since the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) began changing the rules for its USD auctions in 2012, Iraq has been operating a de facto dual exchange rate system. (There’s a summary of some of the CBI’s recent rule changes on pages 12-14 of this report from Sansar Capital.) For those with access to the CBI auction—mainly banks and (as of March, 2013) importers using letters of credit—the rate has been fixed at IQD 1,166: USD 1.00. For the rest of us, the dinar has ranged from 1,194 to 1,292, with two major episodes of depreciation in mid-2012 and mid-2013 (see chart).

The ostensible purpose for this arrangement is to limit illicit outflows of foreign exchange to Iran and Syria. In practice, it serves mainly as a subsidy to banks, large importers, and anyone in a position to generate phony trade documents. The losers include everyone from foreign investors in Iraqi stocks to the government itself, which gets the CBI rate on its oil-export revenues.

Iraq is unusual in this regard. Dual (or even multiple) exchange rates are usually only found in countries suffering from chronic trade deficits and foreign exchange shortages. Typically the objective is to make foreign exchange available for “essential” imports or to control inflation by lowering import prices. Examples include Hitler’s Germany, China in the 1980’s and early ‘90’s, Burma prior to 2012, and Venezuela today. (See this note from the Asian Development Bank for an excellent introduction to this topic.)

It’s hard to see why Iraq belongs on this list. The country has a trade surplus, inflation is low, and the central bank has ample foreign exchange reserves. Even USD outflows to Iran are presumably no longer a major issue.

One exchange rate should be enough.

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Iraq’s Missing Market

By Mark DeWeaver.

In my last post I argued that Iraqi banks’ high cash/deposit ratios are due to the absence of an interbank market. If that is the case, you might think it would be easy to get the banks to put more of their deposits to work in the “real economy.” Couldn’t somebody (e.g. the central bank) simply set up a system through which they could make short-term loans to one another?

A few years ago I met someone at a conference on Iraqi banking who said he had helped to set up just such a system. According to him, the IT platform he worked on was already in place. The banks just weren’t using it.

If the issue isn’t primarily technical, what is it? I think the root of the problem is the dominant role of the state banks, which together account for about 80% of system-wide deposits.

Without their participation, an interbank market would not work. There would be no guarantee that at the end of a given day the private banks collectively wouldn’t end up with a cash deficit while the state banks had a surplus. In a market with only the private banks, those with extra funds might not have enough cash to meet the demand of those with a shortfall.

So why not get the state banks involved? Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be ideal either. Like state-owned enterprises in general, these banks can always count on a bail-out if they get into trouble. This means that as interbank lenders they could afford to act recklessly, making funds available to anyone willing to pay a high enough interest rate, regardless of counter-party risk. The result would be an increase in the state banks’ non-performing loan ratios and a corresponding hit to the government budget.

The absence of an interbank market thus turns out to be symptomatic of much deeper problems in the structure of the Iraqi financial system. Until these are resolved, the banks are unlikely to begin either lending to one another or lending out a bigger share of their deposits to the non-financial sector.

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Are Iraqi Banks Too Liquid?

By Mark DeWeaver.

Fund managers visiting Iraq for the first time are often surprised by the large amounts of cash Iraqi banks typically hold. While the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) requires lenders to hold 15% of their deposits in the form of vault cash and central bank reserves, most hold well over 50%. (See Chart.) “Cash in hand and at bank,” rather than loans, is usually a bank’s single biggest asset.

Bank managers will tell you that they need cash to meet unexpected large withdrawals by depositors. But this is true of banks everywhere. Why should Iraqi lenders be so much more liquid than their counterparts in other countries? Aren’t they being overly cautious?

Their behavior doesn’t seem so strange when you consider the fact that Iraq lacks an interbank market. Ordinarily, banks with a cash shortfall at the end of the day can borrow overnight from those with a surplus. As long as the public’s demand for banknotes is unchanged, withdrawals from bank A end up as deposits at bank B, ensuring that A’s demand for short-term money can usually be easily met.

In Iraq, a bank that ends up with a cash shortfall will be forced to borrow from the CBI, which offers seven-day facilities for this purpose. This is a much less attractive alternative than borrowing from another commercial bank.

Foreign institutions that are perceived to be in trouble may still be able to access funds in the interbank market provided that they are willing to pay a large enough premium over LIBOR. The central bank, however, is both lender and regulator. It is certainly not going to provide liquidity to the highest bidder regardless of the circumstances. (In fact, CBI facilities are available at a fixed rate—two percentage points above the CBI’s policy rate.)

It is thus not surprising that Iraqi banks choose to rely on their own funds. Their high levels of liquidity are not a sign of risk-aversion or incompetence, as is sometimes suggested. In the absence of an interbank market, liquidity risk is the biggest risk they face. They need to be ready not only for ordinary levels of withdrawals but for worst-case scenarios as well.

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Capital Increase Déjà Vu

By Mark DeWeaver.

A year ago I wrote a post called “Will the Banks Get More Time,” in which I argued that most of the ISX-listed banks weren’t going to make the central bank’s deadline of June 30, 2012 to reach IQD 150 bn in paid-up capital. I posted pretty much the same thing back in May, 2011 (see this post), when the banks were having trouble meeting the June 2011 target of IQD 100 bn.

Today it’s looking like “déjà vu all over again.” This time the deadline is June 30, 2013 and the CBI’s final target of IQD 250 bn is fast approaching.

Rabee Securities’ most recent bank-sector report found that as of May 23 only 5 of the 21 listed banks had either reached the target or would reach it once ongoing capital increase procedures were completed. (The five were BKUI, BMFI, BMNS, BNOR, and BUND.) Two banks—BDFD and HSBC-subsidiary BDSI—have yet to reach even last June’s IQD 150 bn target. In aggregate the banks still need to increase paid-up capital by a further IQD 1.6 trillion from the current total of IQD 3.5 trillion.

The CBI now has the same three options it had last time. It can (1) give the banks more time, (2) force some of them to merge, or (3) shut down those that miss the deadline. I think (2) and (3) are quite unlikely, simply because none of the banks appears to be at risk of failure. Most are already more than adequately capitalized for the amount of lending they do.

Giving the banks more time is clearly the most sensible option. This is also what the CBI did in 2011 and 2012. In both cases the deadline was extended by six months.

Once again I find myself asking “why should this time be different?”

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Currency Auctions by CBI Called Into Question

By Omar al-Shaher for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

According to experts, the hard-currency auction governed by the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) — the authority in charge of implementing monetary policy in the country — has ushered in the formation of financial groups, in which board members of Iraqi private banks are investing.

Every day since 2004, the CBI has held an auction through which hard currency is sold to banks, companies and traders in exchange for evidence of import and transaction receipts. The auctions aim to prevent market speculation and stabilize the exchange rate of Iraqi dinars to the US dollar. The CBI — which does not deal with individuals — sells $1 for 1,118 Iraqi dinars.

The exchange rate has been fluctuating following an arrest warrant issued against the former governor of the CBI, Sinan al-Shabibi, at the end of last year. During his term, Shabibi tightened the auctions as information leaked about smuggling money from Iraq to Iran to meet the latter’s needs for hard currency amid international sanctions.

As a way of dealing with the accusations, the CBI prohibited any bank or company with capital of less than $400,000 from taking part in the currency auction. Additionally, all participants had to submit their participations to the criminal division in the Ministry of Interior, the economic crime unit and the money-laundering division of the CBI for approval.

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A Kinder, Gentler CBI?

By Mark DeWeaver.

On October 16, Prime Minister Maliki removed the head of the central bank, Sinan al-Shabibi, accusing him of mismanagement and currency manipulation. (There’s more on this story here, here, and here.) This move was widely seen as a power grab by the prime minister and a grave threat to the CBI’s independence. Nevertheless, his removal may actually prove to be a positive development for the listed banks.

In recent years, the CBI has implemented two prudential supervision policies that seem to me to have been entirely misguided—(1) requiring all private-sector banks to meet arbitrary capital targets and (2) imposing an impossibly burdensome anti-money laundering (AML) regime.

While capital adequacy is normally measured as a ratio of capital to risk-weighted assets, the CBI has instead imposed absolute levels of capital (IQD 150 billion by the middle of 2012, IQD 250 billion by the middle of 2013) regardless of the size of the banks’ loan books. Given that most of the banks have more cash than loans, there is really no justification for this on prudential grounds. The policy is rather an attempt to force the banks to lend more and to coerce the smaller banks into merging with one another. It is, in other words, an attempt to replace market forces with central planning.

In some cases the CBI’s insistence on capital increases also appears to have led to increases in the quantity of capital at the expense of its quality. Some majority shareholders are said to have used personal lines of credit from their banks to pay for their own rights shares. The problem with this, of course, is that if those shareholders are unable to repay their loans the banks will take a loss and the new capital will have to be written off.

Similarly, the CBI’s AML policy, introduced last February, had numerous unintended consequences. Rather than blocking illicit currency flows, the new rules instead produced a market for Iraqi government-certified manifests, which anyone who needed dollars could use to prove that he was engaged in a legitimate transaction. Instead of stopping dollar sales to Iran and Syria, the CBI did little more than create an opportunity for officials with access to the right government seals to make a quick profit stamping phony documents. In the end the CBI had no choice but to issue new instructions (at the beginning of October) reinstating the original regulations.

Don’t get me wrong. I happen to think, as do most outside observers, that Shabibi is entirely innocent. But prudential supervision during his tenure has been unduly strict, even to the point, in the case of the AML regulations, of being downright Quixotic.

The interesting question for the commercial banks at this point is thus whether or not the next CBI head might take a more lenient line. Will we get a kinder, gentler central bank or more of the same?

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