By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The market’s action in July was so quiet that it turned activities like watching paint dry into spectator sports, as the start of the peak summer and holiday season depressed trading volumes.

Nonetheless, the average daily turnover’s decline of −15% month-on-month did not erase the turnover gains made in the prior two months, small as they were.

For the month, the market, as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISX USD Index (RSISUSD), was down −4.40% and down −3.97% for the year.

The highlight of the month, though, was the release of the latest IMF country report for Iraq, in which the IMF updated its estimates, last made in the summer of 2017, for both the future economic outlook and for the last few years. The changes to its GDP growth estimates for the crisis years 2014-2017 were as follows:

Year 2014 2015 2016 2017
Old estimates +0.7% +4.8% +11.0% -0.4%
New estimates +0.7% +2.5% +15.2% -2.5%

While estimates for the years following the conflict changed as follows:

Year 2018 2019 2020 2021
Old estimates +2.9% +1.7% +2.0% +2.1%
New estimates -0.6% +4.6% +5.3% +2.6%

The main takeaway is that the crisis years were, on the whole, weaker than initially expected. While, 2018, the first year following the conflict, was the second year of a deep recession with a contraction of -0.6% on the back of the prior year’s -2.5% decline, instead of being a first year of an economic recovery, at +2.9%, following a shallower decline of -0.4%  -a message telegraphed by companies listed on the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX) over the last two years. On the other hand, the expected recovery in 2019/2020 would be much stronger than estimated earlier with GDP growing at +4.6%/+5.3% instead of +1.7%/+2.0%.

Higher oil exports and the improved oil pricing environment, over the last two years, resulted in much higher government revenues, than estimated earlier, from 2017 onwards. This, with a long lag, is initially translating into increased consumer spending in 2019, given that the government employs over 50% of the working population. This, would then, be followed by the government’s investment spending powering the non-oil economy. Subsequently, the IMF’s new assumptions on non-oil GDP growth rates are crucial for the economy and the stock market. The IMF’s estimates for the severe contraction in non-oil GDP during the crisis years changed as follows:

Year 2014 2015 2016 2017
Old estimates -3.9% -9.6% -8.1% +1.5%
New estimates -3.9% -14.4% +1.3% -0.6%

Accordingly, the downward trajectory in 2015 was much steeper at −14.4% than earlier estimates of −9.6%, while the stability expected for 2017 was, instead, a double dip recession following the bounce in 2016. Also, the contraction lasted longer at four years than earlier expectations of three years. While estimates for the years following the conflict changed as follows:

Year 2018 2019 2020 2021
Old estimates +2.0% +3.0% +3.9% +4.0%
New estimates +0.8% +5.4% +5.0% +4.1%

Confirming the earlier message that 2018 was the second year in a contraction with the non-oil GDP dragging the overall GDP down, negating the strong contributions of higher oil prices and exports to the overall GDP growth. Subsequently, the expected recovery for 2019/2020 would be much stronger at +5.4%/+5.0% versus earlier estimates of +3.0%/+3.9%. The changes, for outlook for non-oil GDP growth, are consistent with the analysis, made here over the last few months, on the drag on the economy in 2018 and early 2019 as a result of the political paralysis before, during, and after the May 2018 parliamentary elections. A paralysis that would have ended in March as the 2019 budget was only passed into law in late February 2019.

Furthermore, the IMF estimates that non-oil investment spending for 2019 would be about USD 11.25bln, or an +8.5% stimulus to the new non-oil GDP estimate for 2019. It’s unlikely, that the government would be able to spend all of the budgeted amount in 2019, given the slow nature of investment spending, and the government’s historic under-execution of such spending. Which probably explains the IMF’s estimates for investment spending at about 13.5% less than that projected by the 2019 government budget.

(Source: IMF, country reports no. 17/251 and 19/248, Asia Frontier Capital)

On the heels of the new IMF report, the Ministry of Finance (MoF) data as of May, show a month-on-month growth in investment spending of +20%, but from a very small base, as the January-May investment spending is only about 8% of the non-oil investment spending budget of USD 11.25bln. Implying that most of the estimated +5.4% growth in non-oil GDP for 2019 would be backend loaded, and thus a much stronger growth is anticipated in the second half of 2019 than the first half. It will likely accelerate further in 2020, as the unfinished spending for 2019 spills over into 2020. The government has considerable firepower at its disposal to continue investment spending, even as it continues to under-execute, as the same MoF data for May shows a further growth in budget surplus for 2019 at USD 3.3bln, for a cumulative 29-month surplus of USD 26.5bln.

As postulated here in the past, this investment spending which started with a trickle in 2019, should grow as the full spending gets underway, carrying over into 2020, and ultimately would lead to a sustained economic recovery in line with the new IMF’s future outlook, or probably somewhat higher given the multiplier effects of such spending.

The news from the corporate world supports the economic picture painted by the IMF as evidenced from a number of corporate earnings reports for the second quarter. Pepsi bottler, Baghdad Soft Drinks (IBSD), continued its strong growth with revenues for the six months in 2019 up +3% over the same period in 2018, with its pre-tax profits for the same period up +9%. Telecom operators AsiaCell Communications (TASC) and Zain Iraq (TZNI) reported increased customers by 6% and 4% respectively for the six months in 2019 versus the same period in 2018. However, both revenues and earnings continued, for the same period, to show an industry in the early stages of recovery with TASC having flat revenues but earnings before interest depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) down −9%, while TZNI reported revenues declining −6% and EBITDA up +13%. Both companies cited increased competition and marketing costs.

Bank of Baghdad’s (BBOB) second quarter (Q2) numbers, marked a bank following through with the recovery that began in 2018, which, while confirming the initial signs of a gradual recovery in the sector, also disappointed local speculators who were hoping for a repeat performance of the first quarter (Q1). Deposits continued to grow at +4.3% for the first half of 2019 versus the same period in 2018, while credit growth continued to be negative at −1.4%- which is a slower rate compared with the past- and led to a drop of −27.1% in net interest income. FX income recovered +57.0%, which is an easy comparison given the severe drop seen in the same period in 2018, but nevertheless pointing to a stabilization in this income source. Commission income, continuing to rise in importance, was up +21.3%. Net income, while up +983% in the period or at over 10x the figure for the same period in 2018, while very healthy, was mostly achieved in Q1. Therfore, while Q2’s net income showed continued growth, it nevertheless poured cold water over speculative hopes for the bank to resume dividend payments for 2018’s earnings. It was these hopes that led to a +62.5% rally in the stock in May, which soon moderated to a decline of −12.8% in June, and declined a further −17.6% in July as the bank confirmed in its AGM that it would not pay dividends for the year. The stock’s closing price in July, is still up +16.6% from the April close before it started its wild three-month ride. While, BBOB pulled the other leading banks up with it in May, it did not drag them lower in June and July which is very different from the market’s responses to such disappointments in 2018. That time all banks were painted by the same brush, which shows a market that has begun to discriminate showing it has likely bottomed or is making a bottom.

Trading activity in August will likely continue to be in-line with that of July’s activity, as it is part of the peak of the summer season and will include the second Eid holiday break of the year. While, there is no new source of liquidity in the market, and local speculators continue to dominate activity, foreign investors have been consistent net buyers over the last few of months in a marked contrast from the picture for most of the prior months as the chart below shows.

Index of net foreign activity on the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX)

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), Asia Frontier Capital)

The extension of the June pull-back in July, continues to suggests the beginning of a consolidation phase, which would need a significant recovery in turnover before a recovery can become sustainable and for the market, as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISX USD Index (RSISUSD), to claw back some of the −70.5% decline from the peak in early 2014 to July’s 2019 closing levels.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at AUIS. He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The market’s action in July was so quiet that it turned activities like watching paint dry into spectator sports, as the start of the peak summer and holiday season depressed trading volumes.

Nonetheless, the average daily turnover’s decline of −15% month-on-month did not erase the turnover gains made in the prior two months, small as they were.

For the month, the market, as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISX USD Index (RSISUSD), was down −4.40% and down −3.97% for the year.

The highlight of the month, though, was the release of the latest IMF country report for Iraq, in which the IMF updated its estimates, last made in the summer of 2017, for both the future economic outlook and for the last few years. The changes to its GDP growth estimates for the crisis years 2014-2017 were as follows:

Year 2014 2015 2016 2017
Old estimates +0.7% +4.8% +11.0% -0.4%
New estimates +0.7% +2.5% +15.2% -2.5%

While estimates for the years following the conflict changed as follows:

Year 2018 2019 2020 2021
Old estimates +2.9% +1.7% +2.0% +2.1%
New estimates -0.6% +4.6% +5.3% +2.6%

The main takeaway is that the crisis years were, on the whole, weaker than initially expected. While, 2018, the first year following the conflict, was the second year of a deep recession with a contraction of -0.6% on the back of the prior year’s -2.5% decline, instead of being a first year of an economic recovery, at +2.9%, following a shallower decline of -0.4%  -a message telegraphed by companies listed on the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX) over the last two years. On the other hand, the expected recovery in 2019/2020 would be much stronger than estimated earlier with GDP growing at +4.6%/+5.3% instead of +1.7%/+2.0%.

Higher oil exports and the improved oil pricing environment, over the last two years, resulted in much higher government revenues, than estimated earlier, from 2017 onwards. This, with a long lag, is initially translating into increased consumer spending in 2019, given that the government employs over 50% of the working population. This, would then, be followed by the government’s investment spending powering the non-oil economy. Subsequently, the IMF’s new assumptions on non-oil GDP growth rates are crucial for the economy and the stock market. The IMF’s estimates for the severe contraction in non-oil GDP during the crisis years changed as follows:

Year 2014 2015 2016 2017
Old estimates -3.9% -9.6% -8.1% +1.5%
New estimates -3.9% -14.4% +1.3% -0.6%

Accordingly, the downward trajectory in 2015 was much steeper at −14.4% than earlier estimates of −9.6%, while the stability expected for 2017 was, instead, a double dip recession following the bounce in 2016. Also, the contraction lasted longer at four years than earlier expectations of three years. While estimates for the years following the conflict changed as follows:

Year 2018 2019 2020 2021
Old estimates +2.0% +3.0% +3.9% +4.0%
New estimates +0.8% +5.4% +5.0% +4.1%

Confirming the earlier message that 2018 was the second year in a contraction with the non-oil GDP dragging the overall GDP down, negating the strong contributions of higher oil prices and exports to the overall GDP growth. Subsequently, the expected recovery for 2019/2020 would be much stronger at +5.4%/+5.0% versus earlier estimates of +3.0%/+3.9%. The changes, for outlook for non-oil GDP growth, are consistent with the analysis, made here over the last few months, on the drag on the economy in 2018 and early 2019 as a result of the political paralysis before, during, and after the May 2018 parliamentary elections. A paralysis that would have ended in March as the 2019 budget was only passed into law in late February 2019.

Furthermore, the IMF estimates that non-oil investment spending for 2019 would be about USD 11.25bln, or an +8.5% stimulus to the new non-oil GDP estimate for 2019. It’s unlikely, that the government would be able to spend all of the budgeted amount in 2019, given the slow nature of investment spending, and the government’s historic under-execution of such spending. Which probably explains the IMF’s estimates for investment spending at about 13.5% less than that projected by the 2019 government budget.

(Source: IMF, country reports no. 17/251 and 19/248, Asia Frontier Capital)

On the heels of the new IMF report, the Ministry of Finance (MoF) data as of May, show a month-on-month growth in investment spending of +20%, but from a very small base, as the January-May investment spending is only about 8% of the non-oil investment spending budget of USD 11.25bln. Implying that most of the estimated +5.4% growth in non-oil GDP for 2019 would be backend loaded, and thus a much stronger growth is anticipated in the second half of 2019 than the first half. It will likely accelerate further in 2020, as the unfinished spending for 2019 spills over into 2020. The government has considerable firepower at its disposal to continue investment spending, even as it continues to under-execute, as the same MoF data for May shows a further growth in budget surplus for 2019 at USD 3.3bln, for a cumulative 29-month surplus of USD 26.5bln.

As postulated here in the past, this investment spending which started with a trickle in 2019, should grow as the full spending gets underway, carrying over into 2020, and ultimately would lead to a sustained economic recovery in line with the new IMF’s future outlook, or probably somewhat higher given the multiplier effects of such spending.

The news from the corporate world supports the economic picture painted by the IMF as evidenced from a number of corporate earnings reports for the second quarter. Pepsi bottler, Baghdad Soft Drinks (IBSD), continued its strong growth with revenues for the six months in 2019 up +3% over the same period in 2018, with its pre-tax profits for the same period up +9%. Telecom operators AsiaCell Communications (TASC) and Zain Iraq (TZNI) reported increased customers by 6% and 4% respectively for the six months in 2019 versus the same period in 2018. However, both revenues and earnings continued, for the same period, to show an industry in the early stages of recovery with TASC having flat revenues but earnings before interest depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) down −9%, while TZNI reported revenues declining −6% and EBITDA up +13%. Both companies cited increased competition and marketing costs.

Bank of Baghdad’s (BBOB) second quarter (Q2) numbers, marked a bank following through with the recovery that began in 2018, which, while confirming the initial signs of a gradual recovery in the sector, also disappointed local speculators who were hoping for a repeat performance of the first quarter (Q1). Deposits continued to grow at +4.3% for the first half of 2019 versus the same period in 2018, while credit growth continued to be negative at −1.4%- which is a slower rate compared with the past- and led to a drop of −27.1% in net interest income. FX income recovered +57.0%, which is an easy comparison given the severe drop seen in the same period in 2018, but nevertheless pointing to a stabilization in this income source. Commission income, continuing to rise in importance, was up +21.3%. Net income, while up +983% in the period or at over 10x the figure for the same period in 2018, while very healthy, was mostly achieved in Q1. Therfore, while Q2’s net income showed continued growth, it nevertheless poured cold water over speculative hopes for the bank to resume dividend payments for 2018’s earnings. It was these hopes that led to a +62.5% rally in the stock in May, which soon moderated to a decline of −12.8% in June, and declined a further −17.6% in July as the bank confirmed in its AGM that it would not pay dividends for the year. The stock’s closing price in July, is still up +16.6% from the April close before it started its wild three-month ride. While, BBOB pulled the other leading banks up with it in May, it did not drag them lower in June and July which is very different from the market’s responses to such disappointments in 2018. That time all banks were painted by the same brush, which shows a market that has begun to discriminate showing it has likely bottomed or is making a bottom.

Trading activity in August will likely continue to be in-line with that of July’s activity, as it is part of the peak of the summer season and will include the second Eid holiday break of the year. While, there is no new source of liquidity in the market, and local speculators continue to dominate activity, foreign investors have been consistent net buyers over the last few of months in a marked contrast from the picture for most of the prior months as the chart below shows.

Index of net foreign activity on the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX)

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), Asia Frontier Capital)

The extension of the June pull-back in July, continues to suggests the beginning of a consolidation phase, which would need a significant recovery in turnover before a recovery can become sustainable and for the market, as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISX USD Index (RSISUSD), to claw back some of the −70.5% decline from the peak in early 2014 to July’s 2019 closing levels.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at AUIS. He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The market’s action in July was so quiet that it turned activities like watching paint dry into spectator sports, as the start of the peak summer and holiday season depressed trading volumes.

Nonetheless, the average daily turnover’s decline of −15% month-on-month did not erase the turnover gains made in the prior two months, small as they were.

For the month, the market, as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISX USD Index (RSISUSD), was down −4.40% and down −3.97% for the year.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at AUIS. He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

The Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies has just published a new report from our Expert Blogger Ahmed Tabaqchali:

The current debate over the interpretation of the 2019 budget that governs the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) share of the federal budget in return for contributing 250,000 bbl/d to federal oil exports has echoes of the first conflict in April 2012 on the issue.

The adept quote above by the International Crisis Group (ICC), in its description of the relationship between the two sides leading to that conflict, is as applicable today as it was then, and over the many repeats of similar conflicts in the intervening years.

The current flare up is initiated by members of the federal parliament against the Government of Iraq (GoI) over its continuing payments to the KRG, under the terms of the 2019 budget, while the KRG has not or refused to honour its obligations under the terms of the same budget.

The internal and external dynamics of the players on both sides, the federal politicians and the regional Kurdish politicians, follow the same trajectory that led to countless struggles over this issue and others since 2003. Each side is not only blind and deaf to the other side’s needs and motives but views it with suspicion and mistrust.

Unless something breaks the mould, either an intervention by Iraq’s international stakeholders or a change in the balance of relative power between the two, both will continue to think and act in the same manner that each had acted in the past, while still expecting a different outcome for the conflict or a different response form the other side.

Read Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report here.

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The market took a breather, after the blistering May rally, to end the month down -0.71% as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISX USD Index (RSISUSD), and up +0.44% for the year.

The market’s average daily turnover, excluding block transactions, followed through with the recovery of last month – a promising development especially as the Eid holidays, marking the end of Ramadan, and the beginning of summer holidays took place early in June. However, turnover is still low relative to that over the five years following the market’s peak in early 2014, with June’s average at about +21% above the average of the last year (chart below).

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), Rabee Securities, Asia Frontier Capital)

Trading activity, in the near term, will likely continue to be in-line with that of the last two months, as the holiday season gathers steam with a summer that promises to be hotter than average. June’s daily average temperatures of 48 degrees Celsius, versus prior averages of around 40 degrees Celsius, provided a taste of things to come for the year’s hottest months, i.e. July and August. The chart below of Baghdad’s June 2019 temperatures versus recent average temperatures illustrates the extent of the expected variance between this summer’s temperatures and recent averages.

Temperature Graph, Baghdad June 2019

(Source: Accuweather)

June’s searing heat, as well as profit taking, took the shine off the rejuvenated banking sector with the Bank of Baghdad (BBOB) down -12.8% after being up +62.5% in May, while Mansour Bank (BMNS) was -4.2% versus +20.0% in May, National Bank of Iraq (BNOI) flat versus +31.0% in May, and Commercial Bank of Iraq (BCOI) +4.5% versus +10.0% in May. Expectations for the resumption of dividends by the Bank of Baghdad (BBOB), the reasons behind the stock’s stunning May rally, will be put to the test in the next two weeks at the bank’s upcoming AGM later in July. However, as indicated last month, it’s still too early in the year to judge the likelihood of the bank distributing dividends, especially given the size of its non-performing loans (NPL’s) and the potential need for more provisions.  Such caution finds support in the decision by the National Bank of Iraq (BNOI), at its June AGM, not to distribute dividends for a challenging 2018. However, in a sign of the conditions in place for the sector’s recovery, BNOI indicated the possibility of resuming dividend payments for 2019 based on its strong results for the first half of the year as well its expectations for the second half.

Lending support to these expectations for the brighter outlook for the banking sector are figures from the Ministry of Finance (MoF) for the first four months of the year. The figures show that the budget surplus for 2019 continues to grow and is currently at about USD 2.8 bln by end of April, which, based on current spending patterns and reported oil revenues, could grow to about USD 4.2 bln by the end of June. Helped by the healing effects of increasing oil revenues, this surplus is on top of surpluses of USD 1.6 bln for 2017 and USD 21.6 bln for 2018 as the chart below shows.

(Sources: Ministry of Oil, Ministry of Finance, Central Bank of Iraq, AFC)

Current spending patterns, making up the bulk of the 2019 budget spending at about 75% of the total, are steady and consistent with an expansionary budget in which this spending is up +15% over 2018. Investment spending patterns, on the other hand, show a shift in gear as the government began to implement the 2019 budget, which came into law and thus into effect in late February. However, these are from a very low base and are in-line with expectations made here over the last few months that such spending would begin as a trickle but should grow as investment spending gets underway, adding fuel to a consumer led recovery, and ultimately leading to a sustained economic recovery. This potential economic fuel comes from the 2019 budget’s non-oil investment programme at about USD 12.5 bln, which is equivalent to about a 7.5% stimulus to the estimated non-oil GDP for 2019.

The persistent signs of economic recovery, continue to be mixed as they are in this early stage, nevertheless underscore the opportunity to acquire attractive assets that have yet to discount a sustainable economic recovery. The market’s pull-back in June, on the heels of a strong recovery in May on low turnover, suggests the beginning of a consolidation phase, which, would need a significant recovery in turnover before this recovery can become sustainable and for the market to claw back some of the -65.5% decline from the peak in early 2014 to June 2019 closing levels (as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISX USD Index).

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at AUIS. He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The market finally woke up from its multi-month slumber, increasing by +14.7% for the month as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISUSD Index, in the process turning the year’s loss of -11.8% as the end of April into a gain of +1.2%.

The market’s turnover, while promising relative to the recent past, is still low relative to the last five years since the market’s peak. While, the average daily turnover increased +83% from April’s dismal levels, yet it is only about +11% above the average of the last year, which in turn was a low turnover year, as can be seen from the chart below.

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), Rabee Securities, Asia Frontier Capital

However, within the relatively low turnover, the market saw a return of its animal spirts in the form of a stunning rally in the Bank of Baghdad (BBOB) which was up +62.5% for the month.  Other leading banks rose such as the National Bank of Iraq (BNOI) +31.0%, Mansour Bank (BMNS) +20.0%, and Commercial Bank of Iraq (BCOI) +10.0%. Other stocks joined the rally with telecom operator Asiacell (TASC) +14.6% and Pepsi bottler Baghdad Soft Drinks (IBSD) +7.0%. Part of the catalyst for the banking sector’s rise was the end of foreign selling as covered here in the last few months, plus the emergence of modest foreign inflows in a number of leading banks such as BBOB and BMNS. The inflows were small, as can be seen from below, nevertheless the combined impacts of increasing foreign inflows vs. decreasing foreign outflows had an oversized positive influence.

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), Asia Frontier Capital)

However, the local buying was driven by more than just foreign inflows. BBOB reported earnings figures for the first quarter (Q1) of 2019, which were mostly in-line with the bank’s 2018 numbers (covered last month) and still pointing to the potential for a gradual recovery in the sector. Yet, the focus of local attention was Q1’s net profit equalling about 72% of 2018’s net profit which led to hopes that the bank would distribute dividends unlike last year. Last year’s decision not distribute dividends, as sound financially as it was, soured the local mood on the stock, which was made worse by the same locals absorbing massive amounts of foreign selling as covered here in August 2018. That souring led to a long spell of continuous price declines for BBOB, dragging the sector with it, which seems to have come to an end this month. While, the conditions are in place for the sector to recover, yet it is still too early in the year to judge the likelihood of the bank distributing dividends, especially given the size of its non-performing loans (NPL’s) and the potential need for provisions.  Rabee Securities reports that BBOB’s NPL’s stood at 81.6% of gross loans at the end of Q1/2019, but it should be pointed out that BBOB has been aggressively shrinking its loan book over the last few years making a bad ratio much worse.

Meanwhile, the latest data from the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) lend support to the early leading indicators of the return to liquidity, discussed here over the last few months. In particular, by the end of the third week of April, the IQD Current Account component of banks’ reserves with the CBI (a key component of the monetary base M0, and a function of customer deposits with banks) showed increased acceleration from the prior report (chart below), arguing for continued future growth in M0 and ultimately broad money M2 (a proxy for economic growth).

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq, Asia Frontier Capital)

(Note: M0 as of Mar, IQD C/A component of bank’s reserves as end of third week of Apr)

The same CBI update, however, slightly lowered earlier reported figures for M0 for March, and M2 for January, but provided a slightly higher figure for M2 in February than estimated here. Together these necessitated a lowering of the estimates for M2 multiplier figures for March made here. The upshot is the estimated M2 year over year growth in March is now about +8.3% and not about +10.1% as reported last month (chart below). Continued strength in oil exports and higher oil prices in April and May, led to more growth in government revenues, which should continue to feed into increased liquidity in the economy.

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq, Iraq’s Ministry of Oil, Asia Frontier Capital)

(Note: M2 as of Feb with AFC est.’s for Mar; Oil revenues as of May)

After, what seems like forever, it’s looking increasingly likely that year-over-year growth in M2 is finally tracking increasing oil revenues, however, more data points are needed before this short-term trend can become sustainable. Especially, that it’s unlikely that future data will show the same acceleration seen so far, and revisions to CBI data could lower reported figures for M0 and M2. However, the signs continue to point to increased liquidity and down the road an economic pickup. This is mostly, due to the central role of the government’s spending on the non-oil economy- the lack of which over the last years goes a long towards explaining the divergence of M2 from oil revenues. This was particularly so because of the political paralysis before, during, and after the May 2018 parliamentary elections, resulting in a government inaction that would have ended in March as the 2019 budget was only passed into law in late February.

The silver lining of the lack of government spending has been the steady growth in the budget surplus to an estimated 26-month cumulative surplus of USD 25.8 bln by end of February. The 2019 budget’s non-oil investment programme at about USD 12.5 bln is equivalent to about a 7.5% stimulus to the estimated non-oil GDP for 2019. While it is highly unlikely that this would be immediately spent, yet the spending should start with a trickle in the following months but grow as investment spending gets underway and ultimately would lead to a sustained economic recovery.

Nowhere is this dynamic more pronounced than in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) that experienced a much sharper boom and bust cycle than the country as whole. The KRI’s prosperity came to an end in early 2014 following disputes, over the KRI’s independent oil exports, between the federal Government of Iraq (GoI) and the semi-autonomous region’s government (the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)). The disputes led to the GoI cutting the KRI’s share of the federal budget, which the KRG could not cover with its independent oil exports especially as oil prices collapsed in the wake of the ISIS conflict. This led to sharp cuts in the KRG’s spending on public employee salaries and government spending on investments and infrastructure. The cuts were made worse by the proximity to the conflict as business spending, trade flows and other economic activity came to a standstill. The upshot is the KRI’s non-oil GDP would have contracted much more sharply than that of the country’s non-oil GDP contractions of -3.9%, -9.6% and -8.1% for 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively; nor would it have stabilised in 2017 as the country’s non-oil GDP did.

These negative developments, came to an end in early 2018, as the GoI resumed partial payments to the KRI from its share of the federal budget, which increased meaningfully in March 2019 as the GoI began to implement the 2019 federal budget (the budget as mentioned earlier came into law in February, and was an expansionary budget). Coupled with increasing independent KRI oil exports and higher oil prices, the KRG resumed full public employee salary payments and even started making payments to contractors that were stopped during the crisis. The effects on the region’s economy, while too early to report on, should be an amplified recovery of that of the country as a whole.

A glimpse into that amplified effect, can be seen in the 2018 annual report for the KRI’s strongest bank, Kurdistan International Islamic Bank (BKUI). While, the bank’s earnings were down -82.9% year-over-year in 2018, vs. year-over-year changes of -11.7% and +11.2% in 2017 and 2016 respectively. The 2018’s earnings decline was due to BKUI’s dependence on FX margins to sustain its income during the contraction in economic activity of the prior years, but the collapse in FX margins witnessed in 2018 brought that to an end. Yet, the main feature to note was the year-over-year growth in customer deposits (consumers, businesses and government) of +86.2 % in 2018 following multi-year declines. Within that, consumer and business deposits grew +56.0% pointing to the improving financial health of the KRI’s consumers and businesses, implying a future potential pick-up in economic activity as a result of this improved health.

The continued signs of economic recovery, still mixed as they are in this early stage, continue to underscore the opportunity to acquire attractive assets that have yet to discount a sustainable economic recovery. On the other hand, the market’s strong recovery in May on low turnover continues to suggest that a long consolidation period and a significant recovery in turnover are needed before this recovery can become sustainable.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at AUIS. He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, for 1001 Iraqi Thoughts.

Iraq’s new entrepreneurial generation of civil activists’ sense of civic duty flourished during the trauma brought by the ISIS takeover of a third of the country in 2014, and has continued to grow since then as reviewed in a recent report.

The report into “A New Generation of Activists Circumvents Iraq’s Political Paralysis” also looked into the origins and the determination of these civil activists to “develop solutions to policy problems that the political class has been unable to address”.

Click here to read the full article.

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, for 1001 Iraqi Thoughts.

Iraq’s new entrepreneurial generation of civil activists’ sense of civic duty flourished during the trauma brought by the ISIS takeover of a third of the country in 2014, and has continued to grow since then as reviewed in a recent report.

The report into “A New Generation of Activists Circumvents Iraq’s Political Paralysis” also looked into the origins and the determination of these civil activists to “develop solutions to policy problems that the political class has been unable to address”.

Click here to read the full article.

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The market, as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISUSD Index, increased by +2.5% in April, bringing the YTD decline to -11.8%. Average daily turnover, excluding block transactions, declined -32% from the prior month, and at 60% of the average turnover for the last 12 months, is the second lowest for the period. Foreign selling, the cause of the last few weeks’ declines, seems to have exhausted itself (chart below) and in the process prices lifted higher.

(Source: Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), Asia Frontier Capital)

The early signs of the return of the liquidity to the real economy, reported here over the last few months, are becoming more convincing as the healing effects of increasing oil revenues are continuing to filter down into the broader economy. The continued recovery in broad money, i.e. M2 as a proxy for economic activity, is adding to this conviction due to its sensitivity to oil revenues (chart below)- given the central role of government’s spending on non-oil economic activity.

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq, Iraq’s Ministry of Oil, Asia Frontier Capital)

(Note: M2 as of Jan with AFC est.’s for Feb & Mar; Oil revenues as of Mar with AFC est.’s for Apr)

Driving this recovery in M2 has been the growth of monetary base, or M0, which in turn has been based on the growth in one its two main components “Iraqi Dinar (IQD) current account (C/A) component of banks’ reserves with the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI)” as can be seen in the chart below. The recovery of this component of M0 is a direct result of the growth of customer deposits (consumers, businesses and government) held with banks.

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq, Asia Frontier Capital)

(Note: M0 as of Mar, IQD C/A component of bank’s reserves as of late Apr)

The estimated increase in M2 (prior chart) for March is based on recent M2/M0 multiplier figures and actual increases in M0 for the month. Persistent growth as of late April in IQD Current Account component of banks’ reserves with the CBI (a function of sustained growth in customer deposits with banks) is an early indicator for a continued recovery of M0 and hence in M2 in April (above chart). However, more data over the next few months is needed to establish if this trend is sustainable.

Supporting this growth in customers deposits are the 2018 results for the Bank of Baghdad (BBOB) which showed the first year-over-year growth in customer deposits following their peak in 2014. While BBOB’s year-over-year deposit growth at +5.2% is a far cry from the +25.8% growth reported by the Bank of Mansour (BMN), never-the-less, it was a function of corporate customers deposit growth. Moreover, BBOB’s provision expenses decreased contributing to an overall decline in total provisions (ex-income tax) of -2.3%. Combined they indicates that the macro forces which contributed to BMNS’s recovery, as discussed last month, are spreading to the sector as a whole and should therefore create the conditions for a recovery in the sector.

However, BBOB doesn’t enjoy the same financial strength as BMNS, which is a function of BBOB’s heady expansion during the boom years up to 2014, which among other things resulted in a large loan book relative to other banks, and hence exposure to riskier loans. Growth for BBOB took a back seat while management’s focus over the last few years was on addressing the company specific issues and structural weaknesses that were exposed by the pains of 2014-2017, including the crush in FX margins witnessed in 2018. This can be seen through the other metrics for BBOB in that while its assets and equity increased by +2.1% and +0.2% respectively in 2018 over 2017, its loan book and interest income declined by -4.7% and -38.0% respectively. The decline in its interest income was made worse by the decline in interest earned from government bonds and deposits with the CBI. BBOB’s challenges during the years of contraction were explored here in August.

Finally, mobile operator AsiaCell (TASC) leverage to the economic recovery was confirmed by its continued confidence in its future outlook with a distribution of a 12% dividend. This comes on the back of last year’s 12% dividend and the prior year’s 14% dividend.

The continued signs of economic recovery, mixed as they are in as this early stage, underscore the opportunity to acquire attractive assets that have yet to discount a sustainable economic recovery. On the other hand, the market’s recovery in April on low turnover suggest that a long consolidation and a significant recovery in turnover are needed before it can embark on the next move.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at AUIS. He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The market, as measured by the Rabee Securities RSISUSD Index, declined by -1.7% in March, bringing the YTD decline to -13.9. Turnover, while up +23% from February’s dismal levels, was still mostly in-line with the historic lows of the last few months. Foreign selling, the cause of the last few weeks’ declines, continued along the recent low levels dragging prices lower given the overall low market liquidity.

The market’s obliviousness to the increasing signs of the return of liquidity to the economy (discussed here over the last few months) has extended into an obliviousness to solid earnings growth for one of the market’s top banks- an earnings growth that has all the characterises of a classic banking recovery after a severe economic contraction.

It was argued here in November, following the earnings recovery of mobile operator AsiaCell, that “The next few quarters should see a similar recovery for the battered banking sector, with probably the first indicator to recover being the quality of loans. A return of liquidity and an economic pick-up should be followed by a recovery in the quality of bad loans and the reversal of NPL’s (non-preforming loans) with past provisions becoming earnings, thus providing the first boost to earnings recovery. This should be followed by growth in loans and deposits …”.

Mansour Bank’s (BMNS) 2018 results provide a textbook example of the above argument in action. BMNS reported revenue and income growth of +28.1% and +42.6% respectively for 2018 over 2017. Both revenues and net income were helped by a reversal of some of the past provisions for NPL’s (non-preforming loans) as some clients, helped by the economic pick-up, began to pay back loans that were classified as non-performing. However, even without this reversal of provisions, both revenues and earnings would have been up +13.1% and +15.5% respectively on the back of strong underlying metrics.

The first of these underlying metrics was deposit growth of +25.8% in 2018 over 2017, driven by the growth in private sector deposits. This lends support to the argument, made here in January,  that the growth in the monetary base M0 is an early indicator of a recovery in private sector deposit growth.  The second and most promising metric is an acceleration of loan growth to +6.1% in 2018 over 2017, after an almost flat trend. BMNS’s management singled its confidence in its future outlook by declaring a 9.7% dividend yield- up 40% in absolute terms over last year’s dividend payment.

BMNS’s financial performance during the years of conflict up to 2017 was reviewed here in October after it was caught in the selloff that engulfed the banks during the second half of 2018. The improvement in 2018 suggest the end of the tough times for the bank, and potentially for other strong banks in general.

BMNS’ financial performance during the years of conflict, the stability of 2017 and the start of the recovery in 2018 can be seen through the two charts below that look at loans/non-performing loans (NPL’s), and deposits and their association with government budget surpluses/deficits given the central role that government spending plays in the economy. BMNS’ loan and NPL data were supplied by the research team at Rabee Securities which is gratefully acknowledged, while other data were taken from the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank of Iraq, the Iraq Stock Exchange and company reports. Data from 2010-2014 are based on Iraqi accounting standards, while data from 2015-2018 are based on IFRS, and all calculations use the official USD/IQD exchange rate.

BMNS’ loan book growth peaked in 2015 at the same time that NPL’s peaked. Unlike many other banks in the sector, its loan book was almost flat during 2015-2017, and started to pick up in 2018. NPL’s as a percentage of loans declined by over 60% from the peak (chart below).

Mansour Bank: Loans & NPL’s 2011-2018

(Source: Ministry of Finance, Central Bank of Iraq, Iraq Stock Exchange, Rabee Securities, Asia Frontier Capital)

Unlike, almost all other banks in the sector, BMNS experienced deposit growth throughout the crisis, which accelerated during the relative stability in 2017, and continued into 2018. A flat loan book and sharply increasing deposits resulted in a very low loan/deposit ratio allowing BMNS the opportunity to grow its loan book. Moreover, most of these loans are collateralized by property, as most of banks’ loans are in Iraq, and where the norm is for collateral value at 2x the loan. It should be noted, that most of these deposits are in the form of current accounts, followed by on-demand deposits underscoring the nascent nature of the Iraqi banking system and the opportunity for future growth as the society adopts banking culture.

Mansour Bank: Deposits and Loan/Deposit ratio 2011-2018

(Source: Ministry of Finance, Central Bank of Iraq, Iraq Stock Exchange, Rabee Securities, Asia Frontier Capital)

While not all of the other banks enjoy the same financial strength of BMNS, yet the macro forces that contributed to BMNS’s recovery are the same for the sector as a whole and should therefore create the conditions for a recovery in the sector. These macro forces are boosted by the December data from the Ministry of Finance which show that the government recorded a budget surplus of about USD 22.9 bln for 2018, or a two-year surplus of USD 24.4 bln by end of 2018.

The government’s 2019 non-oil investment programme is about USD 12.5 bln, which would be equivalent to about a 7.5% stimulus to the estimated non-oil GDP for 2019. While it is highly unlikely that this would be immediately spent, yet the spending should start with a trickle but grow as investment spending gets underway- and should therefore provide a further boost to the expected banking sector recovery.

The market has made a mockery of expectations, made here over the last few months, that its divergence from its past close relationship with oil revenues (a proxy for the forces driving the economy) should come to an end. Nevertheless, the strong fundamentals of the market’s leading stocks such as Pepsi bottler Baghdad Soft Drinks (IBSD), mobile operator AsiaCell (TASC), and Mansour Bank (BMNS) coupled with resuming growth in oil revenues only add to the unsustainability of this divergence (see chart below).

(Source: Iraq’s Ministry of Oil, Rabee Securities, Asia Frontier Capital)

(Note: Oil revenues as of Mar)

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at AUIS. He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.