Iraq economic revival faces headwinds

10 May 2024

 

The ambitious new $17bn Iraq Development Road project, linking Basra to Turkiye’s Mersin port, puts the country’s economic trajectory on a long-term geopolitical setting that will aim to take full advantage of Iraq’s position as a key link in trade routes between Asia and the Mediterranean.

But before this vaunted plan takes root, Prime Minister Shia Al Sudani’s government faces a host of knotty economic challenges, not least a challenging fiscal position aggravated by the expansionary budget announced in 2023.

Lack of parliamentary consent has largely insulated the country from the negative impacts of that $153bn budget. That has meant large amounts of planned state spending have not been disbursed, leaving the state finances in better shape than they would have been otherwise.

Fitch Ratings expects that low execution of capital spending and limited transfers to the Kurdistan region will help limit the size of the deficit.

“We expect growth to rebound in 2024 (1.2%), driven by public spending under the expansionary three-year budget and continued recovery in non-oil GDP. We expect non-oil growth to benefit from stronger private consumption, as inflation edges down,” says Mohamed Afifi, Fitch Ratings’ primary analyst for Iraq.

Budget deficit

Even so, reduced oil revenues have impacted Iraq’s economy, turning a budget surplus of 10.8% of GDP in 2022 into a deficit of 1.9% of GDP in 2023. Fitch sees the fiscal deficit widening, reaching 3.7% in 2024 as declining oil prices and Opec-imposed production cuts drive oil revenue down, while a heavier wage bill pushes expenditure.

The government’s debt-to-GDP ratio is also likely to rise in 2024-25, from 43.4% in 2023 to 48.7%, with Fitch attributing this to larger budget deficits that will be funded from borrowing and deposit drawdowns. However, these figures include some $40bn of legacy debt that Iraq faces no pressure to service.

The big concern is that the 2023-25 budget programme will add hundreds of thousands of workers to an already bloated public sector payroll, crowding out the private sector.

“We estimate that the expansionary three-year budget will hinder the private sector’s development by providing a sharp increase in the public workforce,” says Afifi.

“We estimate that the budget will add 600,000 employees, most of which are currently working under temporary contracts, to the public sector payroll. This would bring the public sector wage bill (salaries and pensions) to 25.8% of GDP by 2025, from 15% in 2022.”

As the IMF warned in a March 2024 commentary, higher economic growth will be needed to absorb the rapidly expanding labour force, boost non-oil exports and broaden the tax base.

In this context, urged the Fund, the Iraqi authorities should seek to enable private sector development, including through labour market reforms, modernisation of the financial sector and restructuring of state-owned banks, pension and electricity sector reforms, and continued efforts to improve governance and reduce corruption.    

That is a hefty checklist for a country that is still facing myriad security, political and developmental challenges.

Al Sudani can at least counter the gloomier prognoses with the revival in non-oil sector growth, and lower inflation. Real non-oil GDP is estimated to have grown by 6% in 2023. Headline inflation declined from a high of 7.5% in January 2023 to 4% by year-end, reflecting lower international food and energy prices, and the impact of the February 2023 currency revaluation, according to the IMF.

International reserves increased to $112bn in 2023. Fitch sees FX reserves providing payment coverage above 12 months and a substantial financial buffer until the end of 2025.

Other positives will come through increased foreign direct investment, notably from the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund allocated $3bn for Iraqi investments last year, while Qatar’s Estithmar signed a series of memorandums of understanding worth $7bn in June 2023, covering hotel, real estate and healthcare projects.

Banking reform

One area of focus for the government is its banking sector, which remains underdeveloped and largely unfit for purpose, dominated by state-owned banks with opaque finances.

As Aysegul Ozgur, head of research at Iraq-focused Rabee Securities, says, 93.7% of currency issued was outside banks in Iraq at the end of 2022.

But, says Ozgur, the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) is looking to strengthen financial inclusion and increase the cash inside the financial system through a series of projects.

“The salary domiciliation project of 2017 is the most prominent one among them, aiming for public sector employees to transfer their salaries to bank accounts by enabling them to receive and withdraw salaries easily through available payment channels (bank branches, ATMs and POS) and providing the ability to obtain credit facilities and bank loans by showing their salaries as collateral,” she says.

A number of other developments underscore the CBI’s concerted efforts to modernise Iraq’s financial landscape and promote economic stability.

“As a measure to control the FX flow into the banking system, the CBI now allows a limited number of banks to participate in the CBI foreign currency window and engage in US dollar transactions,” says Ozgur. “Due to the restricted number of banks permitted to engage in such activities, they benefit from an expanded market share in US dollar transactions.”

The Central Bank has also moved towards tougher oversight of the country’s 61 commercial banking institutions, made up of 54 private banks and seven state banks.

Since the CBI revised the guidelines for foreign currency transactions across borders to curb illicit financial flows in February 2023, says Ozgur, the banks that have direct correspondent banking relationships have played an active role in international money transfers and increased their commission and FX income significantly.

“The outstanding growth in current account deposits with these transfers resulted in significant growth in assets. Bank of Baghdad, National Bank of Iraq and Al-Mansour Bank are among the banks benefiting the most from these developments due to having direct correspondent banking relationships,” says Ozgur.

In February 2024, eight local commercial banks were banned from engaging in US dollar transactions, in a move to reduce fraud, money laundering and other illegal uses of the greenback. This followed a visit to Baghdad by a senior US Treasury official to Baghdad.

Such moves should, over time, help restore confidence in the financial system and – crucially – help build local insinuations that are credible players in the local economy, able to facilitate Iraq’s private sector growth ambitions, whether domestically or as part of the Iraq Development Road projects.

Al Sudani struggles to maintain Iraq’s political stability

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James Gavin
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