More pain for more gain for Egypt

7 February 2024

This package on Egypt also includes:

UK and Egypt sign infrastructure agreement
Familiar realities threaten Egypt’s energy hub ambitions
Egypt nears fresh loan agreement with IMF
ADQ and Adnec invest in Egypt hospitality group
Egypt’s President El Sisi secures third term
> Egypt 2024 country profile and databank 


 

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi might have hoped for a honeymoon period after his resounding election win in December, but has enjoyed not a bit of it.

Egypt started 2024 with an economic crisis gaining in intensity, with events in the Red Sea – sharply reducing traffic through the Suez Canal – compounding other challenges, including a foreign currency (FX) shortage, a depreciating pound on the parallel market and rising inflation.

The president’s words on 24 January were ominous: “Egyptians need to live with economic pain,” he said, indicating that 2024 would be a tough year.

With Egypt’s economic crisis worsening by the week, the siren calls for a support package from the Washington-based IMF have grown ever louder. Expectations are high that a new and larger extended fund facility (EFF) is imminent, with IMF officials visiting Cairo in January to hammer out a deal.

Analysts have suggested the EFF – initially set at $3.9bn – could now be as high as $10bn-$12bn. This increase reflects the desperate situation that Egypt is in.

It is also a sign that Egypt still has a few cards left up its sleeve – not least amid the current crisis in the Middle East that has left it playing a vital role, however ineffectually, as the main conduit for aid deliveries into Gaza.

The Red Sea crisis and the desire to keep a dependable security partner in the region afloat are also factors.

“There is a bit more political willingness to support Egypt than a year ago,” says James Swanston, Middle East and North Africa economist at Capital Economics.

Economic precipice

The immediate backdrop to the renewed EFF negotiations is the sharp deterioration in the value of the pound after a bad 2023 that saw the official rate depreciate by 25% against the dollar.

By the end of January, the pound was trading at £E68-£E70 to the dollar, more than double the official rate of nearly £E30.9 to the dollar. Although the announcement of an imminent deal with the IMF in early February led the pound to rally to £E55 to the dollar on 4 February.

The fiscal headwinds are nevertheless increasingly fierce in 2024. With about 60% of its revenues absorbed by interest payments, according to ratings agency Moody’s, the government has very limited fiscal headroom to respond to such shocks. Cairo’s dilemma is that even if the EFF is raised to the upper limit of $12bn, it will only partially cover its financing needs.

Meanwhile, ratings agencies have been busy downgrading the sovereign. Fitch Ratings cut Egypt’s long-term foreign currency rating to B- from B, with a stable outlook, in November, reflecting its perception of heightened risks to Egypt’s external financing, macroeconomic stability and the trajectory of already-high government debt.

The slow progress on reforms, including the delay in the transition to a more flexible exchange rate regime, has damaged the credibility of exchange rate policy and exacerbated external financing constraints at a time of increasing external government debt repayments, said Fitch.

External financing stresses influenced the downgrading of Egypt, says Paul Gamble, director of the sovereign group at Fitch Ratings.

“There are FX challenges becoming apparent and also concerns over the availability of foreign currency. There are significant black-market transactions and FX shortages, signalling that downward pressures on the currency have increased, and the path to policy adjustment has become more complicated, at a time of high external debt repayments.”

One particular challenge facing Egypt is that Egyptian expatriate remission inflows from the Gulf states have declined, with many getting a better deal on the parallel market than through official channels.

Then there are the Suez Canal revenues, which government officials say fell by 44% in January compared to the same month in 2023.

“The revenue collections from the Suez Canal are a very stable source of income for Egypt, so the fact that they have been hit is a bit of a concern,” says Gamble.

“The impact on investor sentiment and the parallel market rates could further complicate the transition to a more flexible exchange rate. On the other hand, the IMF is talking about upsizing its assistance programme, and Egypt is getting more bilateral attention.”

Next steps forward

Assuming the EFF is finalised, attention will then switch to what comes next.

The strings attached to that package will be substantial, incurring both political and economic costs.

Fiscal policy will see more stringency, with sharp cutbacks on spending. Major projects may lose some support. Yet, while these projects are important for job prospects in Egypt, the IMF’s message is to keep fiscal policy tight for now. 

More stringency on the privatisation drive is also on the menu. Under the country’s divestment programme for state-owned enterprises (SOEs), speculators suggest that up to 150 SOEs may be sold off. However, political sensitivities over the military’s footprint in many of these assets mean delays are possible.

The most important thing in the near term is dealing with the pound, which was in virtual free fall at the end of January, forcing banks to install limits on FX transactions.

According to Capital Economics, if a staff-level agreement is announced, the central bank would move swiftly to devalue the pound by an initial 23%, to £E40 to the dollar, before allowing it to freely float.

“We feel [a rate of £E40-£E43 to the dollar] is a natural level, and it should not result in a fresh inflationary spike, but rather, inflation will fall at a slower rate,” says Swanston.

It was suggested that this could coincide with a sharp hike in interest rates of at least 300 basis points (bps), to 22.25%, and indeed, on 1 February, the central bank went ahead with this, raising the deposit rate to 21.25% and the lending rate to 22.25%.

That said, higher-for-longer prices and a 300bps interest hike will be painful for businesses to absorb, while a weaker pound will also make imports more expensive. 

Yet, for all the doom and gloom, there are some green shoots. Egypt’s GDP growth is stable, with Capital Economics forecasting GDP growth of 3.5% in 2024-25.  

Tourism – a valuable source of hard currency – is another recent bright spot, with arrivals to Egypt rising 9% in year-on-year terms during the first 19 days of 2024.

Egypt’s tourism numbers, spiking at approximately eight times higher than the global tourism rate of 4.5%, have been pivotal in stimulating overall growth, says property consultancy JLL. Between January and October 2023, Egypt registered about 13.9 million tourist arrivals, almost 36% higher compared to the same period last year.

“This is the medicine [the country] needs to take to lay the foundations for unlocking the economy’s potential in coming years,” says Swanston.

“They have a couple of years of slow economic growth, but if you have got an orthodox policymaking framework with a flexible exchange rate, and you bring the debt ratio down, you can start going about actually taking advantage of very good demographics of a young population.” 

There will be much pain in the interim. But the consensus is that staying the course will lead to better days.

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James Gavin
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