The tipping point

After months resisting the pressure, the Syrian pound dived in January against the United States dollar and other international currencies, forcing the central bank to announce that it would begin a managed float of its currency in a dramatic departure from a five-decade-old policy of strictly regulating foreign exchange transactions.

While the American dollar traded at around 60 pounds in black market dealings at the end of December, it quickly rose to 63 pounds in the first days of the year before crossing the 70 pound mark by mid-January. Since the beginning of the popular uprising in March 2011, Syrian analysts have been predicting the collapse of the national currency. However, contrary to the most pessimistic projections, the pound managed to stand its ground for months, falling to only 51 pounds per dollar in August, five months after the beginning of the protests — a decline of roughly 8 percent relative to its pre-crisis level of 47 pounds.

The relative strength of the currency for this extended period of time was a consequence of a number of factors including an aggressive strategy by the central bank, which by August had reportedly spent some $2 billion, or 10 percent of its foreign reserves, to defend its currency. Other factors were sensible policy choices by the bank, including a rise in interest rates and restrictions on the sale of foreign exchange by money traders, as well as a decline in imports resulting from a strong contraction in investment and spending, which partly helped offset the decline in export earnings. Still, the last weeks of 2011 saw a rapid increase in the rate of decline. The combined impact of the general downturn in business, poor economic policy and international sanctions had taken its toll on the currency. Another key factor was likely the beginning of the application of the European Union embargo on oil exports in November. Indeed, oil revenues made up in 2010 some 20 percent of Syria’s total foreign currency earnings and a much larger share of the government’s export revenues.

One other factor, however, also explains the rapid deterioration witnessed at the beginning of this year. In an interview on Syrian TV early January, Minister of Economy Nidal al-Shaar said that the government’s priority was to “preserve the country’s foreign reserves and not to defend the currency.” These few words alone may have triggered the rush to the greenback.

By declining to go too far in the defense of the currency, Shaar was echoing the advice of many economic analysts: if the international value of the pound must be defended, it must not be done at any cost — i.e. at the expense of the foreign currency assets.

Indeed, Syria’s foreign reserves, painfully accumulated during the country’s short oil boom of the 1990s, will be almost impossible to recover once they are spent, given that Syrian oil fields have been largely depleted, while by selling its foreign assets now the government would be mortgaging the country’s future.

Also, in spite of the serious consequences it will have on the purchasing power of the population, already largely dented by decades of poor growth, the devaluation of the pound can provide new opportunities for Syrian exporters and make local manufacturers better able to compete with imports. Finally, the fall in the value of the currency is a natural consequence of the political stalemate and of the economic crisis faced by the country, and in a certain sense more accurately reflects the real status of the economy.

By deciding to partially float the currency, the central bank may ease the supply of foreign currencies in the market and help reduce pressure on the pound. However, there is little doubt the fall in the value of their currency will have a serious psychological impact on Syrians. Indeed, the majority of them still remember the dark days of the 1980s when a serious economic and foreign currency crisis led, in less than two years, to a precipitous decline in the value of the pound from 3 pounds to 50 pounds per dollar.

The period marked the beginning of the end for Syria’s middle class. Twenty-five years later, the Syrian population is helplessly taking a second hit and wondering how difficult the years ahead will be.

 

Note: This article appeared first in the February 2012 edition of Executive Magazine

No End in Sight to Syria’s Economic Woes

The Syrian economy did not collapse in 2011, as many, including the Syrian president himself, had predicted, but it has suffered tremendously from the flight of investors, the reluctance of households to spend, a dismal economic policy and international sanctions.

When the protests began in mid-March in Daraa, a city at the center of a neglected agricultural plateau, and then spread to the suburbs of Damascus and to other areas that have experienced economic and social difficulties during the last three decades, the government thought it had understood the motives of the revolt and that it had a ready solution.

THE GOVERNMENT’S DISMAL ECONOMIC MANAGEMENT

Within days of the protests the government announced an increase in salaries and in state subsidies on heating oil as well as the removal of several key figures associated with the liberal economic policy of the past few years. The extent of these “concessions” was substantial: the salaries of civil servants were increased by 20 to 30 percent – in a country where about a quarter of the working force is employed by the state – and the price of heating oil was decreased by 25 percent, although, only a few weeks earlier, the government had deemed its policy of subsiding energy products “unsustainable.”

These announcements had very little impact on the dynamics of the protests, which continued unabated. Protesters in fact reacted angrily; while they had taken to the streets to demand an end to the impunity and corruption of state officials, the government was effectively trying to bribe them! On March 25, a day after the president’s political and media advisor Bouthaina Shaaban announced these decisions, protesters in Daraa chanted: “Oh Bouthaina Shaaban, the people are not hungry (in Arabic the word for hungry – jou’an – rhymes with Shaaban), the people want freedom.”

During the next few months a string of other measures was adopted to appease the regime’s various constituencies. Farmers benefitted from an increase in the procurement prices of those agricultural products they sell to the government, a rescheduling of their debt repayments and the establishment of a fund to help them cope with drought affected areas. University students were given loans and new faculties were opened in remote areas. A fund was established to finance the development of informal housing areas in Damascus and Aleppo, and import tariffs and a consumption tax on key food items were reduced. An increase in the price of fuel oil used by manufacturers was also postponed.

While these measures helped reduce the daily hardship of large segments of the population, the disadvantage was that they increased the fiscal deficit and contradicted the long-term economic policies of previous years. As the year drew to a close, the government seemed to realize that it had gone too far and decided to reduce all overhead public expenses, except salaries, by 25 percent. However, any further measures like, for example, a complete reversal, would now be tantamount to political suicide.

By deciding to rapidly and extensively increase its financial expenditures, the government also demonstrated that its economic decisions were based on a political agenda and the result of panicked reaction, instead of a rational analysis of the economic situation.

After decades during which the Syrian economy was centrally planned, the government adopted in 2005 a “social market” development model in which the state was asked to focus its efforts on social services and infrastructure, while the private sector was to be given more leeway to operate. The debate over the role and size of the state in the economy seemed to have been finally settled, and the government appeared to have a clear road map in spite of its many shortcomings and justified criticism levelled against it.

But now things are much less clear and the government’s unfortunate economic measures created a deep distrust towards it within the business community, which realized very early on that the authorities had no clear plan to fix the dire economic situation.

Thus it is not surprising that from the very beginning of the protests, investors, already afraid of the consequences of the unrest, withdrew from the market. At the end of June for instance, the Syrian Investment Agency reported a 43 percent annual decline in the number of projects it had licensed. The other few indicators available showed a similar trend, although the overall decline can be attributed more to the general economic downturn and lack of confidence in the economy than to government policies. For example, the assets of Syria’s private banks fell by 15 percent on average in the first nine months of 2011, traffic at the country’s two maritime ports fell by some 10 percent during the same period, while traders and retailers reported double digit declines in their turnovers.

INTERNATIONAL SANCTIONS

Although sanctions adopted by a part of the international community (most importantly the Arab League, Turkey, the EU, and the USA, as well as Canada, Switzerland, Japan, and Australia) only added to Syria’s woes, their overall impact on the economy and on the government’s margin of manoeuvre remained limited by the end of 2011.

The import ban imposed on the oil sector by the European Union is probably the most significant of these measures. Syria’s oil sector is a major contributor to the national Gross Domestic Product, to fiscal revenues and to foreign currency earnings. Thus, the closure of a market that represents 90 percent of all crude export is of serious concern to the Syrian authorities. The additional ban imposed on the transport, financing and insurance of oil exports also makes finding new markets extremely difficult.

The ministry of oil announced in December that the country’s oil output had declined from 387,000 barrels a day (b/d) of crude oil before the sanctions to 270,000 barrels. This decline by a third corresponds to most of the country’s oil exports, which were estimated at some 150,000 b/d before the sanctions, which means that the country’s oil exports are now down to around 30,000 b/d with no clear prospect of returning to previous levels anytime soon.

The lack of revenues from oil exports poses a serious threat to foreign currency earnings, which have already been very affected by the absence of tourists and the withdrawal of foreign investors.

In contrast to the oil sector, which the government controls entirely, the severe restrictions on US dollar transactions imposed by the United States government have had an impact on broad segments of society. The Syrian government, businessmen and individuals alike have been affected. The fact that the Euro can still be used enables many transactions to continue to take place, but there is no doubt that financial relations with the outside world have been seriously disrupted.

The impact of the asset freeze on a long list of Syrian entities and individuals – on whom travel bans were also imposed – is more difficult to assess. While initially many had doubts over their efficacy as most of the listed individuals are believed to have foreign accounts held under the names of middlemen, the combined impact of these measures by most Western countries and the Arab League has created a sense of encroachment. It is not entirely a coincidence that the Arab League plan to send monitors to the country was accepted by the government after the imposition of sanctions by Arab countries and that the lifting of these sanctions was initially among the main demands of the government for it to accept the monitors.

However, the idea of imposing sanctions has been a controversial one for many Syrian analysts, including members of the opposition. While proponents of the sanctions have encouraged the export ban on crude oil “because oil export revenues directly enter the pockets of the government” as they say, one can argue that many expenses also “come out directly from the pockets of the government!” Civil servants salaries, subsidies, health care centers and schools catering to the overwhelming part of the population are covered by the government. If it were to make cuts in public sector expenses, would it prioritize the security services or social services?

If a quick end to the crisis engulfing the country was clearer, the impact of these sanctions would be limited; if not, the consequences could be dire for the people.

The plight of the Iraqi people is still in the minds of many Syrians. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria in the last decade not only because of the violence in Iraq, but also because twelve years of international sanctions destroyed the Iraqi economy, physical infrastructure and social fabric.

PROSPECTS FOR 2012

While violence and general unrest affected large parts of the country since the beginning of the protests, people began to feel the pain of the economic downturn on a large scale only towards the end of the year.

There are now daily power cuts across Syria, with up to 3 hours a day in central districts of Damascus and much longer ones in the rest of the country. Cooking gas is extremely difficult to find, while heating oil is being sold on the black market at twice the government-set price. These difficulties are caused by many factors, including lower government revenues, the disruption of supply lines following attacks on pipelines, corruption, smuggling, and international sanctions.

How these difficulties will affect the political scene and the popular revolt gripping the country is difficult to assess. Although the growing number of unemployed people may be tempted to take to the streets and join protesters, the reactions of the population remain largely shaped by the evolving political events rather than by the daily economic difficulties.

The attitude of investors is also being closely watched. The lack of large protests in the central parts of Aleppo and Damascus, the country’s two largest cities and economic powerhouses, has been widely attributed to the continued support of the business community for the authorities.

However, the picture is much more nuanced and in reality many members of the business community deserted the authorities very early on. In July, for instance, the Deir-ez-Zor Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in Syria’s eastern region, issued a formal statement harshly condemning the conduct of the security services in the city. Across much of the country, where the strongest protests have taken place, businessmen have generally followed calls for strikes and other forms of civil disobedience and many are also believed to be actively financing the uprising.

Two indicators to watch in the coming weeks and months will be the movements of the foreign value of the Syrian pound and the rate of inflation. Contrary to the expectations of many, the government had managed until the end of last year to maintain a grip over them. Retail prices for most basic commodities remained largely under control, while the Central Bank of Syria had managed to limit the loss in value of the Syrian national currency. In black market transactions the Syrian pound was trading at the end of the year at a value depreciated by 25 percent from its pre-March level compared to the US dollar – the decline was not insignificant but nowhere close to a crisis.

The reasons for the strength of these two indicators for most of last year are difficult to discern. Low inflation was probably caused by a strong reduction in spending by Syrian households who prefer to hoard their savings, good crops that have kept the price of food items low and the reduction in customs tariffs and consumption tax rates on a wide range of products.

The relative strength of the Syrian pound is more difficult to explain as there is no data from the Central Bank on the extent of its involvement in the currency market or on the size of its foreign assets. Some have argued that Iraq and Iran are funding the Syrian government and pouring billions into the Central Bank’s account but there is little hard evidence so far to back these claims.

In the first month of 2012 things began to change. The pound lost another 15 percent by the end of January, leading to a spike in retail prices.

The coming weeks will probably be decisive with regards to the ability of the economy to sustain increasing pressures, although the total absence of official data – itself an indication that things are not going as well as the government would like us to believe – makes it extremely difficult to provide a clear forecast.

The major factor weighing on the country’s future prospects is the lack of any serious political initiative by the Syrian authorities to solve the economic and political crisis. Until then it will be difficult to foresee an end to economic distress and the chance of a recovery.

Note: This article appeared first in February 2012 in Perspectives, a publication by the Middle East office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation