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

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