Inflating Syria’s crisis

The Syrian government announced in June the imposition of new restrictions on private sector imports, a move that reflects the authorities’ growing nervousness as all economic and financial indicators are in the red.

In a decision issued on June 10, Syria’s Ministry of Economy and Trade required all traders to apply for an import license before conducting any import transaction. While this license already exists for many items, it is now extended to products that were exempted from it, such as food products and medicines. After obtaining their license, importers will also need to find their own source of financing and will no longer be able to rely on the Central Bank of Syria (CBS) to buy their foreign currencies. By increasing paperwork and making it more difficult for importers to access foreign exchange, the government hopes to slow or discourage impåorts.

At the same time, the ministry announced that it would use state-owned enterprises to import directly a list of key food items such as sugar, rice, tea, coffee and canned food. The ministry will import these items using foreign currencies purchased from the CBS at the official rate, which, in mid-June, stood at only half the black market value.

By importing certain products directly, the government hopes to solve two problems. First, by buying currencies at the CBS’s official rate, it reduces the cost of imports and therefore limits the rise in inflation. Moreover, it ends the practice of many importers who bought foreign currencies from the CBS only to sell them back on the black market and make a profit, instead of using them to finance their imports. The latest decision reflects the growing concern of the authorities over rising inflation, which is running in the triple-digits, and falling foreign currency holdings, which are estimated to have declined to less than $5 billion from $17 billion in March 2011. However, it is only one step further in a policy of curbing the level of imports that began almost two years ago.

In September 2011, the government banned the import of all products that had a customs tariff of 5 percent or more. The idea was to save foreign currencies that would otherwise be used to import “luxury products”, cars in particular. The outcry from the business community was such that the government was forced to reverse its decision 10 days later.

Then, in February 2012, customs tariffs on a long list of consumer products were increased to between 40 percent and 80 percent. The measure, which was officially justified by the need to protect local production and to slow demand for foreign currencies, buried for good the policy of trade liberalization that had begun when Bashar al-Assad came to power some 10 years earlier.

The opposition’s seizure of the north-east part of the country in the first quarter of this year contributed to an increasing sense of urgency in Damascus. The region is, indeed, the source of all the oil wealth of the country and of much of its agricultural resources.

As it is now unable to access these resources, the government is forced to turn to global markets to buy petroleum products and grain and, hence, use its foreign assets. The Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources recently said, for instance, that the government needs about $500 million per month to finance its oil purchases. The $6 billion needed for a year’s worth is more than the total estimated remaining foreign exchange reserves of the CBS.

The government is also trying to offset these pressures by relying increasingly on its political allies. In May the governor of the CBS announced that Iran had provided, or was preparing to provide, to Damascus a total of $7 billion in the form of concessionary loans and credit lines.

This growing political dependence and the rising economic pressures are having an impact on the national currency. The Syrian pound dropped in value from 150 pounds to the dollar at the end of May to 190 pounds on June 17. While this surge is partly the result of the announcement by the Obama administration that it intends to send arms to the opposition, it is symptomatic of the slow, and apparently irreversible, decline of the Syrian economy.

Note: This article appeared first in the July 2013 edition of Executive Magazine

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