by Djavad Salehi-Isfahani
The sharp drop in the value of the rial in the last two weeks has created much excitement in Iran and abroad, but mostly for the wrong reasons. In the parallel (or free) market for foreign currencies, the rial fell by 15% in one day this week, reaching its lowest value ever — 35,000 rials per US dollar — down by more than 50% compared to a month ago and 300% to last December when international sanctions tightened against Iran.
What all the related excitement overshadows is that this devaluation is not comparable to those in other countries where large devaluations caused severe shocks to the economy, such as those that swept through Asia in 1997-98. That’s because in those situations all prices were affected because all foreign exchange was traded at the same (rising) rate. This is not the case in Iran because nearly all foreign exchange is earned by the government, which has decided to sell most of it at a lower rate for the import of goods and services that it deems essential.
The rial devaluation that has created the media excitement is actually taking place in a narrow market that is shrinking in size and diminishing in importance. Iran’s Central Bank has classified a long list of goods into categories with priorities 1 through 10, leaving it to the parallel market to take of all other needs. Priorities 1 and 2 are food and medicine, receiving foreign exchange at the official rate of 12,260 rials per dollar, followed by other categories with lower priorities, which are mostly intermediate goods used in industrial production.
The government has been promising to do something for the import of these non-essential but important commodities, which account for about two-thirds of Iran’s imports, offering them some sort of preferential treatment. But the Central Bank was slow to respond and those producers who did not want to wait bought their currency needs in the parallel market, competing with speculators and people taking their money out of the country. The uncertainty about the sanctions, bewildering pronouncements from government officials in Iran, and hype over a possible Israeli attack, all combined to throw this market into chaos.
To protect Iran’s producers from what the government considers the consequences of “psychological war”, the Central Bank set up a “Currency Exchange Center” and invited licensed importers and exporters to trade their foreign currencies there, hoping that the auction rates reached there would be more stable and lower than the parallel market rate. When the Exchange Center opened just two weeks ago, the volume of transactions quickly jumped from $10 to $181 million per day, with most of the supply likely coming from the Central Bank. The Exchange Center diverted some of the supply of currency away from the parallel market, which I believe caused the rate there to soar.
Curiously, the Central Bank had predicted the opposite: that by arranging trade in the Exchange Center it would help lower the rate in the parallel market. This miscalculation added to the confusion and fear that the government did not know what it was doing. While the Exchange Center has produced a lower rate than the parallel market and can potentially shield producers from the worst psychological effects of sanctions and war, the shock to the parallel market has caused a serious political if not economic crisis for the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Does all this mean that Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse, as Israel’s Finance Minster reportedly said? The answer is no, because most of the economy is shielded from this exchange rate, though not from the ill effects of the sanctions, which will continue to bite for a while. Would it cause sufficient economic pain that would push the Iranian government to make concessions in its nuclear standoff with the West? The answer is not likely. The multiple exchange rate system, as inefficient as it is, will protect the people below the median income, to whom the Ahmadinejad government is most responsive.
But the government can ill afford to ignore millions of Iranians, mostly upper income Iranians, who are affected by the gyrations of the parallel market. Among them are millions of people who are seeking a safe place for their savings, parents who send money to their children for education abroad or need to travel there to see them. They are not all importers of luxury items or those who want to take their money out of Iran. In allocating its limited — perhaps shrinking supply of for foreign currency — the government has a difficult time balancing the needs of the lower middle class and the poor with those of upper income Iranians that it cannot rely on for political support.