Bourse and Bazaar | Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Europe has yet to launch its special purpose vehicle (SPV) to support trade with Iran and while Iranian stakeholders grow increasingly impatient, some have begun to question the likely impact of the new mechanism. The chief complaint is that the initial SPV, if limited to humanitarian trade, will not have a meaningful economic impact for Iran, which had sought to maintain oil exports to Europe in the face of US sanctions.
As recently argued in a joint report from Bourse & Bazaar and the European Leadership Network, the creation of a humanitarian SPV (H-SPV) has important advantages from the standpoint of protecting the new trade mechanism from interference by the United States. A focus on non-sanctionable trade will enable Europe and Iran to develop a more robust mechanism that delivers practical value for businesses. When a truly useful mechanism has been devised, subsequent SPVs can be established to facilitate what the United States considers sanctionable trade.
Nonetheless, in order to be welcomed by a broad spectrum of Iran’s political and business establishment, the initial SPV, especially if limited to non-sanctionable trade, must demonstrate a positive impact on Iran’s economy in the near term. An examination of the nature of Europe-Iran trade and the impact of this trade on Iran’s currency markets, suggests that the SPV could have a significant and stabilizing impact on Iran’s economy by helping to fight runaway inflation, the foremost economic challenge facing Iran’s leadership.
Trade Deficits and Inflation
Since early 2018, Iran has been struggling to contain rising inflation exacerbated by rapid currency devaluation. Rising costs of imports have impacted the costs of goods in the consumer basket. The year-on-year increase in the consumer price index in Aban (October 23 – November 22), the most recent period for which data is available, was 39.9 percent. This increase was driven by year-on-year rises in categories including food and beverages (59.9 percent), tobacco (150.8 percent), clothing and footwear (48.5 percent), and furnishings and household goods (83.1 percent). The increase in the health category, which includes medicine, was a significant 19.6 percent.
These categories represent the daily needs of Iran’s households. They are also, broadly speaking, goods which do not fall under the restrictions of US secondary sanctions. Not only are the goods themselves not sanctioned, but the larger role of the private sector within the food, pharmaceutical, and FMCG sectors in Iran means that the Iranian corporate entities active in these sectors are typically not subject to secondary sanctions. On this basis, a humanitarian SPV which would focus on non-sanctionable trade, would be well-suited to support Europe-Iran trade related to these elements of the consumer basket.
While Iran does manufacture many of these goods domestically, overall consumption still relies on a significant volume of imports of food and medicine, with the European Union (EU) the most important trading partner. Even the domestically produced products rely on imports of raw materials which mainly originate in the EU. In 2017, the most recent full year of trade without sanctions, Iran faced a trade deficit with Europe of just under EUR 1 in the food and beverage, medicine, clothing and footwear, and furniture categories, based on imports of EUR 1.3 billion and exports of approximately EUR 300 million. Importantly, this figure does not include Iranian imports from Switzerland, a major source of pharmaceutical products with about as much export volume as Germany. But given that the SPV is an EU undertaking, and given that the Swiss are working on a separate banking channel to support their humanitarian trade with Iran, it can be kept separate for the purposes of this analysis.
Beyond humanitarian goods, Iran has typically run a trade deficit of about EUR 1 billion with Europe, even in those years that Iran has been able to export significant volumes of oil to European buyers. The trade imbalance with the EU has a direct impact on inflationary pressures in three areas. First, the euro is a strong currency and the rapid devaluation of the rial has made imports considerably more expensive over the last year. Second, purchasing European goods generally involves higher transaction costs for Iranian importers related to the restrictions on banking channels between Europe and Iran. Finally, Europe is the only source for a number of imports, particularly medicines, meaning that a fall in exports will have a direct and often unmitigable impact on available supply in Iran, pushing prices higher and creating black markets for some specialized medicine. All three phenomena can be seen in the Iranian market today.
There are other indirect drivers as well. As is common for countries at the same level of development, Iran’s process of industrialization is import-intensive. New technologies are acquired to produce a wider range of foods, medicines, and consumer goods domestically, often in accordance with licenses for European formulations or technology. Iran imported EUR 5.5 billion in industrial machinery and equipment in 2017 in order to support domestic industrial capacity. When this equipment or the relevant services, spare parts and training are unavailable, it has a knock-on effect on manufacturing output, available supply, and the market price for consumers.
On one hand, the fall of Iranian imports of European machinery from their 20-year high of over EUR 8 billion in 2004, suggests that Iran is increasingly sourcing such machinery from other markets, especially China. But, Europe retains a technological advantage over China for the manufacturing of food and medicine and the most popular brands in Iran in these categories are often European brands or formulations. This means that substitutions cannot be easily made for the equipment necessary in the domestic production of these goods. Moreover, Iran also relies on European technology for the storage and distribution of food and medicine across the supply chain.
The SPV Intervention
Given these challenges, the appeal of Europe’s SPV, if properly operationalized, is clear. The SPV can help alleviate inflationary pressures by empowering European and Iranian policymakers to better manage foreign exchange risks, reduce transaction costs, and address the trade deficit, particularly around key items within the consumer basket.
First, in the area of foreign exchange, the SPV could reduce pressure on the Central Bank of Iran to source and allocate euros for importers of so-called “essential goods.” Presently, delays in the allocation of foreign exchange are leading to payment issues on the part of Iranian importers of both food commodities and pharmaceuticals. In one manifestation of these delays, cargo ships are remaining anchored off of Iran’s coast for as many as sixty days, incurring demurrage costs.
If the SPV oversees a ledger of trade between Europe and Iran, a role which some have compared with that of a “clearing house,” it would be able to coordinate a version of book transfers, which would enable Iranian importers to pay European exporters indirectly with the SPV coordinating a euro-denominated payment by a European importer on behalf of the Iranian importer. In turn, the Iranian importer would make a rial-denominated payment on behalf of the European importer to its counterparty in Iran (an exporter). Through such a mechanism, there would be no need for the Central Bank of Iran to source and allocate Euros for the purchase by the Iranian importer, as monies already in Europe would be used to make the payment. In this way, reducing demand for euro allocations among Iranian importers should help the CBI more effectively operate the NIMA system, its central marketplace for foreign exchange, thereby reducing the significant inflationary pressures arising from foreign exchange markets.
In a related fashion, the facilitation of book transfers by the SPV would also help eliminate the additional transaction costs currently incurred when arranging cross-border financial transactions between Europe and Iran. Due to the higher compliance risks associated with accepting Iranian-origin funds, the few European banks that do continue to transact with Iran impose fees on clients of up to three percent of the total transaction amount. Some routine and low-risk trade currently facilitated by the few correspondent banking channels that remain between Europe and Iran could be shifted to the SPV, reducing the compliance costs associated with cross-border transactions that can depress export volumes.
Finally, the SPV will only truly succeed if it is operationalized alongside an effort to shrink Iran’s approximate EUR 1 billion trade deficit with Europe in non-sanctionable goods by increasing Iran’s non-oil exports. To be clear, it is highly unlikely that the full volume of Europe-Iran trade will run through the SPV. Where possible, companies will certainly favor using normal channels, facilitating payments through the small number of European banks that will remain willing to process payments for humanitarian trade. Nonetheless, the fundamental problem faced by Iranian importers is access to the euros necessary to sustain purchases from Europe. In this case, in the absence of oil sales, foreign finance, or foreign direct investment, Iran’s exports to Europe will remain the only reliable source of euros for the Central Bank of Iran which is responsible for making foreign exchange available to Iranian importers.
A New Vision for Europe-Iran Trade
As such, it should be a primary goal of the SPV to increase the volume of European imports from Iran, helping to minimize the trade balance and increase the supply—and thereby reduce the cost—of Euros for Iranian importers. This may seem a difficult task. Iran’s manufacturing output is generally inferior in quality and higher in cost than that available from EU member states and from other countries with active trading relationships with the bloc.
But there are a few product categories where Iranian producers could regain or establish market share in Europe. In 2000, Iran exported EUR 316 million worth of “floor coverings” to Europe, a figure which primarily reflects the sale of traditional Persian wool rugs. By 2017, the sales amounted to just EUR 28 million. The collapse in Persian rug exports may reflect changing tastes among European consumers, as similar decreases can be seen for the same product category as exported by India, Pakistan, and China. An industry-led campaign to boost the popularity of Persian rugs among younger consumers could help reverse the trend.
Iran’s loss of market share in the export of key foodstuffs is harder to explain. European consumption of pistachios has exploded in the past 20 years, but the increase demand has been met by supply from the United States, the only other major producer of pistachios in the world. Iran lost its mantle as top exporter of pistachios to the EU in 2004. Had it captured just half of the growth in European imports since that date, pistachio exports would be around EUR 150 million higher.
Similarly, Iran’s exports of caviar to Europe have fallen from EUR 26 million in 2000 to just EUR 700,000 in 2017. In the same period, exports from the United States have risen from EUR 11 million to EUR 26 million. Exports from China have risen from less than EUR 500,000 to EUR 7 million. It is also notable that Iran’s export of shrimp to Europe has collapsed from EUR 40 million to EUR 2.7 million since 2000, despite the fact that Iran’s seafood industry remains healthy.
Altogether, by dramatically ceding market share, Iran has likely failed to realize around EUR 250 million of export potential in these categories. However, Iran’s growing exports of saffron, which have risen from EUR 24 million in 2000 to EUR 67 million in 2017, help illustrate that Iranian suppliers can achieve significant growth in the European market. This analysis does not account for the many categories of foodstuffs such as nuts and fruits where Iran’s exports to Europe remain very low, but where Iran ranks among the top global producers. Generally, Iran could become a reliable supplier of food ingredients and herbal medicine to Europe, but it will require an effort from both sides to facilitate the growth. Iran also exported just over EUR 30 million in pharmaceutical products to the EU in 2017—another potential area for growth. Organizing relevant delegations in both directions to expand commercial ties in these sectors would be an important step.
The non-oil trade deficit has been the subject of some attention among Iranian authorities. The National Development Fund of Iran, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, has a program to provide capital to Iranian commercial banks in order to fund loans for private sector export-oriented enterprises. Many of these projects are focused on agricultural production, where loans are used to implement new (often European) technology in order to increase the quality or quality of production while also creating jobs.
Nonetheless, the primary instinct for Iranian officials has been to try and reduce import demand. Recently, the government announced a measure to ban the advertisement of foreign products for which there exists a domestically manufactured equivalent. But given that demand for many imports will prove inelastic, a focus on boosting exports would be a far more prudent strategy for dealing with the trade deficit.
When looking to non-sanctionable goods and the current trade deficit of EUR 1 billion within this category, the possibility of boosting Iranian exports by EUR 250 million is significant from the standpoint of reducing pressure on foreign exchange markets. Add to this other intended improvements to the cost efficiency of trade, and it becomes clear how the forthcoming H-SPV could help Iran address some of the external drivers of inflation. Most importantly, this analysis shows that the launch of the SPV is not the end of an implementation process. It is just the first step in a much-needed reimagining of Europe-Iran trade relations and a process in which the EU can showcase its commitment to a working partnership with Iran.