Confronting failure, Iran government mulls new currency policy

Bourse and Bazaar | Maziar Motamedi: Despite mounting evidence that the Iranian government’s policy of allocating subsidized foreign currency for the importation of essential goods has failed, the Rouhani administration has signaled that it plans to maintain the policy for at least another year. But lawmakers and Rouhani’s own cabinet ministers may force the administration to change course.

On March 2, Iran’s parliament approved the allocation of USD 14 billion in oil export revenues for the import of essential goods, including food and medicine, during the upcoming Iranian year (beginning March 20). In doing so, MPs gave the green light for the Rouhani administration to continue to make foreign exchange available to importers of essential goods at the subsidized rate of IRR 42,000 to the dollar.

However, lawmakers also encouraged the government to consider an alternative approach that would require essential goods importers to purchase foreign exchange at the IRR 90,000 rate available on the centralized NIMA marketplace. The government would then redirect the savings from the elimination of the currency subsidy towards programs that directly assist Iranian consumers and manufacturers.

Despite the nudge from parliament to consider a new approach, it appears that the administration is intent on maintaining the subsidy for at least another year. The head of the Management and Planning Organization, Mohammad Baqer Nobakht, confirmed this to be the administration’s position in an interview just prior to the parliamentary vote.

The Rouhani government “unified” the country’s dual foreign exchange rates at IRR 42,000 to the dollar in early April as the rial hit new lows due to political uncertainty surrounding Iran’s nuclear deal and the possible reimposition of sanctions by the United States. The foreign exchange rates diverged again shortly thereafter, but the Rouhani administration has persisted in using the “unified” fixed rate for the importation of essential goods.

Rouhani recently claimed that he personally disagreed with the fixed rate when it was first proposed and only consented to rate unification after dozens of top economists backed the move. His administration has since maintained that the allocation of subsidized foreign exchange continues to be the best policy to stabilize prices of essential goods.

Meanwhile, high levels of inflation have dimmed prospects for Iran’s middle and lower classes. The Iranian public has felt the pressure of price hikes, and essential goods have not been spared, despite Rouhani promising otherwise on national television.

Beyond the lived experience of Iranians, new research has also cast doubt on the effectiveness of subsidization. On February 22, the Parliament Research Center published its findings of the government subsidized currency allocation policy. According to the PRC, the price of essential goods as a category increased by 42 percent during the first three quarters of the current Iranian year that ended on December 21.

By comparison, the price of imported goods not eligible for the subsidized rate increased 73 percent in the same period. However, the consumer price index increased by nearly 40 percent, meaning that the increase in the price of essential goods still outpaced general inflation by a significant margin. The question for policymakers is whether this minimal impact on the price of essential imports is worth the many adverse side effects for the wider economy.

At time when Iran’s foreign exchange revenues are being squeezed by  the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy, the Iranian government cannot afford to misallocate USD 14 billion in oil revenue to a subsidization program that may serve to increase corruption and rent-seeking.

Iran’s central bank governor Abdolnasser Hemmati also admitted as much in a frank statement. “In effect, allocating subsidized currency to essential goods has failed to prevent their price hikes in the medium term due to the nature of market in the economy and the weakness of the distribution and supervision systems,” he wrote in a March 9 Instagram post. “Therefore, in most cases the subsidies have gradually moved away from consumers and benefited importers.” Hemmati signaled that a change in the policy may be in order by stating the government will “make the best decision.”

Economy minister Farhad Dejpasand later echoed Hemmati’s view, stating that “The government is currently studying several policies, and we definitely will adopt an approach to minimize the pressure on the poorest sections of society.

“Based on competitive open market principles, any fixed rates that diverge from the open market rate, such as the subsidized IRR 42,000 dollar exchange rate, are a mistake,” Mohammad Mahidashti, a macroeconomic analyst currently serving as an advisor at Iran’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance told Bourse & Bazaar.

“There is simply no positive aspect in this subsidized currency allocation by the government, perhaps save for giving it a justification and a populist slogan to show that the administration is trying to decrease prices of essential goods,” he said.

Mahidashti believes the way forward is for the government to cut its losses as soon as possible by eliminating the subsidized rate and moving toward true rate unification, which he considers both doable and absolutely necessary.

Indeed, the PRC report also called on the Rouhani administration to either fully eliminate subsidized currency allocation or significantly trim the list of essential goods eligible to receive cheap currency. Even in the event of choosing the second route, the parliamentary think-tank said the subsidized rate must be higher and the IRR 42,000 rate is no longer justifiable.

Iran’s private sector, which has for years called for true rate unification would surely embrace such a move. Shortly after Hemmati’s admission of the failure of the subsidized foreign exchange policy, deputy president of the Iran Chamber of Commerce Pedram Soltani welcomed the announcement as a sign that things may be changing. He tweeted, “Subsidized currency is the source of rent and misuse. Let’s stop the flow!”