More on the falling rial
I have not been able to write much on this blog because I have been trying to catch up on my research. But the rial troubles in the last two weeks have been impossible to ignore. I am not a macro economist, but some of what the media was reporting about the freefall of the rial even I knew was over-sensationalized — hyperinflation, economic collapse… and one Iranian BBC reporter said he had run out of words to describe it! Yesterday I tried to explain on the lobelog three things.
First, there is a difference between the rate in the parallel market and the average rate of exchange for the country because of the multiple exchange rate system. Second, the sharp rise in the value of foreign currencies in the parallel market was not a classic run on Iran’s currency, but rather caused by reduced infusion of currency into the parallel or free market. Third, Iran’s economy is not on the verge of collapse, as some people were saying (or hoping). In short, I tried to define the currency crisis in Iran in its own terms rather than the textbook cases from East Asia or Zimbabwe that immediately come to mind. The one factor that explains most of the difference is oil, which means that the supply of foreign exchange is not in diverse hands but concentrated in the hands of the government. While many people maybe buying and selling dollars at 35,000 rials, the government can decide to sell its dollars at a lower rate.
Admittedly, the situation in Tehran is both confusing and shrouded in secrecy– for understandable reasons –and I do not claim to fully understand what is going on between oil exports, frozen and unfrozen Central Bank of Iran (CBI) accounts abroad, and rupees and yuans. But some reporters I talked to in the last few days did not know that Iran had a multiple exchange rate system, or that currency crises in oil exporting countries are different from those in which private sector earns the bulk of the foreign exchange. So, it seemed there was reason to say something.
With its diminished oil revenues the government can still shield large sections of the economy from the adverse impact of large devaluations in the the parallel market. The import classification system put into place last December was precisely for that. I do not know how much of the CBI forex goes to basic goods, how much to the Exchange Center, and how much, if any, to the parallel market. My guess is that, for obvious reasons, this market is not near the top of the list CBI priorities for cash infusion. I am not sure if any central bank faced with the same difficulties would use its foreign currency to calm a currency market gripped by fears stemming from tightening sanctions, even war. Any politician who decides otherwise would have to answer to voters (or people in the streets) when the country runs out of foreign exchange for essential imports.
In my view, given the sanctions and the emergency conditions that the country faces, the decline in the value of the rial in the parallel market is not at all surprising It should be no more a source of shock or surprise to see high ticket prices outside sports or entertainment events, especially when the quality of the event is uncertain beforehand. There are people who believe that scalpers should not be allowed to buy and sell concert tickets, and there are those who believe that such trades at the curb even at very high prices have their place. I happen to belong to the latter group. However, I fear that with the hoopla over the “rial’s collapse,” the government may run out of patience with the free market and send it underground. That would be unfortunate.
Some readers of my Lobelog post thought that it painted an overly optimistic picture of the situation. I had said that the currency crisis did not amount to economic collapse. It is also true that, as a matter of habit, I did not discuss conspiracy theories (which I rarely believe), such as those that would blame the government for creating this mess on purpose in order to make more rials, or those that blame a few ringleaders for corrupting the system. (But, as they say, just because you are paranoid it does not mean that they are not out to get you!)
Sanctions are not a game. They are designed to inflict pain on the people of the country they are imposed on, and as we have seen they are doing just that in Iran, and not all social strata feel the pain at the same rate. Iran’s government is in a position to decide who gets hurt more and who get off with less pain. For example, it has decided that keeping chicken production going is more important than paying the tuition of thousands of students abroad. That is a choice that many would disagree with, but to say that it makes sense from the point of view of Iran’s government is not to minimize the gravity of the situation or the level of pain on those who lose more than others. If the economy has not collapsed, economic growth has and with it the hopes of young people for finding a job and setting up new families.