Iran’s subsidy reform program of 2010 depended heavily on a monthly cash transfer for its social acceptance. About 450,000 rials per person has been paid to all Iranians every month since then without any condition, so people were free to do whatever they wanted with the money. We know little about what they actually did, but there is a sense in Iran that this was not the best way to redistribute the energy subsidies.
There is much talk of improving the targeting of the cash transfer program, but less motivated by a desire to improve its equity than by the desire to cut the program’s cost. The most talked about proposal is to limit payments to the poorer households only, for example, to the bottom 7 deciles. I have already warned in this blog that this is impractical, arguing that identification of people in the top three deciles is very difficult and likely not worth the cost. I believe that the same amount could be raised by some very practical measures, such as charging more for the gasoline sold to consumers in richer neighborhoods and with more expensive cars. (more…)
Ever since it took over the reigns of government in August, President Rouhani’s administration has been grappling with the challenge of closing the huge gap in the government budget that it has inherited from its predecessor, reportedly at about 800 trillion rials (about $33 billion) or more than one third of planned expenditures. This is no small challenge given the fact that half of the year is over and much of the expenditures have already taken place or been committed. So, to reduce the deficit the government has little choice but to raise revenue. Luckily, inflation started to slow down just before Rouhani took over and has stayed below the 20% annual rate for the last three months, down from twice that rate in previous months. The bad news is that the most praiseworthy of the Ahmadinejad programs, the subsidy reform, is in deep deficit. The program has other problems besides its revenue gap, but it is on life support and the chord will be cut unless this problem is taken care of. Good solutions are there, all involving further adjustment in prices, but to implement them the government needs to show courage. The idea that has been floating for some time to cut the payments to richer consumers is appealing but not practical.
Last week, in a post on the Lobelog.com I noted further signs of moderating inflation. Prices in the Iranian month of Dey (ending 20 January 2013) rose by 1.7%, compared to 2.5% the month before and 4.5% per month in the previous two months after devaluation. These are high rates of inflation on an annual basis (see chart below), but a sign that the Central Bank may have found a way to keep the growth of money supply below the rate of inflation. I was curious enough if this were the case to look up money supply data published by the Central Bank and here is what I found. For the quarter that ended on December 20, 2012, which covers the three month period after devaluation, the rate of growth of money supply was 20 percentage points below the rate of inflation. (more…)
The Central Bank of Iran has just released the Consumer Price Index for the month of Azar (ending on November 20, 2012), and it shows a much smaller increase in prices than the previous two months. The index rose by about 4.5% per month during the last two months (equal to 70% annually), but its pace moderated in Azar, rising by 2.5%. This is still a sizable increase (about 35% annually), but it may be a sign that the large devaluation of the rial during the last week of September has run its course and consumers maybe back in the territory that, unfortunately, they have come to regard as normal: prices rising by about 20% per year. This is, of course, conditional on no new shocks happening to the exchange rate or the money supply in the near future. (more…)
What is described as the second phase of Iran’s Targeted Subsidy Program appears to be on its way to implementation after the parliament approved to increase the size of the program to 660 trillion rials (about $54 billion using the official exchange rate), denying the government its request for a much larger program (1,350 trillion or $100 billion). The compromise allows the government to increase prices of subsidized goods and at the same time raise the monthly payment of cash to families by an as yet undetermined amount. Some reports suggested that the current cash rebate of 450,000 rials per person per month could increase by as much as one third for the remainder of this year, which ends on March 20, 2013. The timing of the second phase is unknown but there is no doubt that it will happen. Getting the parliament to authorize the second phase means that the subsidy reform program has passed a crucial test, all the more because the economy is under stress from the effects of past inflation, sanctions, and general macroeconomic mismanagement. The critics who wanted to stop the program on its tracks have had a field day in pinning various failures onto the reform program. For the time being they seem content with having slashed its extravagant proposed budget. (more…)
The anniversary of the subsidy reform, on December 20, 2011, arrived with fireworks, but not the kind the government had hoped for. In a day that President Ahmadinejad was addressing a conference of the first anniversary of the subsidy reform in Tehran, the rial fell by more than 5%, breaching the psychological 15,000 rials per dollar barrier. These two events are more than coincidentally connected. The rial has been weakened by the inflation unleashed by the subsidy reform, a cost of the reform that was both foreseen and justified. At the same time, the precipitous devaluation of the rial adds to uncertainty and macroeconomic instability that can undermine the subsidy reform. The real benefit from the reform derives from reduced demand for energy, which can only happen if households and firms are willing to change their behavior and invest in energy saving equipment, which in turn requires confidence that the post-reform energy prices will not be washed up in some cycle of inflation and devaluation. Remember, unsubsidized energy prices are equal their world prices multiplied by the exchange rate. With 15,000 rials to the dollar, gasoline (at 4000 or 7000 rials per liter) is 50% cheaper than it was a year ago when the new price was set, and is once again subsidized. (more…)
Cairo, June 14, 2011
This is my first trip to Cairo since the uprising that toppled the Mubarak regime. The airport was unusually quiet and all Mubarak pictures are gone, but otherwise there are few signs of a country that has just experienced its most dramatic social upheaval since the 1952 revolution. Egyptians like to think of the uprisings as Revolution (“al thawrah”) which in Arabic signifies deeper social change than “enghelab,” the word Iranians use for revolution. But what has transpired in Egypt’s first six months of “revolution” pales in comparison to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. There have been no executions or mass exodus of the rich, and not even an overhaul of the high echelons of the bureaucracy, as happened in Iran. Egypt’s judicial system has taken the lead in calling the members of the ancien regime to account. So far it is moving cautiously; only 45 individuals are currently in jail or standing trial for their alleged crimes, including Mubarak and his two sons. If the judiciary can satisfy popular demands for justice, Egypt has a good chance for a soft landing on this side of the uprisings, and its judicial system may emerge as a strong pillar of its future democracy. If it fails to do so, revolutionary justice may take over and all bets would be off about democracy and restoring the economy to its previously robust growth path. No one seems certain how Egypt’s revolution will end. As de Tocqueville has said, “in a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.” (more…)
The recent decision by the government to merge several ministries has ignited a fresh round of dispute between President Ahmadinejad and his conservative critics, but the controversy has been all about whether the president has the authority to merge ministries and very little has been said about the actual merits of the proposed mergers. It now seems clear that the Guardian Council and the Parliament will have their say on the merger (see this report in Persian), but in the highly politicized environment in Tehran, I doubt that the merits of the proposed reorganizations will get the attention they deserve. The stated objective — to cut down the size of the government — is unlikely to be realized beyond cutting the size of the cabinet. I am not aware of any downsizing dividend from the “dissolution” of the Management and Planning Organization two years ago. (Incidentally, that decision was made in a similar manner to these mergers, but at the time it was the reformers who questioned the government’s authority to change the line up of the ministries.) As far as I know, MPO’s bureaucracy is still in place. (more…)
The recent inflation data from Iran’s Central Bank is higher than expected and has the potential to undermine the country’s bold attempt at subsidy reform. The latest published monthly increase in prices of 3.4% for Esfand 1389 (21 February-20 March 2011) is nearly twice what was reported for the same month last year (1.8%), and 30% higher than for the previous month of Bahman. The widely reported “12.4% annual inflation rate” for the year, or the year-on-year average, is misleading because inflation has been accelerating in recent months. The monthly inflation rate has increased steadily from 1.5% in Azar, just before the subsidy reform went into effect, to 3.4% in Esfand. Even the much higher month-on-month (Esfand 1388 to Esfand 1389) increase of 19.9% in the price level underestimates the extent of inflationary pressures: the annualized rate (=(1+monthly rate)^12) has gone in one month from 34% in Bahman to 49% in Esfand. These numbers probably overestimate inflation because of rising Nowruz expenditures, but the fact that the monthly increase in the price level this year is twice what it was last year suggests strongly that the annual inflation rate has at least doubled in recent months, to over 20%. (more…)
This oped of mine on Iran’s subsidy reform appeared on the Brookings website on Thursday. Suzanne Maloney of Brookings also wrote a nice piece on the same program, viewing it as a possible solution to Iran’s economic problems, which is a fresh approach instead of the more usual view that we have come to expect from commentators in Iran and the West — as the harbinger of economic ruin. I think the program’s initial success to raise prices at one go without mass protests is noteworthy, and perhaps a model for other Middle Eastern countries to follow, but its overall success depends on two things: (a) whether consumers will use the cash rebate to pay their energy bills and buy local goods and services, like health and education, or spend it on luxuries imported from China, like LCD televisions; and (b) whether producers can manage to stay afloat, by hook or crook, without shutting down or laying off many workers, long enough for the economy to adjust to the new price levels. Both of these depend on complimentary economic policies that the government will introduce in the next few months to improve the business climate in Iran. As usual, reform of the markets for labor, credit and foreign exchange are at the top of the list for action.