Tyranny of numbers

Fact checking the meat consumption of Iranians

Posted in Inflation, Living standards, Poverty by Djavad on June 26, 2019

The rapid increase in the price of meat in the last few months has turned this food item of dubious health value into the lightening rod for the suffering of Iranian consumers.  Viewers of the BBC Persian program may recall a stark graphic that purported to show that the amount of red meat that a minimum wage worker could buy has declined from 74 kg per month in 1357 (1978) to 10 kg in 1397 (2018). (more…)

Is Iran’s economic slide bottoming out?

Posted in General by Djavad on June 26, 2019

Last year, Iran’s economy was hit hard by sanctions.  The US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the return of unilateral US sanctions turned 10 quarters of economic growth into (so far) four quarters of negative growth (see graph below).  During the year that ended on March 20, 2019, the economy shrank by nearly 5%, and further contraction is very likely this year.  The 5% decline was led by manufacturing, which fell by 12% in the last quarter of 1397 (winter 2019) relative to the same quarter a year ago.  Non-oil GDP fell by less since agriculture and services, which account for 3/4 of the GDP are less dependent on trade (services actually grew slightly).

Figure.  Growth rate of GDP, quarter on the same quarter a year ago.
gdp_quarterly_2012-2018
Source: Statistical Center of Iran.

Will the downward trend end sometime soon?  The IMF has predicted a 6 percent decline for 2019, but its prediction may turn out to be too pessimistic.  There are a few signs that the economy is adjusting to a new lower equilibrium, from which it may start growing by 1-2 percent in 2020.

The high price of foreign currencies is the main reason why we should expect local production to start recovering soon.  Donyaye Eghtesad sees a “resurgence of production” in an increase in the Managers’ Purchasing Index (PMI) collected by Iran’s Chamber of Commerce. This is consistent with recent data for non-oil exports.  For the first two months of the current Iranian year (roughly, April and May 2019), they increased by 8.1% compared to the same period a year ago.

However, both non-oil exports and import competing sectors face two important challenges: sanctions on trade and banking and Iran’s own self-made banking crisis.  Most of Iran’s major banks are insolvent and therefore are in a weak position to support the expansion of local production.

Second, after experiencing the huge shock of the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, which caused the US dollar and local prices spike, inflation is slowing down.   Consumer prices rose by about 40 percent last year, and as late as March were rising at 60 percent annual rate, in the last two months have declined to 19 and 10 percent annual rates.  As a result, the dollar has stabilized at around 130000 rials per USD, which is 20 percent below its peak a few months ago.  Fears of “Venezuelaization” of the Iranian economy (collapse) have subsided, allowing the government to revive its long neglected public investment program, which could boost employment and production.

 

A note on measuring living standards

Posted in General, Inflation, Living standards, Macroeconomy, Poverty by Djavad on May 22, 2019

A few weeks ago, in this blog and in opinion pieces (here, here and here), I argued that during the three decades since the end of the war with Iraq (1988), Iran’s economic growth exceeded that of Turkey, such that by 2012, when US sanctions intensified, living standards in the two countries were very similar.  My analysis, which surprised some and angered others, is because of the particular data I used to measure GDP per capita (which I also refer to as the living standard).  GDP comparison is not rocket science but most journalists (and even many economists) often get it wrong.  So, in this post I try to explain why it is important that we use data specifically intended for such comparisons.

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The gold standard to measure change in household welfare in Iran

Posted in Living standards, Sanctions by Djavad on February 24, 2019

The anniversary of the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago this month coincided with the deepest economic crisis Iran has experienced since the war with Iraq in the 1980s.  As top Trump administration officials, who wished the crisis on ordinary Iranians in the hope of enlisting their help in regime change, excitement among the Iranian opposition abroad is palpable.   The occasion has also stimulated discussion of success and failure of the revolution concerning a wide range of issues and metrics.  Much of the discussion involved comparison of living standards in Iran between now and in the 1970s (read my own comparison in Project Syndicate here.) (more…)

Rouhani’s new budget cuts back on expenditures, big time

Posted in General, Inflation, Macroeconomy, Sanctions by Djavad on January 31, 2019

If the government of Hassan Rouhani has a plan for fighting the downward trend in Iran’s economy, the one started with the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, it is not to be found in its proposed budget for the Iranian year 1398 (March 21, 2019 to March 20, 2020).  The budget, which may be modified by Iran’s parliament in the next few weeks, is proposing serious cuts to expenditures.   Blaming shrinking revenues from oil, the government has decided to deal with the shock of the Trump sanctions and fleeing private investment by reducing its own expenditures.  Not a surprise from a government that has made fighting inflation its top priority and jobs creation the purview of the private sector. This is reasonable logic in normal time, but not when factories are cutting back on production and employment or shutting down altogether.     (more…)

Is Iran’s inflation really slowing?

Posted in Inflation, Macroeconomy, Sanctions by Djavad on January 9, 2019

In my last blog post I suggested that Iran’s inflation may be slowing down, and the latest consumer price data from the Statistical Center of Iran (SCI) suggest that this may indeed be the case.  The Consumer Price Index (CPI) published by SCI rose by 2.6 percent for the month of Azar (November 21 to December 20), an annual rate of increase of 26 percent.  This is high by world standards but low by the standards of this summer, when in August the rate shot up to 127 percent (see Figure 1).  More importantly, it is about the same as the month before, which is why it is safe to say that calmer — not better — times are ahead.  Unfortunately, the reporting of prices has created confusion, some numbers showing inflation slowing while headlines say the opposite.  (more…)

Has Iran’s inflation peaked?

Posted in Macroeconomy, Poverty, Sanctions by Djavad on November 28, 2018

Last June, I wrote on this blog about the return of inflation in Iran, when inflation had jumped from an annual rate of 18 percent in April 2018 to 34 percent in May.  In more recent months, inflation has been running at an annual rate of 78 percent per month, twice the rate in May.  But, for the past two months, October and November, the monthly rate has declined.  Is this a sign that the current phase of high inflation, which started with the collapse of the rial, is about to end?   Containing inflation is critical if Iran is to convince its citizens that economic stability is returning and that the news of hyperinflation and economic collapse are exaggerated. (more…)

Food consumption of the poor in Iran

Posted in Poverty, Sanctions, Subsidy reform by Djavad on August 2, 2018

It is now clear that the purpose of US sanctions against Iran is to make its people miserable enough so they pressure their government to agree to US demands.  One obvious response to this strategy is for the Iranian government to shift resources to groups most likely to feel and transmit these pressures.  If the government has a such a plan, who to protect and how, it seems lost in the chaos of the exchange rate market and reshuffling of government ministers.  Perhaps the past can be a guide:  how did Iran manage the last phase of sanctions, when, in July 2011, President Obama ratcheted them up.

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The cost of sanctions for Iran’s economy

Posted in General, Macroeconomy, Sanctions by Djavad on July 23, 2018

There is no easy way to determine the impact of international sanctions on Iran’s economy, but looking at the growth rate of the GDP after 2011, when international sanctions tightened, is a good place to start.  The question has become more than an historical curiosity since Trump decided to pull the US out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions.   (more…)

The return of inflation

Posted in General, Inflation, Macroeconomy, Sanctions by Djavad on July 1, 2018

According to the Central Bank of Iran, last month (Iranian month of Khordad, which ended on June 20, 2018), consumer prices increased by 4.3 percent.  This translates into a whopping annual inflation rate of 67 percent.  The government announcement was much less alarming, using the so-called point-to-point inflation rate (Khordad 2018 over the same month 2017) of 9.4 percent.  As I explained in a recent interview in Tejarat Farda (in Persian), the point-to-point reporting is very misleading when inflation is accelerating, and does not fool anyone (any more than I could fool a police officer whose radar registered my speed at 80 miles per hour by claiming that my average speed since leaving home has been below the speed limit). (more…)