By Haniyeh Sadat Jafariyeh

Dollar in doldrums

March 10, 2018

Iranians have been dealing with an ever-increasing devaluation of the rial since the beginning of the present Iranian calendar (March 21, 2017) but the major and unexpected depreciation occurred almost a month ago, in mid-February, when is supposed to be the biggest crackdown on foreign exchanges in six years.

At the time, U.S. dollar broke all records and jumped to almost 50,000 rials in Tehran’s currency exchange shops, while it used to be bought almost 37,500 rials earlier in past April, 38,000 rials in past September, 41,000 rials in past December and 43,000 rials in early January, 2018.

What has contributed to recent events? 
Some critics discuss that since taking office in August 2013, Rouhani administration has tried to artificially keep the foreign exchange market at a level of stability in a bid to cover the inflationary impacts of rial devaluation, adding that the currency disturbances are due to a lack of clear monetary policy and mismanagement. The recent rial depreciation, as they further discuss, can be the result of government’s decision to benefit from the difference between the official and free market rates as a temporary solution to compensate for the wide budget deficit. 

Some, in addition, blame Central Bank of Iran (CBI) for the volatility, since the state-run body has a full control over the free currency market and interferes with balance supply and demand as well as the prices by pumping dollar whenever it decides. The issue, in their view, is also justifiable via CBI’s short of funds to inject the needed hard currency to the market. 

Besides, the recent decrease in banking interest rates made by CBI and the dominant stagnation in housing sector can also account for the forex market predicament. The two factors have increased Iranians’ demand for purchasing Bahar Azadi gold coins and hard currency as new investment options, for they believe via changing their cash money into dollar or gold, they can prevent devaluation of their assets. 

Moreover, the impact of Iran’s current political tensions should not be neglected, they say. Trump is tightening its grip on Iran again, threatening it to re-impose sanctions lifted in 2015 and withdrawing from JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). There has been some news of a coordinated move by the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies to up pressure on Iran by restricting its access to hard currencies. Iranians often obtain dollars via the United Arab Emirates, but implementation of new value added tax law in this country since the beginning of 2018 has practically locked the gateway of trade transactions between Iranian businessmen and their Emirati counterparts, which used to let the flow of dollar into Iranian market. 

Major measures taken

To tackle one of the unprecedented slides in the value of the rial, which, if not curbed, would have a negative effect on attracting foreign investment and would end in inflationary consequences, the government took some major steps.

On February 14, Iranian police force and CBI initiated a joint operation to control the foreign exchange market when they detained almost 100 currency middlemen and frozen bank accounts reportedly worth 200 trillion rials ($5.3bn). The act could immediately pull down the dollar rate by 1,000 rials.

In late February, CBI issued permission for banks to issue rial bonds with an annual 20 percent interest rate and preselling of Bahar Azadi coin in the hope for absorbing some of the market liquidity. Furthermore, the central bank introduced hard currency bonds with a four percent to 4.5 percent return. In its other attempt to bolster rial, on February 28, CBI, who has always sought to switch to non-dollar based trade, clamped down on dollar trading and introduced new restrictions on it by blocking imports priced in the currency. Purchase orders by merchants which are based on U.S. currency are no longer allowed to go through import procedures in Iran’s customs offices since then. The decision, according to Iranian officials, is not expected to create major trouble for traders because the share of the greenback in Iran’s trade activities, as they say, is not high. The state-run body, moreover, has prepared a set of 19-sections policies as a blueprint to regulate the unsettlements of domestic monetary and foreign exchange markets, which is to be applied in near future.

Followingly, when currency prices cooled down a bit, CBI, which has always been seeking unification of the present dual forex regime in the market, issued permit for a limited number of currency exchange shops to sell foreign currency at official rate, less that the free market rate about 7,000 rials to 10,000 rials. The introduced exchange bureaus are allowed to sell up to $5,000 to customers who present their ID cards or passports and travel tickets.

Addressing the 57th annual general assembly of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) on March 4, the central bank’s Governor Valiolah Seif announced that implementation of the described policies since mid-February has successfully curbed the fluctuations of Iran’s foreign exchange market and has restored confidence back.  

Blaming the forex market fluctuations on currency traders, speculations in the market and the U.S. which was trying to destabilize Iran’s economy, Seif vowed that CBI will be able to manage the market not only by the current yearend but also by the end of the next Iranian calendar year (ending March 20, 2019).

However, some do not agree with him.

Controversy aroused

Referring back to the applied expanding policies and reduction of banking interest rates in September 2017, CBI critics explain that via doing proper analysis of domestic monetary system and foreign exchange market, the government could have managed to control foreign currency rate, but mismanagement has left the harvest ruined.

As they underline, the inappropriate policies of CBI, mainly injecting dollar to the market at official rates, has pulled out dollar from the economic wheel of Iran to Iranians’ piggy banks and in the pockets of the dealers. They explain that the issued rial bonds or the preselling of Bahar Azadi Coin are temporary remedies, effect of which will be removed in the short-run. Consequently, the future of forex market will not be brighter than its present. 

Addressing the prohibition of dollar-based purchase order, which seems to be a win for the Euro, some express worry that the extra layer of currency swapping involved may add to the cost of imports into Iran and push the prices higher in the country.

Offering dollar and other currencies at official rates in some specific currency exchange shops is another tranquilizer which has caused major problems. Long queues are formed at the door of official foreign exchange bureaus and people are asked to stay in them since the sunrise. Some quarrels happen in the queues, which make the police interfere. A lot of non-official currency exchange shops are semi-closed; they do not sell dollar at all but buy if there is any.  An amalgamation of customers has been created; some are fake ones i.e. the middlemen who sell the purchased dollar at the official rate in the free market for making benefit, some customers are those who do not need foreign currency but just prefer to save them at home, and some are the Iranian travelers to foreign countries who face difficulties with finding hard currency. Foreign currency prices still experience fluctuations and even an increasing trend. Dealers and middlemen are still active although worried about the interference of the policemen. More importantly, the foreign currency price increase has already had its impact on inflation and the situation will predictably get aggravated.    

Speaking on a televised program on Tuesday night, Seif admitted that dollar price should be matched with the reality of Iran’s economy. He criticized the opinion which accuses the government of controlling liquidity in an effort to reduce inflation, saying that despite the increase in liquidity, inflation is controlled and even decreased.

The central bank governor also discussed that the CBI act to reduce interest rates was an effort to convert short-term accounts into the long-term ones and to control inflation. 

He underlined that the government’s monetary policies are not longstanding but flexible ones which can be changed in different conditions.

In fact, what is happening at the market does not entirely match with what is expected by the government to occur. Foreign currency rates are experiencing unsteadiness and the future seems murky but officials believe they have a good handle on the market.

Some economists suggest the CBI permit the rial to be devalued so that the economy can find a new balance, although the decision will be at the worth of another round of rampant inflation.


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