The economics of Ramadan

The reduced energy levels - and working hours - of the month of fasting affects the stock markets.

Downtown Cairo is a boisterous place. The ubiquitous honks of the car horns and the ebullience of peoples on the street ensure that any form of silence exists only in the memory. However, for one month a year, every year, the streets go silent and the shops close for as long as the energy sapping sun stings the eyes. This is the holy month of Ramadan.

One of the five pillars of Islam, every Muslim should abstain from drinking, eating, smoking (as well as a few other things) between Fajr prayers in the early morning and Maghreb Prayers in the dusk. The Qur’an prescribes it as a way of learning self-restraint.

The eschewing of water and food, however, means that those observing the fast are also affecting their energy levels. Simply walking down the street, the vitality that would once overwhelm me is conspicuous by its absence. Those that are out languishing under the relentless Cairo sun reply to my salutations with a half-hearted wave where once I would have been invited into conversation.

In an effort to manage this problem, the Egyptian government reduces the work hours of private sector and bank workers. The reduction and/or adjustment of work hours during the month of Ramadan takes place in almost every Muslim-majority country. But whereas Malaysia and Indonesia generally practice a one-hour adjustment, one-hour reduction scheme, Egypt practices a two-hour reduction for private sector workers, a three-hour reduction for banks, as well as a one-hour reduction in their stock exchange trading hours.

This may well ameliorate the situation of fasting with the workers, but it also means that over the course of Ramadan, the private sector loses around 40 hours of operating time, the banks around 60 hours and the Egyptian stock exchange around 20 hours of trading time. 

Strangely though, the effect of losing 20 hours worth of trading time on the Egyptian stock market is minimal, if anything (see graph).  Using data from the benchmark EGX30 index – which looks at the top 30 companies in terms of liquidity and activity - between the years 2000-2006 there is absolutely no correlation between the typical monthly percentage change in stock value and the percentage change in the month of Ramadan, but it does seem to suggest that the reduced trading times has increased the market’s volatility.

 

The fact that Egypt releases its GDP and growth statistics in quarterly format mean any attempt to scrutinise the Ramadan periods within them is futile. However, the latest data released by the Ministry of Planning and Ministry of Finance can be examined as it covers the period from 1 June to the present, which encapsulates most of this month of Ramadan, plus 19 days of non-fasting.  In that time, the total GDP change has been -4.1%, which correlates to a recent report by the Dinar Standard - a research and advisory firm that focuses on emerging Muslim economies – which gave an estimate of an average loss of 4% to GDPs in Muslim-majority countries.

In that report, it estimated that Egypt made a loss of nearly 8% in its monthly GDP due to it’s reduced Ramadan hours, which would result in a total loss of just over US$1.4bn for last year’s Ramadan period. The reduction of hours may be necessary exchange for worker morale, but for an economy that is already struggling to attain the considerable US$22.5bn needed to finance its deficit for this fiscal year, it’s a hefty trade-off.

Men carry food for the fast-breaking meal. Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.