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
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation