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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue