Is business as usual possible in Egypt?

Dr Elizabeth Stephens takes a look at the current condition of the Egyptian economy, and asks whether businesses will be able to operate with any kind of normality.

A series of challenges have been presented to investors since the deposing of Hosni Mubarak, with uncertainty and outbreaks of violence exerting downward pressure on investment flows. Despite the deteriorating economic environment and payment delays that plague the oil and gas sector in particular, many foreign companies have remained committed to their Egyptian operations, anticipating a return to stability.

Events in the past eight weeks - the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi and the military’s clearing of two protests camps in Cairo resulting in the death of hundreds of Egyptians – have fundamentally altered these calculations. The potential for disintegration has become clear.

The inflow of funds from the Gulf states is positive and more funding is likely to be announced in the coming months if there is a fall in violence. Egypt is receiving several billion dollars in financial aid and considerable assistance in kind. Saudi Arabia is paying directly for wheat contracts while the Qataris are supplying gas, creating a more positive picture than the USD 19 billion in foreign exchange reserves implies.

In the short term Egypt’s economy will muddle along but underlying economic problems will worsen over the course of the year due to disinvestment. Saudi Arabia is muting the figure of USD 12 billion in aid for the Egyptian fiscal year of July to June 2014 but even Riyadh with its deep pockets will be reluctant to bankroll another state indefinitely.

Over the medium term we may end up with predictable confrontation; cycles of protests that don’t escalate in the manner of recent weeks but with each protest having the potential to unleash another uprising. This makes it difficult for companies to recommit fully to their Egyptian operations because of the risk this creates in moving staff and their families back to Cairo.

While parallels have been drawn with Algeria in the 1990s, one of the many notable differences is that Algiers could be ignored by oil companies operating in the country in a way that Cairo cannot. Egypt’s economy is dependent on the service sector whereas Algeria was a hydrocarbons-dependent economy. Ultimately, Algeria was able to transcend its difficulties with higher state spending as oil prices rose. There is no such light on the horizon for Egypt.

Oil and gas companies recently renegotiated payment agreements with the government and payments were to be resumed in exchange for the reinstatement of investment programmes. In the current climate companies will be reluctant to ramp up investment and a new agreement will need to be reached with interim oil minister Sherif Ismail. Ismail knows the energy companies well and will be sympathetic to their predicament, although the outlook for either party is not positive at present.

In contrast to Libya and Iraq, foreign investors in Egypt’s oil and gas sectors can’t even argue that commitment in the short term will lead to worthwhile gains and financial upside in the future. There is no reserve replacement potential for the next five years at least and the risk of expropriation will rise as the domestic energy balance becomes more precarious.

Astute investors had their credit and political risk insurance in place ahead of the uprisings. While the insurance market has remained open throughout the course of Egypt’s political transition, with some rate and capacity fluctuations, the recent coup and violence has led the private market to close for new credit and investment risk. Existing cover continues and underwriters will honour their commitments but support for new market entrants is only available from multilateral insurers for very select investments. Some limited insurer appetite remains for political violence cover.

The Egyptian economy is highly dependent upon the service sector. Photograph: Getty Images.

JLT Head of Credit & Political Risk Advisory

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.