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

Getty
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The 2017 Budget will force Philip Hammond to confront the Brexit effect

Rising prices and lost markets are hard to ignore. 

With the Brexit process, Donald Trump and parliamentary by-election aftermath dominating the headlines, you’d be forgiven for missing the speculation we’d normally expect ahead of a Budget next week. Philip Hammond’s demeanour suggests it will be a very low-key affair, living up to his billing as the government’s chief accounting officer. Yet we desperately need a thorough analysis of this government’s economic strategy – and some focused work from those whose job it is to supposedly keep track of government policy.

It seems to me there are four key dynamics the Budget must address:

1. British spending power

The spending power of British consumers is about to be squeezed further. Consumers have propped up the economy since 2015, but higher taxes, suppressed earnings and price inflation are all likely to weigh heavily on this driver for growth from now on. Relatively higher commodity prices and the sterling effect is starting to filter into the high street – which means that the pound in the pocket doesn’t go as far as it used to. The dwindling level of household savings is a casualty of this situation. Real incomes are softer, with poorer returns on assets, and households are substituting with loans and overdrafts. The switch away from consumer-driven growth feels well and truly underway. How will the Chancellor counteract to this?

2. Lagging productivity

Productivity remains a stubborn challenge that government policy is failing to address. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK’s productivity performance has lagged Germany, France and the USA, whose employees now produce in an average four days as much as British workers take to produce in five. Perhaps years of uncertainty have seen companies choose to sit on cash rather than invest in new production process technology. Perhaps the dominance of services in our economy, a sector notorious hard in which to drive new efficiencies, explains the productivity lag. But ministers have singularly failed to assess and prioritise investment in those aspects of public services which can boost productivity. These could include easing congestion and aiding commuters; boosting mobile connectivity; targeting high skills; blasting away administrative bureaucracy; helping workers back to work if they’re ill.

3. Lost markets

The Prime Minister’s decision to give up trying to salvage single market membership means we enter the "Great Unknown" trade era unsure how long (if any) our transition will be. We must also remain uncertain whether new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are going to go anyway to make up for those lost markets.

New FTAs may get rid of tariffs. But historically they’ve never been much good at knocking down the other barriers for services exports – which explains why the analysis by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently projected a 61 per cent fall in services trade with the EU. Brexit will radically transform the likely composition of economic growth in the medium term. It’s true that in the near term, sterling depreciation is likely to bring trade back into balance as exports enjoy an adrenal currency competitive stimulus. But over the medium term, "balance" is likely to come not from new export market volume, but from a withering away of consumer spending power to buy imported goods. Beyond that, the structural imbalance will probably set in again.

4. Empty public wallets

There is a looming disaster facing Britain’s public finances. It’s bad enough that the financial crisis is now pushing the level of public sector debt beyond 90 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  But a quick glance at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s January Fiscal Sustainability Report is enough to make your jaw drop. The debt mountain is projected to grow for the next 50 years. All else being equal, we could end up with an incredible 234 per cent of debt/GDP by 2066 – chiefly because of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. This isn’t a viable or serviceable level of debt and we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that many other economies (Japan, USA) are facing a similar fate. The interest payable on that debt mountain would severely crowd out resources for vital public services. So while some many dream of splashing public spending around on nationalising this or that, of a "universal basic income" or social security giveaways, the cold truth is that we are going to be forced to make more hard decisions on spending now, find new revenues if we want to maintain service standards, and prioritise growth-inducing policies wherever possible.

We do need to foster a new economic model that promotes social mobility, environmental and fiscal sustainability, with long-termism at its heart. But we should be wary of those on the fringes of politics pretending they have either a magic money tree, or a have-cake-and-eat-it trading model once we leap into the tariff-infested waters of WTO rules.

We shouldn’t have to smash up a common sense, balanced approach in order for our country to succeed. A credible, centre-left economic model should combine sound stewardship of taxpayer resources with a fairness agenda that ensures the wealthiest contribute most and the polluter pays. A realistic stimulus should be prioritised in productivity-oriented infrastructure investment. And Britain should reach out and gather new trading alliances in Europe and beyond as a matter of urgency.

In short, the March Budget ought to provide an economic strategy for the long-term. Instead it feels like it will be a staging-post Budget from a distracted Government, going through the motions with an accountancy exercise to get through the 12 months ahead.

Chris Leslie MP was Shadow Chancellor in 2015 and chairs Labour’s PLP Treasury Committee

 

 

 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015.