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Sun 15 May 2011 01:52 PM

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Egypt investors look beyond short-term turbulence

Country's short-term outlook is bumpy, but worst of capital outflows may be over

Egypt investors look beyond short-term turbulence
EGYPT ECONOMY: Egypts economy shrank about 7 percent in January-March and could grow just 2 percent or less this year (Getty Images)
Egypt investors look beyond short-term turbulence
Egypt investors look beyond short-term turbulence
Egypt investors look beyond short-term turbulence

When mass protests drove Egypt's Hosni Mubarak out of office in February and political turmoil sent the economy into a tailspin, Sweden's Electrolux put its deal to buy an Egyptian appliance maker on hold.

The company was not alone in suffering a bout of nerves. The stock market plunged and the Egyptian pound slid to six-year lows against the dollar as tourists fled and capital inflows slowed sharply.

Now the deal to buy Egypt's Olympic Group is back on, and Electrolux chief executive Keith McLoughlin sees strong long-term prospects for the Arab world's most populous nation despite the possibility of near-term turbulence.

"In five or 10 years that is going to be a very important part of the world to be in. The real issue is what is the next 12, 18, 24 months looking like, given the turmoil in the transition?" McLoughlin said.

"We are quite confident, given the move towards democracy, the move towards a large population increasing their disposable income - a move toward a better quality of life."

As investors take stock three months after Mubarak was ousted on February 11, some of the initial worries have given way to more optimism, even though an economy that had been expanding at about 6 percent annually may barely register growth this year.

Investors will be watching September's parliamentary elections closely. But concerns among some Western investors that established political voices would smother those of January's youthful protestors have already subsided.

"Although the political waters are murky, there is more optimism now about the unleashing of various political parties [rather] than simply the Islamist card feared at the start of the uprising," Credit Agricole said in a May 4 report.

Brahim Razgallah, chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa at JP Morgan said Egypt had remained resilient despite the shock of Mubarak's ouster.

"The country is expected to be hit in the short-term... but this represents also an opportunity to make structural reforms in order to really increase potential growth," he said.

Such assessments will hearten Egypt's new military rulers, who have shown no interest in clinging to power but have outlined a swift timetable for a transfer to civilian rule that could be completed by the end of the year.

What may be less welcome is an assessment that Egypt does not have time to wait for a civilian administration before tackling reforms needed to get the economy back on track.

"The interim government... should and ought to do more to focus on improving the investment climate, and that means taking some brave decisions," said Angus Blair of Beltone Financial.

Demands commonly cited include the swift completion of corruption probes from Mubarak down, to avoid poisoning the investment climate, reining in the state's role in the economy, cutting inflation and overhauling education and training.

In the short-term, the outlook appears bleak.

Egypt's economy shrank about 7 percent in January-March and could grow just 2 percent or less this year. That is worrying for a country that economists say must expand by about 6 percent a year - the figure it had been expected to achieve before the uprising - to create jobs for its young population.

Foreign investment fell to $1.2bn in the first quarter, down $400m on the same period in 2010, and the finance minister has forecast foreign direct investment will fall to $4.1bn in 2010/11 from $6.8bn last year.

But Razgallah said Egypt may have seen the worst of the capital outflows, citing a more stable exchange rate after the pound fell 2.1 percent against the dollar following the start of anti-Mubarak protests on Jan. 25.

"Uncertainty related to the foreign exchange outlook was a major factor hindering the return of international investors into the market," he said. "As long as investors see that foreign exchange is remaining stable and the T-bill market attractive, they will come back."

Property firms, once rising stars on Egypt's bourse, have been left reeling by a string of legal challenges to their land acquisitions that began before Mubarak was ousted but which have since gathered pace.

The cases revolve around the way land was bought from the state, via direct sales rather than auctions, which enabled them to get hold of plots below market value. The longer these and other corruption probes continue, the more investors will worry.

"The last thing you need is for all of this vendetta and the charging against various politicians and people in business to go on for many, many months. It's got to be done quickly ... so that people can move on," said Beltone's Blair.

A long term issue that needs swift action now, say economists, is overhauling education and training to ensure state institutions provide what the job market needs, particularly technical skills and critical thinking.

"Educational [reform] in a formal sense has to happen at school to make everyone better prepared for the workplace, more creative," said Blair. "Training programmes have to go in every ministry and every arm of governance."

A more immediate issue is containing soaring food and other prices, which has hit the poorest hardest. About 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. Broad measures of inflation indicate prices are rising at 10 percent but the rate for food and beverage prices is twice that.

The government also needs to balance the wild hopes of Egyptians expecting a swift rise in living standards with a burgeoning budget deficit, soaring as some of the government's main revenue sources evaporated during the political crisis.

The deficit is expect to hit 9 percent this year.

The state needs to kickstart private business, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, to provide more jobs to Egypt's 80 million population.

"Every business is surrounded by regulations that inhibit competition," said Blair, adding import testing requirements were cumbersome and financing for smaller businesses was often not available.

 

 

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