...MUCH MOREA major and unexpected devaluation of the rial on the free currency market has taken many in Iran by surprise. Analysis of the behavior patterns in the Iranian foreign exchange market suggests that six main parameters need to be assessed to understand what has contributed to recent events.First is the application of the inflation differential between Iran and the global inflation levels. This factor has previously been discussed by Al-Monitor, and there have been strong signs that the Rouhani administration has sought to maintain a degree of stability in order to contain the inflationary impacts of a devaluation. If one would have applied the inflation differential, the free market rate of the US dollar would have been around 48,000 rials in October 2016, meaning it would have theoretically far surpassed 50,000 rials by now. Based on statements by top officials, the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and the administration remain committed to managing the value of the national currency. However, there is continued inflationary pressure on the rial, especially as Iranian exporters wish to see a weaker currency that makes their products more competitive. The ongoing ambiguity surrounding exchange rate policies, and especially the guessing game about the long-promised unification of the official and free market rates, continue to unsettle the market, which enters into panic mode whenever there are sudden fluctuations.
Second is the CBI’s intervention in the currency market. The free currency market is fully managed by the Central Bank, which intervenes to balance supply and demand. Evidently, if the CBI fails to inject enough funds, the demand side will push up the price. This seems to have occurred in recent weeks — both due to a shortage in CBI injections as well as the sudden hike in demand as a result of panic buys. One can speculate whether the CBI’s actions were intentional or due to operational limitations. Respected economist Farshad Momeni has speculated that the Rouhani administration is manipulating the foreign exchange market to benefit from the arbitrage between the official and free market rates in order to compensate for its budget deficit. Others have reported that the CBI has faced difficulties in repatriating hard currency, thus the shortage on the domestic market. But both these explanations would only justify parts of the problem as the Rouhani government and the CBI always have alternative plans in place. As such, it is more likely that a chain of events and rumors, and especially talk of that the CBI would allow the rial’s value to slide, led to unexpectedly high demand for which the CBI was not operationally prepared.
Third is the ability of the CBI to repatriate external funds. Besides managing the foreign currency market, the CBI is also clearing the overall transactions between international and Iranian banks — a process that is growing in volume due to the gradual normalization of banking relations between Iran and international second- and third-tier banks. The CBI’s ability to handle the growing volume of transactions has also been a factor in the recent hiccups in the market. Some explain the operational shortcomings as a function of international, and especially Emirati, banks not cooperating with the CBI. But it is also conceivable that there are some internal shortcomings, taking into account new compliance standards to which all Iranian banks have to adhere. Such operational hiccups are immediately understood as unsettling factors that lead to rumors that the CBI is short of funds. Thus, it is evident that the CBI and Iranian banks need to further upgrade their systems to manage the growing financial flows in order to prevent such bottlenecks....