Tuesday, February 07, 2012

failed treasury auction portends egyptian disaster

asiatimes | Egypt faces a disaster of biblical proportions, and the world will do nothing about it. Officially, Egypt's foreign exchange reserves fell by half during 2011, including a $2.4 billion decline during December - from $36 billion to $18 billion, or about four months of imports.

But the situation almost certainly is worse than that. More than $4 billion left the country during December, estimates Royal Bank of Scotland economist Raza Agha, noting that the December drop in reserves was cushioned by a $1 billion loan from the Egyptian army and a $1 billion sale of dollar-denominated treasury bills.

The rush out of the Egyptian pound is so rapid that Egyptian investors refuse to hold debt in their own national currency, even at a 16% yield. After Islamist parties won more three-quarters of the seats in recent parliamentary elections - 47% for the Muslim Brotherhood and 25% for the even more extreme al-Nour Party - the business elite that prospered under military rule is counting the days before exile.

The first reports of actual hunger in provincial Egyptian towns, meanwhile, are starting to trickle in through Arab-language press and blog reports. A shortage of gasoline accompanied by long queues at filling stations and panic buying was widely reported last week.

In some towns, for example Luxor in Upper Egypt, the disappearance of diesel fuel shut down bakeries, exacerbating the spot shortages of bread.

After months of refusing to bargain with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Egypt's government has begun negotiations for a $3.2 billion loan, or less than the amount of capital flight in December alone. The involvement of the IMF evidently did little to reassure the Egyptian investors who sat out Sunday's Treasury auction.

It seems unlikely that Egypt's central bank will be able to prevent a banana-republic devaluation of the Egyptian pound, and a sharp rise in prices for a population of whom half barely consumes enough to prevent starvation. The difference between Egypt and a banana republic, though, is the bananas: unlike the bankrupt Latin Americans, who exported food, Egypt imports half its caloric consumption.

Meat imports have already fallen by 60% over the past year, the Egypt News website reported on January 22, [1] reflecting the collapse of purchasing power. More alarming is that bread has become scarce in some provincial cities. In Ismailia on the Suez Canal, the Youm7 website reported on January 22, a bread protest burned cars and blocked a main highway. Similar protests took place in other towns close to Cairo, including Zagazig and Ibousoar.

Anything that can be sold for hard currency - wheat, rice, butane, diesel fuel and sugar - has disappeared from government warehouses during the past year, according to a multitude of reports in local Arab-language media summarized in my 2011 essays. (See When will Egypt go broke? Asia Times Online, July 12, 2011.)

It is not clear whether the localized shortages of food and the nationwide shortage of gasoline reflect a buyers' panic, or large-scale theft, or an effort by the central bank to conserve foreign exchange by slowing essential purchases - or all of the above.

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