CAIRO - When Egypt's stock market index climbed this week to its highest level since last July, it was more than a boon to equity investors -- it was a sign that after a year of turmoil, prospects may be improving for the Egyptian economy.
Much investment ground to a halt in the chaos after the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak in February last year. That created pent-up demand for housing, goods and services in a growing population which companies may now move to satisfy, setting Egypt up for faster economic growth later this year.
Egypt's struggle to finance its current account and state budget deficits could become easier in March, when it expects to sign a $3.2 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund that could clear the way for other foreign aid. A sharp depreciation of the Egyptian pound this year no longer looks certain.
And Egypt's transition to democracy, including parliamentary elections in January, is proceeding. It is a messy process marked by street protests, and important issues remain unclear, such as how much power the military will retain. But by the end of June, Egypt is expected to have civilian rulers with a mandate to make difficult decisions on economic policy.
"There has been a lot of alarmism over the past year but it's clear they will end up with a government that reflects the will of the people," said economist Gabriel Sterne at Exotix, an investment bank which specializes in frontier markets.
"Those governments find it easier to do structural reforms as they ultimately help the people. But you can still think of ways it might go wrong."Drop in tourism uncomfortable, but no longer crippling
Egypt's economy continues to suffer from political uncertainty and industrial unrest triggered by Mubarak's ouster. The official unemployment rate climbed to 12.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 from 8.9 percent a year ago; economists think this understates the real extent of joblessness. Poverty, a major catalyst for last year's uprising, has worsened.
But some areas of the economy are holding up well. Strong Suez Canal revenues, oil and gas exports and remittances from Egyptian workers abroad have partially compensated for falls in tourism earnings and investment by foreign companies.
The drop in tourism, a key generator of foreign exchange and employment, is uncomfortable but no longer crippling; tourist nights spent in Egypt fell 18 percent from a year earlier in December, government figures show, compared to monthly drops of about 30-50 percent during the political unrest early last year.
Some major Egyptian companies have been performing much better than analysts predicted. Ezz Steel, the country's biggest steel maker, said its third-quarter net profit jumped to 128 million Egyptian pounds ($21 million) from 1.65 million pounds a year earlier because of strong demand for its products.
Commercial International Bank, Egypt's biggest privately owned bank by assets, saw its consolidated net profit fall 20 percent last year because of higher provisions against loan losses -- not a disastrous drop during an economic slump.
There are signs that businessmen are expecting a pick-up of investment this year. Telecom Egypt, which has a monopoly on telephone landlines, says it plans capital expenditure of between 1 billion and 1.2 billion Egyptian pounds this year, up from 689 million pounds last year.
The company's chief executive Tarek Aboualam told Reuters that while the economic climate remained tough, business customers had decided in the past quarter that they could not continue waiting for a rebound in the country's fortunes.
The outlook for real estate firms, a motor of the economy in the past decade, has brightened since a court ruling late last year ended a dispute over state land bought by Talaat Moustafa Group that had cast doubt over projects across the sector.
A leading property developer, SODIC, says it plans to step up investment this year and the Ministry of Housing is trying to kick-start activity by selling 8,000 plots of land around Cairo to Egyptians living abroad.
"We are already seeing some evidence of increased activity" in Cairo's real estate market, said Ayman Sami, head of consultants Jones Lang LaSalle's Egypt office, though he added: "Continued certainty is a basic requirement for the economy to fully rebound."
The IMF has estimated Egypt's gross domestic product growth will pick up only slightly in 2012, to 1.8 percent after 1.2 percent last year and 5.1 percent in 2010.
Some economists think the recovery could be much faster, however. HSBC expects GDP to grow 2.7 percent in the current fiscal year to June, accelerating to 3.9 percent next year.Will Brotherhood stick to plan to improve economy?
The strength of the recovery will depend partly on whether the government can win the trust of the business community. Government officials leaked to Egyptian media this week a tentative plan to stabilize state finances, the first detailed plan in a year. It aims to cut the budget deficit to 7.7 percent of GDP in the 2013/14 fiscal year from an estimated 8.4 percent this year, and lower the public debt to 77.5 percent of GDP from 82.2 percent.
It seeks to make spending on public subsidies more efficient, reform income and real estate taxes, offer Egyptian expatriates 50,000 plots of land to raise $15 billion over the next four years, and possibly auction fourth-generation mobile telecommunications service licences.
This plan could come to nothing if the political forces that will dominate the government after June, principally the Muslim Brotherhood which won nearly half the seats in January's parliamentary elections, do not support it actively.
Pushing through austerity measures to cut the budget deficit will be extremely hard after a revolution fueled by popular discontent with economic conditions -- especially for the Muslim Brotherhood, which draws much of its support from the poor.
"We have seen really great political maturity by the Brotherhood, but they are now going to get an economic test and the decisions they must make will require equal if not greater maturity," said Sterne at Exotix.
Financial markets are starting to conclude that the government may be up to the challenge, however. The stock index is up 44 percent so far this year, though it is still 28 percent below last year's peak.
Most of the equities buying is by Egyptian investors rather than foreigners, who are still worried by the possibility of a currency devaluation. But there are also signs that foreign investors are becoming less nervous about Egypt; the yield on its dollar-denominated, 5.75 percent bond maturing in 2020 was below 7 percent this week after soaring as high as 8.38 percent in mid-January. The yield remains much higher than levels around 5.3 percent at the start of last year.
In the foreign exchange market, downward pressure on the Egyptian pound appears to be easing. A scramble by Egyptian individuals and companies to change their pounds into dollars has slowed, partly because the central bank has been raising interest rates, making local bank deposits more attractive.
"There was a lot of dollarization of deposits in the first half of last year and that has now slowed dramatically," said Andrew Long, head of HSBC's operations in Egypt.
The central bank's foreign reserves have been shrinking by around $2 billion every month and hit $16.4 billion in January, less than half their level a year earlier. In coming months the reserves could drop so low that they are insufficient to support the value of the pound, forcing a sharp depreciation.
But if capital flight slows, Egypt succeeds in obtaining IMF aid in March, and the government resorts to other stratagems such as a $2 billion Islamic bond issue under consideration, it could stop the reserves from sliding much further in coming months.
Then, if by the second half of this year the economy is recovering and a stable civilian government is in place, capital could start flowing back into the country. Any subsequent depreciation of the pound might be minor and controlled, designed to make exports more competitive rather than the result of a crisis.
February data on foreign reserves, due to be announced in early March, will help to show whether such a rosy scenario is likely.
"Once reserves start running out and you are raising interest rates there comes a point where rates are not effective and the pound sell-off starts to accelerate," said Said Hirsh, Middle East economist at Capital Economics in London.
"We're still optimistic about Egypt beyond this period. It could be the fastest growing economy in the Middle East very soon...But in the near term it is still in a very difficult situation."
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