Cablegate: No Sub-Prime Crisis Here: Constraints On

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1. (SBU) Summary: The GOI wants the Central Bank of Iraq
(CBI) to loosen its monetary policy to promote economic
growth. But cuts in the CBI's interest rates or reserve
requirements will not deliver the growth boost GOI officials
seem to expect. Iraqi banks already have plenty of money to
lend, so expanding the money supply will not mean more loans
for businesses and households. Iraqi banks lack the credit
infrastructure needed for lending that expands output and
creates jobs. Rather than press the CBI to print more money,
the GOI should take steps to build a money market that gives
banks tools to measure and manage risks. End summary.

Leaning on the CBI

2. (SBU) Senior CBI officials report in private that the GOI
is exerting "intense pressure" for changes in monetary
policy. It is a commonly held view in Iraq that banks do not
lend because the CBI sets interest rates too high and
requires state-owned banks to hold unusually high levels of
reserves. GOI ministers have reportedly threatened to revoke
the CBI's statutory independence if it did not loosen
monetary policy. Partly as a result of such pressure, the
CBI cut its policy rate from 20 percent to 16 percent over
the first half of the year.

3. (U) When GOI leaders look to the CBI to facilitate
lending, they may be thinking of how Iraq's economy used to
be organized. When state-owned enterprises, government
plans, and international sanctions defined Iraq's economy,
the central bank served as little more than a cash dispenser.
Price stability was not in its mission statement. From 1993
through 2002, Iraq's average annual rate of inflation
exceeded 100 percent.

4. (U) Iraq is building a new economy, but a good deal of the
old machinery remains in place. The GOI payroll still
accounts for the bulk of salaried employment. Vestiges of
controlled prices, intra-enterprise barter, and the planning
apparatus still cause significant economic distortions.
Habits learned in the bad old days still guide the economic
policy instincts of leading politicians and senior

A Banking System Awash in Money

5. (U) Iraq's financial plumbing, however, is brand new.
Risk management and profit maximization now drive bank
lending, not orders from the top. As a result of decades of
directed lending, most of the state-owned banks carry a
crushing burden of non-performing assets. The two largest
banks, Rafidain and Rashid, are technically insolvent and
unable to take on new risks. Over the past year, the loan
portfolio of state-owned banks grew by less than 10 percent,
mainly through non-commercial, GOI-subsidized programs. Over
the same period, lending by private banks grew by nearly 50

6. (U) The role of the central bank is also radically new.
The CBI takes seriously its statutory responsibility to
achieve price stability. And it has performed admirably on
that score under extremely difficult conditions. The CBI's
most effective policy tool is intervention in the
foreign-exchange market. By auctioning dollars at ever lower
prices, the CBI takes a large volume of dinars out of
circulation, restraining growth of the money supply. The
increasing value of the dinar also makes imported goods more
affordable, further blunting inflationary pressures. Iraq's
core price level (excluding volatile food and fuel
components) is now increasing at an annual rate of between 10
and 15 percent, less than half as fast as in 2006.

7. (U) Even though the CBI has curbed inflation through a
restrictive monetary policy, the banks have more than enough
money to support more commercial lending activities. In
addition to cash reserves mandated by CBI regulations, all
banks in Iraq maintain remarkably high levels of excess
reserves, on which they earn no financial return. On
average, Iraqi banks hold excess reserves equivalent to about
6 percent of total assets, a ratio more than 10 times higher
than in the developed world. This holds even for the private
banks, which lend far more actively than the moribund
state-owned banks.

Infrastructure, Not Interest Rates

8. (U) With so much liquidity available, banks need not
borrow to fund new loans. Some observers note that banks
earn interest on their deposits with the CBI, so the high
policy rate gives them a riskless investment alternative that
discourages lending. But the CBI enforces a limit on banks'
access to its interest-bearing deposit facility. Funds in

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excess of this limit remain with the banks as idle balances,
immediately available to fund new loans. Under these
conditions, cuts in the CBI's policy rate or required reserve
ratios have no effect on the supply of credit.

9. (U) So if Iraqi banks have money, why don't they lend more
of it? The answer lies in the first rule of banking: Don't
lend money you don't expect to be repaid. Under present
conditions, the supply of loanable funds in the banking
system exceeds the supply of acceptable lending risks.
Meanwhile, banks earn reasonable profits from no-risk
services like currency exchange, letters of credit, and
performance guarantees. As the private banks grow and
competition intensifies, the fee-for-service model will
become less profitable and banks will put more emphasis on

10. (U) How quickly the banking system makes the transition
to profitable intermediation depends on the development of
financial infrastructure Iraq still lacks. In order to
deploy their excess reserves profitably, Iraqi banks must be
able to measure and compare the risks of alternative lending
opportunities. They need to be able to enforce claims on
collateral. And they need a money market where banks and
businesses trade financial claims for cash. To promote
growth, the GOI should work to build the financial
infrastructure that provides these capabilities, not lean on
the CBI to loosen monetary policy.

What the USG is Doing

11. (U) USG programs already bridge some gaps in Iraq's
financial infrastructure, at least on a small scale. Lending
programs supported by USAID provide modest financing where
banks fear to tread, mainly for small enterprises. For
larger enterprises, OPIC has made financing available through
the Iraq Middle Market Development Foundation. Treasury and
Defense have introduced electronic funds transfer to the
banking system, significantly lowering transaction costs. At
the local level, Provicial Reconstruction Teams work with
small businesses to develop entrepreneurial skills, design
business plans, and locate sources of financing. These
initiatives help move Iraq's economy forward by reducing the
costs and risks associated with lending.

© Scoop Media

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