Iran traders ride bull market despite US sanctions

Tehran’s Stock Exchange is thriving despite tensions in the Gulf. (AFP pic)

TEHRAN: Iran’s stock market is thriving, despite US sanctions which have battered its economy and an uncertain future as geopolitical tensions soar in the Gulf.

Tehran Stock Exchange was buzzing Monday after the latest spike in a 12-month bull market, which veteran trader Mohsen said was mostly caused by the crash of Iran’s currency, the rial.

“Share values are not growing because of profitability but because of the companies’ asset values,” which have spiked on a drastically weaker currency, he said.

The energetic 58-year-old said he had “seen it all” in three decades of trading at the exchange in central Tehran.

Its main index, the TEDPIX, has steadily risen over the past 12 months, accelerating in the most recent quarter to a historic high of 248,577 last week – more than twice its level of a year ago.

Iran’s currency crisis has made imports far more expensive, at the same time as US-imposed banking sanctions made it harder to move goods into the country or receive payment for exports.

Yet investors seemed unconcerned about tensions with Washington, which have escalated since US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal last year and reinstated biting sanctions against Tehran.

Share prices have continued their run even since Iran shot down a US spy drone in mid-June, nearly triggering a retaliatory US strike – the latest in a series of incidents that have raised fears of a regional conflict.

“Maybe only a war breaking out could stop the market. Otherwise, political tensions won’t impact it,” said investor Mohammad Kazerani after visiting a bank counter at the exchange to withdraw more cash to invest.

“The market has been good for about three months, very good,” the upbeat 48-year old said.

The Iranian economy is struggling in part because of the crippling US sanctions targeting Iran’s oil sales, banking transactions and major industries like steel and petrochemicals.

That has caused runaway inflation, officially topping 52%, and the rial has nosedived against major foreign currencies over the past year.

But some of these woes may be the very factors fuelling the rise in Tehran stock prices.

“Sanctions and political tensions have actually been good for some companies that sell their products in Iran,” Mohsen said.

Silver lining

According to economists, the root causes of the rial’s slump pre-date the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

But the subsequent reimposition of US sanctions has caused the currency to lose half of its value against the dollar since May last year.

Yet Kazerani said a weaker rial has been a silver lining for some companies, as the soaring prices of imports have pushed buyers towards local producers.

Some Iranian companies, long sidelined in favour of foreign competitors, are now seeing so much demand that “buyers have to queue up” to place orders, he said.

Among those gaining the most are firms specifically targeted by US sanctions, including the Mobarakeh Steel Company and the Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company, a big enterprise linked to the Revolutionary Guards.

At the Tehran exchange, investors sat in a glass hall overlooking the operators’ room, where traders faced a large monochrome ticker or huddled over small terminals, tracking their shares.

Mohsen, busy advising someone to buy shares in a shipbuilding company despite US sanctions, said the good times will not last long.

“This situation will only last a year or two, and it won’t repeat itself,” he said.