Kirk H. Sowell
Since taking office, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has faced a series of fiscal and security crises amid collapsing public services and protests. The collapse in global oil prices due to the coronavirus pandemic and the Saudi-Russia oil price war caused Iraq to face an internal solvency crisis as early as June. This fiscal crisis has short and long-term implications. In the short-term, Baghdad continuously struggles to pay public sector salaries, which required the state to borrow from the Central Bank over the summer. With low oil revenue, the state’s monthly profits are covering just over 50 percent of its expenses. In the longer-term, Iraq faces a looming macro-fiscal state collapse—potentially within the next year.
The state is struggling to cover its monthly expenses. Over successive governments, the size of the public sector has grown to the point that Iraq needs to spend more than its total revenue on basic payments—public sector salaries, pensions, food aid, and welfare—to keep a majority of Iraq’s population out of destitution. In 2019, oil revenue averaged $6.5 million per month, and with modest non-oil revenues (largely customs, well less than $1 billion per month), this covered operational expenses with a small amount left over for capital spending. Since the recovery of oil prices after the March collapse, Iraq’s monthly oil revenues have averaged just over $3 billion/month, hitting a high of $3.52 billion in August. In testimony before parliament in September, Finance Minister Ali Allawi revealed that with revenues at these levels, the government was still borrowing 3.5 trillion Iraqi Dinars (IQD) — just over $3 billion—from the Central Bank each month.
On October 10, as Iraq’s cash crunch became more acute, Allawi explained that state employee compensation rose from 20 percent of oil revenues in 2005 to 120 percent today. To help the public understand why the government of such an oil-rich country was broke, he explained that a government of this size should have at least $15 to 20 billion in funds to pay monthly expenses on an ongoing basis, but when this government took office, only about $1 billion was available. This is in part due to weak revenues, the result of low oil prices and Iraq’s adherence to OPEC’s limitations on oil exports. In the past, Iraq’s oil exports have reached 3.5 million barrels per day (bpd), yet they decreased to 2.5 million bpd in recent months. Prominent figures, including former oil minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, have argued in favor of leaving the OPEC agreement unilaterally. Yet Allawi, speaking before Parliament, explained that while he agreed that OPEC’s quota formula was unfair, Iraq needs the OPEC agreement to keep oil prices from collapsing. More recently, according to the Iraq Oil Report, the government has signaled that it may try to thread the needle by increasing exports by 250,000 barrels per day to satisfy critics—an amount above its quota, but still about 750,000 barrels per day below peak production, and thus hopefully too small an increase to incur Saudi retaliation.
Iraq’s monthly oil revenue to collapsed from $6.2 billion in January to just $1.4 billion in April. The figure recovered to $2.9 billion in May and has gradually improved since, but in August was still just $3.5 billion. Since the government only had about $3 billion in expendable reserves in May, it became clear that Iraq could not pay state employees in June. Salaries over the summer were paid as money became available. As late as July 28, the prime minister’s spokesman admitted that employees at the Culture & Antiquities Ministry (apparently the lowest priority), were still waiting to be paid.
The government saw this crisis coming and began preparing the public for austerity. Finance Minister Allawi made multiple public appearances, describing Iraq’s situation as dire and arguing for radical reform. In particular, he predicted that the government, while protecting base salaries, would make large cuts to employee benefits and other costs. On June 9, the cabinet followed through when it voted to implement a series of austerity measures, including cutting benefits, cutting unessential spending, and capping income from “double-salary” payments. Kadhimi’s advisor Hisham Daoud described the new policies as “not enough but only a start” toward reform.
Kadhimi, with no electoral base or political base of his own, has faced the fiscal crisis with a weak hand. This became clear when Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the government’s austerity policies on June 10, one day later. Even MPs friendly to the government described the government’s measures as premature, suggesting that they should try to raise revenue through customs first. Parliament eventually passed a borrowing law on June 24 to allow the government to borrow just enough to make basic payments. This law, however, prohibited the government from cutting benefits. Previously, the cabinet had the authority to cut benefits because, unlike salaries set by law, benefits were set by previous cabinet decrees. Thus, Parliament made the long-term problem worse.
In July, protests resurged in Baghdad as a result of the fiscal crisis. The shortage of money caused Iraq’s electricity shortage to worsen dramatically. Outgoing Electricity Minister Luay al-Khatteeb attributed the decline to two factors: lack of maintenance and the suspension of planned electricity projects.
The government has a few possible, but politically difficult, fixes at its disposal. They could cut the subsidy of roughly $1 billion per month to private electricity consumption, which exists because the ministry only collects a fraction of consumer payments. Finance Minister Allawi pointed out that “people don’t pay their electricity bills” and that “95 percent” of consumption costs was absorbed by the state, asserting that “electricity is not a constitutional right.” Yet such an effort will recall former prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s experience trying to extract electricity payments in 2017, which precipitated a strong protest movement. So far, Kadhimi has shown no sign of pushing the issue. His published comments during a cabinet meeting devoted to the electricity issue focused on “reducing bureaucracy” and improving maintenance, sidestepping the fact that maintenance workers have to be paid.
Iraq’s fiscal crisis comes on the heels of the political crisis of the outgoing government, which left the country without a budget for most of 2020. In such cases, Iraqi law allows the government to spend one twelfth of the previous year’s actual spending each month. Since this year’s revenues have been low, it never had the money to spend that much and simply spent what it had on basic payments.
In September, the government released a budget for 2020 and the planned deficit was large—well over 100 percent—so as with past budgets much of the deficit will likely not be spent. The total anticipated revenues are 67.4 trillion dinars, or $57 billion, compared with proposed expenditures of 148.6 trillion dinars, or $125.7 billion. Oil revenue in 2019 was $78.5 billion yet is projected to be just $49.3 billion for 2020. The government withdrew the bill just two days after it arrived in parliament.
In September the government ran out of money, having used up the borrowing authority from the June bill. Given the population’s overwhelming dependence on state salaries, this brought the short-term financial problems to the fore. Furthermore, Parliament refused to authorize the new borrowing authority Allawi sought because the government had not submitted a “reform plan.” Thus in early October the government released a “White Paper” reform plan. The plan draws a broad and long path to reform that does not directly address the immediate crisis, except to the extent that its publication formally satisfies Parliament’s precondition for new borrowing.
An important part of Allawi’s efforts was his advocacy of Iraq accepting an International Monetary Fund “Stand-By Agreement” (SBA) which might be the only way to prevent a fiscal collapse next year. The agreement would also require spending cuts that parliament has already rejected. Allawi stressed that the IMF would not require cuts to programs protecting the poor, but rather to public sector compensation that, in Allawi’s view, Iraq needed to cut anyway.
This set the stage for a new debacle as the government then sent a new borrowing law to Parliament only to condemn it. A member of Parliament on the Finance Committee criticized the figures in the bill as irresponsible. Given the parliament’s role in aggravating the crisis, this was grandstanding. The looming parliamentary elections, due no later than 2022 and possibly earlier, are driving the political theater. Parliament will presumably pass an amended version of the government’s borrowing bill to allow the government to pay salaries. In the meantime, with salaries being paid late, disposable income is squeezed, further damaging an already weak economy. But Iraq could face a much worse scenario in 2021, as the IMF’s updated forecast for Brent oil prices projects $46.70 per barrel. Iraq’s Central Bank, which rescued the government over the summer, relies on a steady flow of dollars from oil revenues and given current prices range from $40 to $45, reserves are gradually declining. According to financial analyst Ahmed al-Tabaqchali, at current oil prices the Central Bank can continue to print money to fund the government “for about eight or nine months.”
In terms of immediate steps, at a minimum, a devaluation of the Iraqi dinar (long pegged at 1,182 to the dollar) seems likely in 2021. This would relieve some pressure on the Central Bank and make the government’s expenses cheaper (since its income is in dollars), but it would also drive up inflation over time. The bigger threat is that by mid-to-late 2021, the Central Bank will no longer be able to support the government, forcing austerity through non-payment of operational expenses, including salaries.
It is clear that the government needed to adopt a policy of cutting public sector expenses while increasing its capital investment in agriculture and industry and devoting more resources to education and health. Kadhimi’s reform measures in June were too little, too late. Still, the austerity that Parliament has resisted will be inevitable if oil prices do not rise dramatically in the months to come. A key priority from an international point of view is that the IMF, as a condition for its loans, impose upon Iraq the reforms for which Allawi has been advocating and which parliament has so rejected. It does not seem likely that reform will come to Iraq by any other means.
Follow him on Twitter @uticarisk.