- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 18, 2004

BAGHDAD — The miniature Liberty Bell clanged. Elbows flew. Sweat poured down foreheads. Sales tickets were passed and, with a flick of the wrist, 10,000 shares of the Middle East Bank had more than doubled in value.

The frantic pace yesterday of those first 10 minutes of trading typified the enthusiasm behind the Iraq Stock Exchange, an institution seen as a critical step in building a new Iraqi economy.

In five sessions, trading volume has nearly quadrupled, and the value of some stocks has surged more than 600 percent. Traders say the gains reflect the pent-up frustration of 15 months of closure.

“How can I not be excited by this?” asked Taha Ahmed Abdul-Salam, the exchange’s chief executive officer, as he eyed the activity on the trading floor.

The ISX is housed temporarily in a converted restaurant. Looters had gutted the old exchange, so traders now jostle for position in a long room overlooking an old dining room. Where bartenders once chatted with patrons sidling up for drinks, a bank of secretaries logs orders.

With space limited, investors are not allowed in the exchange, let alone on the “floor.” Instead, from a makeshift courtyard, they can look in through the same windows that once offered diners a garden view. Joining them are a posse of men armed with assault rifles who provide security.

Such scenes are standard in the tumultuous Iraqi capital, and the presence of security does little to dampen enthusiasm at the exchange.

The unofficial figures of the day’s trade tell the story: More than $10 million in stocks changed hands, reflecting the movement of about 1.43 billion shares, though only 27 companies are listed on the exchange.

“Iraqis have always been business-savvy,” said Mr. Abdul-Salam, the former research head at the old exchange. “But that we have this much activity with so few companies listed shows just how much pent-up frustration there was among investors under the previous regime.”

For Iraqis, these days have been a long time coming. The ISX replaces the defunct Baghdad Stock Exchange, which was riddled with corruption. Saddam Hussein’s extended family often muscled in by simply issuing new shares for companies they found attractive.

The new exchange has built-in safeguards against manipulation. It took about a year to set up, with 12 brokerage houses and banks that own it working alongside former occupation authorities to lay the legal and regulatory framework.

“This is much better than before,” said Emad Shakir al-Baghdadi, a broker with the Okaz Co. firm. The removal of a 5 percent cap on price swings has added tremendous credibility and liquidity to the market, he added.

“Look at these prices,” he said, glancing at the board showing offers for one industrial company at about 25 dinars, almost two-tenths of a cent. “These shares are ridiculously undervalued. That’s why prices are surging as much as 600 percent from day to day.”

The exchange was inaugurated last month and is open two days a week for two hours a day. Yesterday’s session was the first open to the press.

Officials hope that in a month they will have all 120 companies previously listed on the old exchange on the ISX’s “big board” — actually 27 small white boards, where workers record trades with markers.

Thirty minutes after the ringing of the Liberty Bell replica — a donation from the Philadelphia Stock Exchange — Talib al-Tabatabie, the ISX’s board chairman, hollered into the phone, struggling to be heard over the din from the trading floor, which lacks air conditioning.

“Sell? Do you want me to sell them now?” he screamed to a client over the phone, his shirt coming untucked as he waved his arms. “It’s up again. We should sell.”

Economists say the key to success is a strong regulatory framework, transparency and accountability. A shift to an electronic trading system is coming, officials say.

So are more regulations. Oversight here comes from the Iraq Securities Commission, headed by Luay al-Okali.

“Right now, we’re all working together to build up the exchange. Later, when things are running smoother, then we’ll give them a hard time,” Mr. al-Okali said with a wink.

One bonus will be opening the door to foreign investment. The legal framework is in place, but the details have yet to be completed.

“My hope would be that they would quickly encourage foreign investment,” said Gary Becker, Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist. “Foreign investors often want to make sure they have majority ownership.”

Brokers and ISX officials predict that the tourism and hospitality sector will be the market’s new blue chips.

Yesterday, Baghdad Hotel’s shares did not disappoint. In a market where many shares were trading at values equal to a fraction of a penny, the 25-cent offer for the hotel’s stock was snapped up.

“Don’t forget that Iraq is a tourist country. There’s plenty to see here,” said Muhammad Ismael, a broker with Qidwa Securities.

As the sound of gunfire reverberated in the distance, he shrugged.

“I guess it will take a little more time for them to come.”

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