Idled Trading in Baghdad Frustrates Iraqi Investors

Times Staff Writer

When prices on the Baghdad Stock Exchange surged on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, traders weren't sure whether it reflected optimism that Saddam Hussein's regime would fall or defiance of the U.S. Army.

These days, traders don't debate such things on the trading floor of the 13-year-old exchange. In fact, there is no floor.

The polished concrete tiles -- along with glass windows, doors, ceiling and just about everything else -- were stripped away by looters after the fall of Baghdad. All that's left are piles of discarded files and debris, a manual printer and, oddly, a spare tire.

In a final indignity, a family of squatters took over the building, turning the lobby into a makeshift bathroom.

U.S. officials hope to launch a new, stronger exchange, saying the old system -- like much of Iraq itself -- is in need of a complete overhaul. But Iraqi investors and stockbrokers are growing impatient. Considering the U.S.-led coalition's desire to jump-start Iraq's private-sector economy, they wonder what's taking so long.

"No one can buy, no one can sell," said Hassan Abdul Latif, owner of Al Jazeera Brokerage Co. in Baghdad. "Everything has stopped. Investors are suffering."

Each day, Latif finds himself soothing the nerves of anxious clients who visit his office to ask when trading will resume. Like the clock above his desk, most of Latif's business has stopped. He's had to lay off a couple of employees and he worries about paying the rent.

Abdul Kahlil Fadhl, a 62-year-old retiree who says his $50,000 nest egg is tied up in Iraqi stocks, is so frustrated he's thinking about organizing a demonstration. Before the war, he lived off the proceeds from stock trading. Unable to access his holdings, he now is using up what's left of his savings.

"I feel hatred against the government that is causing this stagnation," he said.

Few of the estimated 500,000 investors who traded on the Baghdad Stock Exchange are in dire financial straits. Most are wealthy business owners or ex-members of the former ruling Baath Party who before the war had enough money to take a chance on one of Iraq's 113 publicly traded companies, mostly hotels, banks and industrial factories.

Some investors are looking forward to a new exchange, saying it is worth waiting for an internationally respected system that will better protect investors and will be harder to manipulate.

Others have decided they can no longer afford to wait: They are meeting secretly at banks or in private offices to trade stocks on their own. It's risky and technically illegal, but they note that no one is around to stop them.

The temptation to trade has been all the harder to resist amid reports that stock prices of some Iraqi companies appear to be on the rise.

When investor Sami Yasin heard that shares of his Melia Mansour Hotel were up 500%, he sold 100,000 shares privately. "I just wanted to see if I could do it," he explained. But he's holding the remainder, betting shares will rise even further once the exchange opens.

Trading off the exchange is another sign of investor frustration, brokers say. "Our companies are ready," Latif said. "We are just waiting for the Americans."

Thomas C. Foley, who arrived in August to head private-sector development in Iraq, said he shared investors' sense of urgency. "We're looking for ways to provide as much access to capital as we can," said Foley, a friend of and contributor to President Bush. "The stock market will do that."

The Iraqi Governing Council has set aside $3.8 million next year to modernize the exchange. But U.S. officials say they have a lot of work to do.

Under the old system, trading was permitted just three days a week. Investors stood behind a glass partition with binoculars as traders used markers with erasable ink to write the latest prices on a large white plastic board. When investors saw a price they liked, they pointed at the board to initiate a trade.

Volume was low, with trades rarely exceeding $100,000, making the government-run system prone to manipulation by investors with lots of cash. And prices were allowed to rise or fall only 5% a day, sometimes distorting the companies' actual value, investors and brokers said.

Investors also had difficulty getting an honest assessment of a company's financial strength. "It was hard to tell what stocks were really worth," said Fadhl, the retiree.

For example, he said the stated value of one factory whose stock he owned was 2 billion Iraqi dinars, but he suspects the actual value is 10 billion. The dinar currently trades at about 2,000 to the dollar.

For the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, the first order of business is a new location. The ransacked old building will be abandoned in favor of a renovated Indian restaurant closer to downtown.

Foley plans to privatize the facility to mirror the New York Stock Exchange. Brokers and traders will run it with oversight from a new government regulatory body.

Most former heads of the Baghdad Stock Exchange, who were high-ranking members of the Baath Party or had other ties to Hussein, will not have jobs on the new exchange, according to U.S. officials.

Suebhi Azawi, the former director of the exchange who denies being part of the old regime, says he has been promised a job to head the new regulatory body. But Foley said no decision had been made.

Once the exchange is up and running, Foley hopes to use it to set market prices for many of the state-owned factories that eventually will be sold to private investors.

A smooth reopening will be a challenge, particularly given the pent-up pressure and Iraq's instability. Some popular stocks are expected to rise, such as shares of State Co. for Carbonated Drinks, which makes Pepsi here, and hotels such as the Babylon and the Palestine, which are doing good business thanks to the many reconstruction workers and journalists in town.

On the other hand, terrorism and security concerns are taking a toll.

When the Baghdad Hotel was bombed this month, prices of hotel stocks sank in unauthorized off-market trading, investors said.

"I'm just going to wait and see what happens," Yasin said. "I think it may go up, but I don't want to gamble."

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