Iran stocks are booming, and nuclear talks are why
As Iran's government and a group of global powers creep forward on talks about easing economic sanctions slapped on that country, the Iranian street is showing signs of breaking free from the economic stagnation that has crippled the country for years.
Iran and the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany agreed on Thursday to a timeline and framework for further talks next month on restraining the Islamic state's nuclear ambitions. At the same time, United Nations inspectors have reported improved access to Iran's nuclear facilities.
All parties involved continue to warn that serious differences remain in the talks, and hopes for a final deal by July have been called ambitious.
In the meantime, however, Iran's economy is improving—and its stocks are absolutely booming. The Tehran Stock Exchange, which rose 130 percent in 2013, is up another 33 percent since November, when the so-called P5+1 group reached an interim accord with Iran. Trading volume broke records in December.
Turquoise Partners, a Tehran-based boutique investment firm, told CNBC that it's investing all of its assets in the Tehran Stock Exchange.
Ramin Rabii, managing director of Turquoise, said Thursday that "there are three reasons why the Tehran exchange is up: Shares are selling in a new reality of commodity and currency prices. There is more confidence in the market due to a reduction of political tensions after last year's election. And because people aren't putting their money into property, dollar and gold markets, which have been doing poorly, there is really no other place to put money right now. So it goes into the stock market."
The firm has $200 million under management, a large sum for a privately run, Iran-based firm.
"Right now there is a lot of interest from overseas," Rabii said. "I get several emails a week. Interest has picked up since the November deal was announced. However, at this stage, it is mostly exploratory."
Most of that attention comes from Europe but there is interest from the United States as well, Rabii said. However, the firm has been telling Americans that, due to U.S. regulations, it is still virtually impossible for Americans to invest in Iran.
Turquoise says it invests only in companies that are not subject to European Union and United Nations sanctions. Its top holdings are in Iran's consumer sector and commodity companies, mostly in the copper and steel space.
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Despite the market's rise, there are lingering questions about the economy. Inflation has lowered somewhat, but it still comes in at a staggering 35 percent a year. Rabii said he's optimistic, however, that the new government understands the economy and that inflation will be in the 20 percent range next year as a result.
Unemployment is also relatively high: Government estimates put it at 12 percent. However that's much lower than many European countries that were caught up in the financial crisis.
Economists who follow Iran add that it has a young and well-educated population. Because jobs have been hard to come by, many young people have chosen to stay in school and earn higher degrees. Many analysts believe Iran will be eager to attract new foreign investment in order to create jobs for the up-and-coming segment of the population.
"If sanctions are reduced, it will open up this untapped market, one of the few untapped markets on the planet, to foreign investors. There will be huge interest. It's not clear of course what a deal will look like, but if there is a deal there will be a huge inflow of investment into Iran."
Alireza Nader, an Iran expert for the think tank Rand Corp., is one of those analysts. Nader said he sees evidence that Iran's economy has improved since the initial November deal. Still, he noted, most of the sanctions levied against Iran over its nuclear program remain intact.
"Iran is losing more money than it is earning, especially since it can't export all of its oil," Nader said. He agreed with Rabii that confidence in the new government of President Hassan Rouhani is helping the public's mood and giving strength to the Iranian currency, the rial.
Cliff Kupchan, who studies Iran for the Eurasia Group, told CNBC that he sees an immediate improvement in Iran's economy since the initial deal was reached about three months ago. But he said Iran's economic gains would be cut if a nuclear deal falls through and full sanctions are restored.
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"The rial would plummet again, Iran's deficit would grow, access to foreign cash reserves would vanish, I think most of the gains Iran has seen would disappear," he said.
Turquoise's Rabii agreed that a deal would help Iran's financial situation more than an impasse would.
"If sanctions are reduced, it will open up this untapped market, one of the few untapped markets on the planet, to foreign investors. There will be huge interest. It's not clear of course what a deal will look like, but if there is a deal there will be a huge inflow of investment into Iran," Rabii said.
"Only half of 1 percent of the Iranian stock market is owned by foreign investors. That will change if sanctions are loosened."
—By CNBC's Jason Gewirtz