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Iran already has a lot of problems, and the next one could be a banking crisis

  • Iran's stock market is up 3 percent in 2017
  • The country's top fund that takes foreign investment has soared 12 percent
  • But a banking crisis could derail hope of economic normalcy
A trader speaks with a stock market official beneath the electronic board at the Tehran Stock Exchange, Sept. 15, 2010.
Caren Firouz | Reuters
A trader speaks with a stock market official beneath the electronic board at the Tehran Stock Exchange, Sept. 15, 2010.

Nothing is easy for Iran's economy these days, and things could soon get even tougher.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pass a bill Tuesday to put new sanctions on Russia, North Korea — and Iran. A Senate version passed overwhelmingly last month.

Iran is being targeted for its activities in Syria, its ballistic missile program and other "destabilizing activities," according to the Senate's version of the legislation. Under the terms of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, Tehran is not immune to new sanctions as punishment for activities outside of the country's nuclear program.

Men use their smartphones to follow election news as posters of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani are seen in Tehran, Iran May 17, 2017.
TIMA | Reuters
Men use their smartphones to follow election news as posters of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani are seen in Tehran, Iran May 17, 2017.

Ramin Rabii, CEO of Turquoise Partners, Tehran's largest investment firm for foreign money, said "there is definitely some worry over new sanctions, especially of their impact on business with Europe and Asia."

There are bright spots, however, for the Iranian economy: "One of President (Hassan) Rouhani's greatest achievements," said Rabii, "has been to lower inflation from 45 percent down to a much more manageable 10 percent."

The next big economic problem?

But that moderating inflation has caused another problem to surface. Lower inflation combined with soaring interest rates — sometimes as high as 25 percent — have the country's top banking officials warning of a potential crisis.

During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, many banks were pressured into making risky loans with the short-term goal of propping up parts of the economy. Now, many of the recipients of those loans, often small- to mid-sized businesses with narrow profit margins, are having trouble keeping up with the payments.

"We have seen a big increase in European corporations coming to Iran, although inflow of foreign portfolio investment is still slow. It's better than it was, but it is still slow." -Ramin Rabii, CEO of Turquoise Partners

That said, any crisis that occurs is likely to be less severe than the 2008 catastrophe that struck the United States because Iran generally has much less debt in its economy. But the threat remains significant.

The prospect of a banking crisis is so serious that in a speech earlier this year, the head of Iran's central bank, Valiollah Seif, warned financial executives that non-performing loans were a threat to all the gains the Rouhani government is making on the economic front. While he has proposed possible solutions, nothing has been agreed upon.

Turquoise's fund has no bank holdings — Rabii said he exited the sector three years ago. He said he believes the central bank may need to intervene in the next 18 months to stave off a major threat.

Year-to-date, Turquoise's signature fund is up 12 percent, easily outpacing Tehran's main benchmark, which is up 3 percent. Turquoise has holdings in Iranian industrials, refined petroleum and the chemical sector.

"We have seen a big increase in European corporations coming to Iran, although inflow of foreign portfolio investment is still slow," he said. "It's better than it was, but it is still slow."