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Banking

Iran: Private banks still opening

The Iranian authorities’ recent granting of operating licences to two new private banks (Bank Sarmaye Daneshgah and Bank Pasargeda) suggests that the sector has a future, despite president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s apparent disdain for his predecessor’s reformist agenda.

By Lawrence White

He is reported to have said that much of Iran’s current financial predicament can be blamed on privately owned banks. “Had the banks trodden the path of the Islamic Revolution, very many of the country’s problems would have been resolved,” he said.

The president’s attacks on private banks have so far been more bombast than direct action. “There has been no obvious attempt to limit or attack the activities of private banks,” says Stephen Austen, CEO of Bahrain-based Future Bank, which is two-thirds funded by two Iranian banks. “A lot of people are jumping to conclusions about Iran these days,” he continues, “but the fourth five-year plan has not been changed in any way and all six private banks are continuing to develop.”

Ahmadinejad might lack the support he needs to ignore the privatizing intentions of the plan set out by former president Mohammad Khatami before the election. “My impression is that the current government has a different agenda,” says Philip Smith, senior director of financial institutions at Fitch Ratings, “but they lack the full backing of the clerical elite and would struggle to change the development plan.”

For now, while Iran’s sovereign rating remains on negative outlook and its political situation might be described as volatile, the private banks can take advantage of the fact that they are not subject to government-set constraints on interest rates by looking to increase their market share of deposits – whether they are encouraged to do so or not.

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