Despite violence, investors heading to Damascus bourse to 'protect savings'
Syrian investor Khaleel Tohmeh is on a buying spree in the Damascus stock market, pinning his hopes on a long-term recovery of a bourse that has seen about two-thirds of its capitalisation wiped out by the two-year-old civil war.
"I am finding shares very attractive at these levels and cannot find another place to put my money, even if it will be two years before I can benefit," said Tohmeh, speaking by telephone from his Damascus office. "Whatever the timing, the market will rise much faster than it fell."
For the last few weeks, the stock market, with a capitalisation of about $1 billion at the Syrian pound's beaten-down exchange rate, has boomed.
After hitting a record low of 768 points on Jan. 7, the main market index jumped nearly 20 percent in the space of a month to rise above 900 points on April 24. It closed Tuesday at 897 points, compared to around 1,500 in March 2011, before the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began.
Average daily trading turnover has climbed to between 15 and 20 million pounds ($200,000) from around 4 million pounds in 2012.
"I don't think we will get back to the bottom we saw, in which some shares had lost 40 percent of their book value. It will go up," said Tohmeh, head of GTASCO, an investment firm whose buying has helped to fuel the bull run in equities.
Syria's stock exchange, which began operating in March 2009 as part of efforts to liberalise the economy, has 22 listed companies; 12 are banks, most of them majority-owned subsidiaries of foreign banks from Lebanon and the Gulf. There are six listed insurance firms, as well as industrials and service companies.
Perversely, damage to the economy from the civil war now appears to be contributing to the stock market's partial recovery.
The Syrian pound has lost about 60 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar in two years; many wealthy Syrians have been unwilling or unable to move all their money out of the country. Some see the stock market as a chance to protect their capital against currency depreciation.
Equities are also being used as a hedge against inflation, which has risen to at least 60 percent, according to independent economists. Inflation can benefit some companies by allowing them to raise prices.
"There are no longer any speculators entering the market - now most of the investors who enter eye long-term investments," said Mohammed Halwani, chief broker at the brokerage arm of Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi, the largest brokerage among eight licensed firms.
"People are looking at higher inflation and the Syrian pound will be losing its value. It's a way to hedge against the depreciation. Investors now prefer a stock to the pound."
Bank shares are a preferred target of investors because the banks are generally well capitalised and backed by strategic partners; for example, International Bank for Trade and Finance is a subsidiary of Jordan's Housing Bank.
Another leading stock is Qatar National Bank of Syria (QNBS) , a subsidiary of Qatar National Bank ; in a strange accommodation of business and political interests, it has continued to operate even though Qatar is publicly supporting rebels fighting Assad.
Shares in QNBS and other privately owned banks have jumped between 20 and 30 percent in the last month; QNBS closed Tuesday at 97.75 pounds, against levels above 150 pounds in early 2011.
"If you have your money in Syrian pounds, they could disappear if the situation worsens, but at least here you have a chance for upside, because you are investing in a bank share with assets, a strong client base etcetera," said one Syrian financial analyst who requested anonymity because of political sensitivities.
Many of Syria's medium-sized companies, such as insurers, are obliged by law to keep part of their capital in local currency, and they have bought shares instead of depositing their cash in banks to be eroded by inflation, brokers said.
FORTUNES OF WAR:
The fortunes of war in different parts of the country have helped to determine stock prices; although much of the country's industrial base has been destroyed, other parts have continued operating.
Ahlia Vegetable Oil Co, whose plants are in a relatively safe government-controlled area in the city of Hama, has seen its shares rise 35 percent since January.
In addition to the stock exchange, there has been brisk trading in the over-the-counter share market, where investors have bought shares in some of the country's big firms such as Syria's main mobile telephone operator, Syria Tel.
The war does not appear to have inflicted major damage on the company's bottom line, perhaps because all parties in the conflict have continued to use its service.
Syria Tel, which is owned by a range of private and institutional investors, many of whom are connected to Assad's regime, said its 2012 net profit climbed 1 percent to 7.5 billion pounds ($60 million). Its shares have gained about 20 percent during the recent rally to around 315 pounds, though they are still half their pre-crisis level of about 630 pounds.
Investing in Syria's stock market remains a leap of faith: that companies will survive the war, that ownership rights will survive in the economic and political turmoil that may accompany the eventual end of the conflict. But it is a leap that some Syrians are willing to take, in the absence of better options.
"This speedy rise has seen new liquidity entering the market," said Mohammad al-Ostwani, a broker in ChamCapital financial services firm in Damascus. "For many investors, owning a share in a company is now better than holding a pound that goes up and down."