The Associated Press September 8, 2010, 12:48PM ET

Iran stocks rally, sparking bubble concerns

In the span of about three months, the Tehran Stock Exchange's benchmark index has surged almost 23 percent, setting new records that officials argue are clear indications that Iran's economy is far from hurting despite international sanctions.

But behind the number, analysts and economists say, is a closed-door system in which a handful of companies are influencing the market.

While many concede the months long rally is fueled by increased liquidity and the government's push to privatize a number of public sector firms by next year, the real question is how sustainable that rally is and on what it is based.

"This is not the real index of the market in Iran," said economist Saeed Leilaz, who like many other analysts believes the gains are largely the result of planned trades between government-related bodies rather than demand by ordinary investors. "If you pull quasi-governmental firms out of the market, it drops remarkably."

For Iran, any signs of accomplishments are eagerly embraced, and the TSE's growth has provided reason to celebrate. The index's surge from about 15,000 almost three months ago to over 18,400 points on Wednesday has driven the TSE's total value to $80 billion, up from $70 billion in mid-July.

The country is mired in its fourth round of U.N. sanctions over its nuclear program -- measures augmented by U.S. and European restrictions aimed at squeezing the country into halting its controversial uranium enrichment program.

A growing number of oil companies are halting shipments of refined fuels to Iran, which lacks the domestic refining capacity to meet local demand. A growing number of countries are scrutinizing Iranian banks' financial operations -- again part of the sanctions measures.

Against that backdrop, the exchanges growth has offered officials a chance to show that Iran's self-reliance remains unhindered.

The head of Iran's stock market, Ali Salehbadi, told state-run television on Wednesday that the exchange's growth was far from speculative. He noted that the price-to-earnings ratio -- the measure investors place on a firm's earnings -- was 6.5 in Iran compared to about 15 in other countries.

"Currently, Iran's stock exchange is in the first place in the region, in terms of profit-making," he said.

The implication behind the lower P/E ratio is that the stocks are not overvalued compared to stocks in other markets. But other factors could be at work resulting in a low P/E ratio, such as lackluster demand for shares. That's the factor which economists say may be more prominently at work in Iran.

"Only five to 10 percent of the market is in the hands of ordinary people," said Leilaz. "If, by planning or agreement, the price of the shares of five to 10 companies increases, it can affect the market."

"Even the injecting of $100 million in liquidity can easily affect the market," he said.

Also factoring into the growth are slowdowns in other sectors, such as housing, which is prompting investors to shift to the stock market.

"Some may argue the remarkable growth of the stock market is because the economy is flourishing," said Mousa Ghaninejad, an economist and university professor. "Unfortunately, there are other reasons too: It's mostly led by an inevitable move in liquidity."

Soheila Pourshams, a retired teacher, is a case in point.

"Other fields just aren't rewarding any more," said Pourshams, who has begun funneling her savings into the TSE. "Banks have dropped their interest rates."

While analysts debate the reasons behind the market's rally, officials are basking in a rare, tangible, accomplishment that has trickled down to the population.

The country has been hammered for over a year by the political and economic after effects of the contested presidential elections of 2009 that saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad elected to a second term.

Ahead of that vote, critics argued that the hardliner had run the country into the ground, squandering oil money on populist projects that served only to bolster his support base but which did little to develop the national economy.

Internationally, Iran was growing increasingly isolated over a nuclear program the West says is aimed at weapons production while Tehran says it is purely peaceful.

Foreign firms that had viewed Iran's vast oil deposits with cautious trepidation over the past decade or so now openly shun investments after the U.N. Security Council's latest sanctions passed in June.

Even those that did venture to the country -- mostly Chinese firms -- have been content with just signing memorandums of understandings aimed more at getting a prospective foot in the door once the climate improved.

Some 80 percent of Iran's foreign income comes from oil sales, and officials say the country needs about $200 billion in investments over the next five years to develop the energy sector. But with foreign funds, expertise and companies absent, local firms are stepping in -- and are often either overstretched or out of their depth.

While the government has taken pride in an inflation rate that has fallen from more than 20 percent a couple of years ago to less than 10 percent in May, analysts caution that such gains could quickly evaporate if planned fuel and food subsidy cuts materialize. Those measures, experts argue, could drive inflation up to 50 percent.

That makes the market gains such a key factor in the government's push to reassure Iranians that the sanctions are not having their intended effect.

"We have one of the three top stock markets of the world now in terms of index growth rate," said Ali Sanginian, the TSE's vice president in charge of research and business development. One reason for the rally, he said, "could be decreased imports and a more attractive domestic market for investors."

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El-Tablawy contributed from Cairo


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