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Infighting a Boon to Iraq Bonds as Cash Pile Swells: Arab Credit

May 22 (Bloomberg) -- An unintended consequence of Iraq’s political strife is cheaper borrowing costs for the government.

The yield on Iraq’s January 2028 bond tumbled 101 basis points this year to 6.64 percent today, within three basis points of the lowest since March 2013, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The bond has returned 13 percent in the period, more than twice the average for dollar-denominated sovereign bonds from the Middle East’s OPEC members.

Foreign currency reserves rose 33 percent to $88 billion in the fourth quarter from the end of 2012 after the nation surpassed Iran as OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer. An impasse over revenue-sharing between the government and Iraq’s self-ruling Kurds is among the disputes that have blocked approval of a record budget of $145.9 billion for 2014. Sectarian killings in the country, which held elections last month, are at the highest since 2009.

“From a financial perspective, they are getting stronger as spending is postponed and they accumulate reserves with crude production stable,” said Mohieddine Kronfol, chief investment officer, global sukuk and Middle East and North Africa fixed-income at Franklin Templeton Investments ME.

Crude Wealth

Iraq, with the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves, is rebuilding its energy industry after decades of war and economic sanctions. Helped by investors including Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Exxon Mobil Corp., the country pumped 3.25 million barrels a day in April, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Saudi Arabia is the only member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries producing more.

The economy is forecast to grow by 5.8 percent this year, up from 3.7 percent in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund. Even so, non-energy investment and spending on housing and other social needs has slowed amid political wrangling.

“The more polarized the politics and dangerous the security situation in Iraq, the less they are able to execute on their much-needed and very large capital expenditure plans,” Kronfol said in Dubai on May 20.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc, which won the biggest share of the vote in the April 30 elections, is trying to reach an agreement with parties opposed to his staying in office for a third term. Parties including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq accuse Maliki of refusing to share power.

Car Bombings

Tensions between the central government and the Kurds of northern Iraq complicate any outcome. The Kurdish region has halted oil exports via a national pipeline since December 2012, and its feud with the government in Baghdad has contributed to parliament’s inability to approve an energy law.

Sectarian conflict, aggravated by the civil war in neighboring Syria, has worsened. Car bombings and other violence have killed 3,015 civilians in the first three months of this year, according to the unofficial Iraq Body Count website.

The yield on Iraq’s only bond has dropped from 9 percent in 2006, when the government issued $2.7 billion of securities to help restructure debt amassed under former president Saddam Hussein, ousted by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

The extra yield investors demand to hold Iraq’s dollar bonds rather than Treasuries has declined 112 basis points, or 1.12 percentage points, since this year’s Feb. 6 peak to 432 basis points yesterday, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI Global indexes. The spread between Treasuries and Middle Eastern bonds narrowed by 48 basis points in the same period. Iraq’s spread dropped on May 12 to the lowest since August 2011.

“Iraq could buy back the entire bond issue at par with the revenue from 10 days of oil exports,” Geoffrey Batt, managing director of the $110 million Euphrates Iraq Fund, said in a May 20 e-mail from New York. “This creates a large margin of safety. A lot can go wrong, and investors can still do very well.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nayla Razzouk in Dubai at nrazzouk2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaric Nightingale at anightingal1@bloomberg.net Bruce Stanley, Gavin Serkin

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