Egyptian Pound Tumbles to Record Low on Black Market

CAIRO—It has been a bad week for pounds. The Egyptian pound hit a record low against the dollar on the black market Wednesday after the North African country’s central bank failed to devalue the currency despite a floundering economy.

The currency was trading Wednesday afternoon at around 14.2 to a U.S. dollar, according to some currency traders in Cairo. That is nearly 60% weaker than the official exchange rate the central bank has kept steady at about 8.88 a dollar since devaluing the currencyin March.

Small and big businesses in Egypt have turned to the black market to fulfill their foreign-currency needs as the cash-strapped country rations what it has to pay for vital imports such as medicines and wheat.

The pound had dropped to more than 13 per dollar in July but recovered a little after Egypt in August reached a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $12 billion loan to support its strained finances.

Bets on a devaluation of the currency at the central bank’s weekly foreign exchange auction on Tuesday increased after the country’s net foreign reserves rose to $19.59 billion at the end of September from $16.56 billion in August. Before the increase last month, Egypt’s foreign reserves were about half of the level at the end of 2010.

The disclosure about the sharp increase in reserves—a key criteria for any potential currency devaluation—came after local press reports said Egypt’s central bank governor met the country’s president over the weekend and discussed foreign reserves and food-price stability, among other issues.

Most market entities interpreted the recent news flow as indicating an imminent currency devaluation, likely this week.

But the central bank held the exchange rate steady at its regular auction this week, contrary to expectations, which has resulted in the currency further weakening on the black market, bankers and currency traders say.

Still, expectations of a currency devaluation remain high.

An acute shortage of dollars has weighed on an economy already struggling to recover since the uprising in 2011.

Foreign investments and tourism—the country’s major sources of hard currency—have yet to pick up amid political unrest and a spate of terror attacks in recent months.

A weaker pound would help lure foreign investors, increase the Egyptian market’s competitiveness and help reduce the strain in the balance of payments. Egypt doesn’t officially peg its currency to the dollar but its central bank actively manages the exchange rate.

But the country needs to have higher foreign reserves to move to a more flexible exchange rate that reflects the present market conditions, something even the IMF has suggested.

Besides the IMF loan program, Egypt is also in talks with other agencies and allies for more funding to help plug a funding gap that authorities estimate at $21 billion over the coming three years. Some of that funding is likely to have come in September, analysts say. The World Bank early September said it disbursed $1 billion to Egypt.

But devaluation alone won’t do, says Hany Farahat, a senior economist at Cairo-based CI Capital. “Easing capital controls to revive portfolio investments and [foreign direct investment] is what really can bring this FX dilemma to an end.”