The Stunning Collapse of Iran's Currency

In a recent two-part series on the tensions between the United States and Iran, my colleague David Lee Smith provided readers with a broad and insightful overview of the unfolding crisis. He discussed the European Union's newly implemented embargo against Iranian oil, the contentious relationship between Shiite Iran and its Sunni neighbors, and the growing divide between the leadership of Iran and that of Turkey, among other things.

Despite this comprehensiveness, aspects of the crisis remain muddled. And one of these aspects involves the recent and sudden collapse of Iran's currency, the rial. While David described the issue in the first article of his series, I've decided to expand on it here by discussing why it collapsed, and the implications of its doing so.

When currencies collapse
The collapse of a currency is typically a well-publicized event that reverberates throughout the world's equity markets. The domino-like capitulation of East Asian currencies in 1997, for example, sent equity markets hurtling downward, leading to one of the largest single-day drops in the Dow Jones Industrial Index in history. And the 1998 devaluation of the Russian ruble triggered the demise of hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management, immortalized by Roger Lowenstein in When Genius Failed.

Yet this didn't happen when the Iranian rial collapsed at the beginning of this year. And the question is: Why? National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon shed a slender ray of light on this in an interview with Charlie Rose last week. Donilon tacitly implied that the collapse was anything but a mistake. And this would make sense, of course, as the United States is currently using economic measures to pressure the Iranian regime to abandon its nuclear program.

So why should we, as investors, care?
The answer to this question is two-fold. In the first case, the collapse of the rial provides an insightful case study into the vulnerability of exchange rates. How is it possible, for instance, that the currency of a major economy could lose half its value in a matter of weeks? In the second case, investors should care because it portends that a resolution to the crisis will occur sooner rather than later -- whatever that resolution may or may not be -- as a country that relies on imports as Iran does simply cannot function without an internationally marketable currency.

To illustrate the magnitude of the rial's collapse, I created the following chart, drawn from both official and unofficial sources of the rial's value. The official rate is the rate at which Iran's central bank will exchange rial's for dollars. The unofficial or market rate is the rate rials change hands on the open market in Tehran.

Sources: Official rate data from Market rate data from NPR's "Iran Currency Tumbles" and "Growing Pressures Prompt Plunge in Iranian Currency," and's "Iran Currency Tumbles."

As you can see, the rial departed from its official exchange rate at the end of last year. The timing was associated with the European Union's announcement that it would ban imports of Iranian oil, and the United States' decision to prohibit companies from interacting with Iran's central bank.

This sent holders of the rial scrambling to exchange them for dollars just as the proverbial door to do so was slamming. And because the forces of supply and demand determine a currency's value, the pressure on supply sent the purchasing power of the rial throttling downward. Last October, it cost roughly 11,500 rials to buy $1; today it costs upwards of 23,000.

The impact of this on the average Iranian is severe. A Tehran-based importer of semiprecious stones told The Wall Street Journal that "the economic situation in Iran is a disaster. Trade is at a minimum, and everyone is in a state of panic." He's now averaging less than $100 a day for a store that costs $400 in rent and expenses.

And the owner of a carpet-weaving factory in the northeastern city of Mashad told the Journal a similar story, saying that she has had to lay off several workers and cut production in the past two months as the market has fluctuated and inflation increased. The businesswoman and mother of five went on to note that her purchasing power has dropped 30% in the last two months alone.

Get your house in order
What all of this suggests to me is that a resolution to the crisis is approaching, as the Iranian regime is being backed into a corner that its citizens will demand to be extricated from. And the fear around the world is that this could ignite a conflict with Israel and the United States leading to a closure of the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world's oil passes.

In this eventuality, investors should be wary of two potential reverberations. First, as fellow Fool Travis Hoium has noted, oil shippers like Frontline (NYSE: FRO  ) and Nordic American Tankers (NYSE: NAT  ) would be hit hard. Both tanker companies are already suffering from an oversupply of ships, and it's starting to show. Shares in Frontline took a hit after its management admitted the need to raise cash. And Nordic American shares plunged when investors learned in mid-January that the shipper was issuing more stock -- ostensibly for growth, but more realistically to help the company stay afloat.

And second, as Fool energy analyst Dan Dzombak noted in an article about the next massive oil spike, any conflict in the Persian Gulf is bound to increase the price of oil. In its most recent quarter, for example, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) saw its earnings grow 16%, in large part due to higher oil prices. And Dan believes that Sandridge Energy (NYSE: SD  ) is also bound to benefit, writing late last year how he believes the company is undervalued.

Whatever happens in the short-run, however, it seems likely that the price of oil will remain elevated as uncertainty around the situation affects the market. It's for this reason that our analysts at The Motley Fool created a special new report titled "3 Stocks for $100 Oil," which you can download absolutely free today. In this report, our analysts cover three outstanding oil companies, including the stock that David Lee Smith calls the next "energy king." To access the identity of these three stocks, click here now -- it's free.

Fool contributor John Maxfield does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned above. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 06, 2012, at 7:24 PM, Fonz56 wrote:

    20% of worlds oil DOES NOT pass thru the Straits of Hormuz. Call it right. Only 5-6% according to real authorize.

  • Report this Comment On February 06, 2012, at 8:12 PM, JohnMaxfield37 wrote:

    Fonz56 -

    If there's something you know that the U.S. Energy Information Agency doesn't -- assuming that it's pertinent, of course -- then please share: "Hormuz is the world's most important oil chokepoint due to its daily oil flow of almost 17 million barrels in 2011, up from between 15.5-16.0 million bbl/d in 2009-2010. Flows through the Strait in 2011 were roughly 35 percent of all seaborne traded oil, or almost 20 percent of oil traded worldwide."

    - John

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