Egypt Inflation Hits Eight-Year Highs After Currency Float

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A man counts Egyptian pounds outside a bank in Cairo, Egypt. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany/File Photo

By Lin Noueihed and Ehab Farouk

CAIRO, Dec 8 – Egypt‘s headline inflation surged to an eight-year high of 19.4 percent in November, propelled by a steep currency depreciation since the central bank dramatically floated the pound and hiked fuel prices last month.

Prices in the most populous Arab country were likely to keep rising next year, economists said, driven by recent reforms that have included subsidy cuts and tax increases. The measures have stoked anger among the millions of Egyptians who scrape by from day to day.

Annual urban consumer price inflation, the most closely watched measure, jumped from 13.6 percent in October to reach its highest level since November 2008, the official CAPMAS statistics agency said.

Core inflation, which strips out volatile items like fruit and vegetables, also hit an eight-year-high, surging to 20.7 percent in November from 15.7 percent in October.

In cities and towns, food and beverage inflation reached 21.5 percent, healthcare inflation 27.4 percent and transport 22 percent, undermining already-paltry spending power in an economy where many subsist on the equivalent of a few dollars a day.

“Instead of buying sweets this year, I’ll buy bread,” said one woman, walking past a cake shop in Cairo, days before a religious holiday when Egyptians normally gorge on treats.

“I hope the government adjusts prices a bit so we can go back to normal.”

Egypt abandoned its peg of 8.8 Egyptian pounds to the U.S. dollar on Nov. 3, floating the currency in a move that has since seen it roughly halve in value.

The move helped Egypt secure a $12 billion IMF loan to support a reform programme that has seen the government introduce Value Added Tax, cut electricity subsidies and raise import duties all in the space of a few months.

PRICES UP SHARPLY

The measures have pushed up prices sharply in the import-dependent country of more than 90 million.

Economists said rising inflation would erode spending power, hit economic growth and prompt further hikes to interest rates, which are already up to 15.75 percent.

“We think the headline (inflation) rate will peak at around 22 percent in the middle of next year,” London-based Capital Economics said in a note. “This is one reason why we expect the Egyptian economy to slow sharply next year and record GDP growth of just 1 percent.”

Non-oil business activity shrank in November to a 40-month low as pound weakness raised costs and hit output, according to the Emirates NBD Egypt Purchasing Managers’ Index.

Egyptian officials have sought to reassure the poor that they will be shielded from the worst effects of soaring prices, as the pound sank to about 18 against the dollar on Thursday.

The government has expanded its social security network and some 70 million Egyptians have access to state subsidised bread.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi predicted on Thursday that the pound would strengthen in coming months and promised to ensure basics were available and affordable.

“For the equilibrium we are talking about to be reached we need some months, so we said we would give ourselves six months at least where the essential goods that people need remain available at these prices,” Sisi said.

Shortages of sugar and medicines in recent months have caused public uproar and piled pressure on Sisi.

Earlier this week, Egypt also jacked up customs duties on hundreds of non-essential goods, with tariffs on many now at about 60 percent, sure to push up prices.

The tax hikes prompted Egyptians to mock Sisi and his government on social media, with one posting earlier this week a doctored photo of the president lifting weights and the comment: “World champion in price increases”.

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