Iraq: Bush Officials Devise a Broad Plan For Free-Market Economy in Iraq
Hoping to establish a free-market economy in
Execution of the plan -- which is expected to be complicated and possibly contentious -- will fall largely to private American contractors working alongside a smaller team of
The U.S. Agency for International Development plans to award part of the work to BearingPoint Inc., a Virginia-based consulting firm known previously as KPMG Consulting, an AID official said. BearingPoint, which received a similar $40 million job to do economic work in
AID has been criticized by some in Congress for the secretive way it has awarded other
The Bush administration envisions sweeping reforms of
The document provides the most detailed look to date at the ways
Treasury Department officials, who helped draft the document, maintain that the plan reflects a broader vision for
For many conservatives, Iraq is now the test case for whether the U.S. can engender American-style free-market capitalism within the Arab world. In a February address, President Bush spoke of "a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater political participation, economic openness and free trade." A new regime in Iraq, he said, "would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region."
On the economic side, the AID plan serves as a detailed road map for achieving that end. The proposals for possible mass privatization of Iraqi industry are likely to be the most controversial. The document -- first drafted in February and circulated among financial consultants -- calls for liquidating some insolvent Iraqi companies, while assessing others for possible sale. Some state companies might be sold through "a broad-based Mass Privatization Program," which could distribute ownership vouchers to ordinary Iraqi citizens, similar to a program used in Russia in the mid-1990s.
The document says that the contractors would help support "private sector involvement in strategic sectors, including privatization, asset sales, concessions, leases and management contracts, especially in the oil and supporting industries" that dominate Iraq's business activity.
Any attempt at privatizing Iraq's oil industry, which controls the world's second-largest petroleum reserves after Saudi Arabia, would be a gargantuan business deal. It could be contentious, especially if assets wind up in the hands of foreign oil companies. In the Mideast and Europe, there is a widespread belief -- despite White House denials -- that the U.S. invaded Iraq to get control of its oil.
According to the timetable in the documents, officials would spend a year building a consensus for industry privatization, and then transfer assets over the following three years.
The administration also envisions converting Iraq's rudimentary prewar stock market, within a year, into a "world-class exchange" for trading the shares of newly privatized companies. The work would entail developing a centralized share registry as well as a new clearing and settlement system, the document says. U.S. officials, working with the AID contractors, would write rules for membership in the exchange and would train Iraqi stockbrokers. The plans also call for forming a tough securities commission to prevent abuses.
At the same time, the contractors would be designing by year's end "a comprehensive income tax system consistent with current international practice." They would be preparing regulations to impose a consumption tax. The plan also envisions extending as much as $8 million in loans to small and medium-size Iraqi businesses within the first year.
The AID contractor would help revamp Iraq's battered banking system by working out problem loans. The traditional Islamic money-transfer system would be incorporated into the banking system, the document says.
The Treasury Department has been careful in recent weeks in talking about a possible new Iraqi currency, saying any decisions will be up to the Iraqi people. The AID contract is less shy, stating that the contractor "is to carry out an extremely rapid and thorough exchange of currencies" and to collect and destroy the old bills -- all by July.
Under the consulting division of labor worked out by AID, BearingPoint will be hired to do all of the regulatory and legal reform work with the Central Bank and Iraq's various financial ministries. The contract will also entail BearingPoint's taking over the distribution of cash to Iraqi civil servants, now being handled by the Pentagon. The U.S. has so far shipped $20 million in cash to Iraq.
The other, larger contract will handle privatization, modernizing of the stock market, loans to smaller Iraqi enterprises and international-trade and private sector development.
The plan makes scant mention of any involvement of multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both key players in similar reform efforts in Russia and Eastern Europe. Still, Bush administration officials have said they would welcome World Bank and IMF help in Iraq, but how those would be reconciled with projects such as the AID restructuring blueprint remains unclear.
"This will not be credible to the Iraqi people or anyone else if we try to do it ourselves," said Edwin Truman, a former top international finance official at the Federal Reserve who served in the Clinton administration's Treasury Department. "The World Bank and the IMF have a lot more experience and a lot more credibility in this than the U.S. government."
Other experts on post-communist reform efforts say it would be a mistake for the Bush administration to stress swift privatization, a policy that met with mixed success across the former Soviet bloc. In many countries, rapid privatization of state-run enterprises led to sharp disruptions in jobs and services, as well as rampant corruption.
Treasury Department officials caution that whoever is picked to perform the jobs will work under the strict guidance of Bush administration officials -- some of whom are in Baghdad as part of an overall Pentagon-led reconstruction effort -- as well as senior Iraqis.