Egypt Raises $2.2B In T-bill Auction

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CAIRO (AP) - Egyptian financial officials promised to restart the stock market in a week and raised more than $2 billion through Treasury Bills on Monday, as the government pushed to maintain investor confidence in the country where fallout from the prolonged protests drove the currency to new six-year lows.

The developments spotlighted frenetic damage control efforts to an economy expected to take a bruising after the demonstrations demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak rattled a nation once seen as a pillar of stability in a restive region.

Tourists fled by the tens of thousands while businesses, banks and the bourse were closed for over a week as the protests sporadically drifted into violence.

The Central Bank's T-bill auction drew 13 billion Egyptian pounds ($2.2 billion) in offers, providing the government with a rare bit of good news in a week in which predictions of the protests' impact included a devaluation of the pound by as much as 25 percent and a cut in GDP growth from 5.3 percent to roughly 3.7 percent.

The 3-month T-bill came in with yields at an average of nearly 11 percent, according to the Central Bank's website.

The buyers of the bills were essentially domestic banks, with their international counterparts reluctant to enter the market given the uncertain political climate in the country, brokers and economists said.

"There were expectations in the market of yields much higher than the what came from the auction," said Khalil el-Bawab, the head of fixed income for the Cairo-based investment bank EFG Hermes. "But thanks to the liquidity in the Egyptian banking sector ... it managed to contain them."

The government could ill afford a poor turnout.

Central Bank officials want "to get the subscriptions in order, and they need to get people to subscribe," said John Sfakianakis, chief economist at the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based Banque Saudi Fransi, referring to an apparent reduction in the issue size from 15 billion to 13 billion pounds.

"They don't want to give the wrong signals because the market is not confident."

The lack of confidence was evident as the banks entered their second day of business following their weeklong closure. Analysts had said they expected heavy capital outflows, with investors either dumping Egyptian pound assets or shifting to the dollar.

The Central Bank had braced for such a possibility when banks reopened on Sunday, giving Egyptians their first chance since the closure to withdraw their money.

It injected 5 billion pounds, put caps on daily local currency withdrawals at 50,000 pounds and limited foreign exchange to $10,000. A much-feared run on the banks did not materialize, but it was clear that some were anxious.

The pound continued its slide on Monday against the dollar, dropping to 5.95 to the U.S. greenback - almost touching January 2005 levels. Analysts expected that 6 or 6.1 pounds to the dollar would provide to be the test of the Central Bank's resolve to support the currency.

Moody's Investors Service said the pound could face pressure because of a conversion from local currency deposits to other currencies, with the shifts mainly by foreign investors and high net-worth local depositors.

That flow "is likely to diminish the (Central Bank's) foreign currency reserves its capacity to support the banking system's overall foreign currency obligations," Moody's said, adding that sustained demand to either withdraw or convert deposits "is a key heightened risk for Egyptian banks' liquidity positions."

Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, in a more conservative assessment about the potential blow the pound could sustain, said the Central Bank "may well consider devaluing" the pound by 10 to 15 percent. Others had said the currency could fall by 20 to 25 percent.

In a much-anticipated announcement, the Egyptian stock exchange said trading would resume on Feb. 13, with new measures set in place. The exchange said details about these measures would be announced later.

Some had expected the market to reopen by Wednesday, and the delay appeared focused on giving Egyptian officials more time to provide some clarity about the shape of the country's political landscape. Mubarak has rejected calls for his ouster, and his new vice president has been meeting with various opposition groups to address their demands for change in a nation that has known the same leader for almost 30 years.

The demonstrations, which began on Jan. 25, pushed the exchange's benchmark index down 17 percent in just two days of trading for the work week ending Jan. 28. The drop boosted its year-to-date losses to more than 20 percent - a hammering Finance Minister Samir Radwan said was worse than that sustained during the global financial meltdown.

Analysts expect that the government will be forced to boost public spending to allay anger that helped sparked the protests. That means that subsidies that consume about 100 billion pounds per year will not be cut. In addition, the government has said it would shoulder increases in commodity prices, to alleviate the burden on the country's 80 million citizens, roughly 40 percent of whom live on or below the $2-per day poverty threshold set by the World Bank.

In the latest such step, the Finance Ministry said it was boosting government employees' salaries by 15 percent.
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