And In Iraq, The Market Is Up

Iraqis stock traders mark up the sales board at the Iraq Stock Exchange in Baghdad, on Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008. While the rest of the world is facing a near financial meltdown, the Iraq stock exchange is enjoying a boom. The ISX index has soared 20 percent since September, boosted by huge growth in the hotel sector as investors grow increasingly confident about recent security gains. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
AP Photo/Hadi Mizban
CBS News producer Lawrence Doyle reporting from Iraq.

Down a filthy side street in the Karrada area of Baghdad beats the heart of Iraq's economic revival.

It takes patience and a skillful driver to weave past trash-filled puddles and between tall walls of concrete security barriers to eventually find the Iraqi stock exchange. Wall Street it ain't, although the amount of concrete could probably build a few American skyscrapers.

In the lobby of a former apartment building sits maybe the most antiquated exchange in the world. No electronic boards here, no computer terminals.

No worries, either. The Iraqi market may be the world's only market to post a gain over the last year. Why? A couple of reasons.

The Iraqi market is its own little island of stability.

Mohammed Ismail has been trading here for three years and likes the isolation.

"There's no investment from our market or our investors in the world market, he said, with a big grin, "so we are a little saved. This is a good stable market."

Ah, the stability thing. The rise in the market here reflects the recent gains in security. This market's general index increased 40% in September.

Ninety-five whiteboards list the 95 companies traded. All transactions are done manually and recorded by erasable pen.

(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Traders lean on a wooden railing separating them from the boards … a 20-foot distance, far enough that older traders bring binoculars to follow along as the market's ebb and flow is written, erased, written, erased.

Push and shove at the boards is the order of the day.

The floor's frenzied activity only happens six hours a week - two hours on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

The traders have lots of time to enjoy their profits.

"They think the market's going to keep going up," Raied Najar told us. "They're optimistic they're going to be rich, healthy, wealthy."

About 10 miles west of the market, near the international airport, American Tad Robinette also believes.

Robinette, a big, cheery West Virginian, is with Veritas Sigma, perhaps the first privately-funded group to operate a business facilitating international economic entry into Iraq.

His outfit just opened a glitzy (by local standards) 100-room hotel and a state-of-the-art office tower hoping to provide housing and work space to hoped-for foreign investors.

Hanging from the side of the tower is an enormous banner proclaiming, "Iraq is open for business."

Robinette admits to being maybe slightly ahead of the game, but says, "The time is right and I believe the risk/reward ratio has tipped in favor of international business."

In the last week we visited sites where office and residential construction is flourishing in the shadow of buildings destroyed by the past five-and-a-half years of war.

These projects are helping drop the country's staggering unemployment figures and pumping cash into the economy. The Iraqi government sees such a construction boom that it has asked the Philippine government to lift a ban on Filipino citizens coming here for work.

We talked with real estate agents who said housing prices, sales and rentals have doubled in the last months and demand exceeds supply.

My favorite thumbnail sketch of our week looking at Iraq's economy happened at the al-Saraf car dealership. Outside, sales of SUVs was brisk - no great surprise in a place where gas averages $1.40 a gallon.

Inside a glistening showroom, we watched as a young sheikh (tribal leader) from down south approached a Mercedes Benz sedan. It was 2:14 in the afternoon.

The sheikh sized up the Benz, asked for the key, started the engine, played with the sunroof, tested the radio and air conditioning, and smiled broadly.

He didn't bother to kick the tires, but he did sign a contract for the car.

An aide reached beneath his robes and forked over about $40,000 for his boss. All cash, all new one hundred dollar bills, some in numbered sequence.

We didn't find out from where the money came.

At 2:24 the sheikh left in his car. Would Detroit love these guys!

No doubt the economy is improving, but like everything here there are elephants in the room. Each baby step forward has to follow the big footprint of American and Iraqi troops providing security and stability.

At an "economic dialogue" between senior U.S. and Iraqi officials to discuss increasing foreign investment, we asked Ambassador Marc Wall, coordinator for economic transition in Iraq, the "chicken and egg" question about security and investment.

"Security is essential to get Iraq set up as a place economic progress can happen," he said, adding "Vice-versa, you need economic progress to cement security gains." Sounded to us as if the chicken and egg were tied.

Another pitfall for the Iraqis is the lowering price of oil. Already the government is hacking away at next year's budget.

There are two sure bets here: The new Iraqi budget won't decrease spending for defense, but money for social services will be hit, which will have an upsetting effect. And an equally good bet is the old stock market will have electronic trading before the streets outside are safe and secure and fully open for business.
By Lawrence Doyle