Broker learns to cope with Iraq-style risk

 

It was exceptionally cold in Sulaymaniyah, a city in northern Iraq's Kurdish region, on the morning of December 22. Shwan Taha was sitting in the airport lounge with a bag of gifts, waiting to get back to his wife and children at home in Istanbul.

Just before boarding, he got a call on his mobile phone from Rabee Securities, the Baghdad-based brokerage he owns. The manager was on the line to report that a car bomb had exploded next door at the government anti-corruption agency.

Taha hung up. Fortunately, the last trading day of the year had been two days earlier, so none of Rabee's 16 employees were in the office. He tapped out an email to Rabee's clients that said in part:

"All client information is safe in multiple locations inside and outside Iraq. Praying for a peaceful New Year."

Recalling his firm's brush with danger six months later, Taha says such incidents are a hazard of doing business — and making money — in one of the world's most dangerous frontier markets.

"I've always told people the major risk of running Rabee is, one day it may blow up, not Lehman style but physically," Taha says, spreading both arms to suggest an explosion. "What can you do?"

Taha, who's 6 foot 2 inches tall and has dark curly hair, is sitting in his office in Istanbul, where he spends a third of his time. The 43-year-old smiles and points to his iPhone case emblazoned with a morale-boosting exhortation made famous by a World War II-era poster in Britain:

"Keep calm and carry on."

That's what Taha has had to do for years as chairman and sole owner of the biggest stock brokerage tailored to foreign investors in postwar Iraq. Born in Baghdad to Kurdish parents and raised in the city, he bought Rabee for a small, undisclosed sum in 1998 to handle his personal trades in Iraqi stocks.

It now handles about 80 percent of all share transactions by foreigners on the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), says Taha. "It was not easy to start with," Taha says. "People got scared just hearing the word Iraq. Now, we see more and more smart money coming."

From 1997 to 2008, Taha worked as a money manager in the Middle East, first for Mark Mobius's Templeton Emerging Markets Group and then for George Soros' Quantum hedge fund. He says he was particularly struck by Iraq's economic potential just ahead of the global credit crunch in 2008, when he noticed that Iraqi shares were mostly trading at about half their book value while stock markets across the region were booming.

Taha figured Iraq had nowhere to go but up after the devastation wrought over two decades by the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War and the Iraq war.

He timed his entry well. Since hitting bottom at $13.6 billion in 2003, the year U.S. and British coalition forces invaded Iraq, gross domestic product has soared. It grew about 10 percent, to $108.4 billion, last year and is expected to expand even faster in the three years through 2014, according to data compiled by the International Monetary Fund and the Washington- based Brookings Institution.

One reason for optimism is the relative decline in sectarian violence, which fell to four civilian deaths a day last year compared with 95 a day in 2006, according to the Brookings Institution.

Oil production, Iraq's main industry, reached 2.6 million barrels a day in 2011, making Iraq the world's ninth-largest producer, according to the International Energy Agency.

In 2003, it had collapsed to 1.3 million barrels a day, less than half of its peak production of 2.9 million barrels per day in 1989, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

While Taha's small corner of the economy has also grown — trading by foreign investors in Iraqi equities tripled to $147 million in 2011 from a year earlier, according to the ISX — many big investors remain wary.

Iraq sits in the middle of a region wracked by instability.

To the east, Iran is pursuing a nuclear development program that Israel, among other countries, says could lead to outside intervention, if not war. To the west, a civil war flares in Syria, home to more than 750,000 Iraqi refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Taha says he's been able to see beyond the image of a bloodied and bombed Iraq. The carefree Baghdad of his childhood as the son of a prominent doctor bears little resemblance to the shellshocked capital of today.

Skyrocketing oil prices in the 1970s made many Iraqis rich, and he didn't feel the sting of war until the mid-1980s, when he was a teenager and the conflict with Iran was escalating.

After high school, Taha went to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1986 to study biomedical engineering.

As graduation approached in 1990, he was getting ready to go home when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Taha got a call from his father telling him to stay in the U.S. It wasn't easy. To earn a living, he worked as a waiter at La Dolce Vita Bistro in Cleveland.

Gradually, Taha's fortunes took a turn for the better in the early 1990s. With money borrowed from family friends, he enrolled in a master's program in business administration at George Washington University.

He also turned to the Internet, which many people hadn't even heard of then. He created pmena.com, a now-defunct website that gathered information about privatization in the Middle East and North Africa.

The potential he saw led him into finance. His own career began with a distinct lack of pretense. The office he opened for Templeton in Dubai in 1997 was in an apartment above a children's store called Mummy & Me.

"Some brokers, after seeing my address, called up Templeton to see if I was for real," he says.

In 2006, he went to work for Soros, co-managing a hedge fund out of Istanbul. While he was on vacation the following year, a small jet he was traveling in made an emergency landing and had to be rescued by the Greek coast guard.

"I felt my life could go away any minute," Taha says. "If I want to do something," he remembers thinking, "I better start now."

He resigned and returned to Baghdad to transform Rabee from a personal investment vehicle into what it is today.

Someday, Taha says, he may move his Turkish wife, IpekCemTaha, a businesswoman and former TV journalist; their two daughters, 9 and 10; and a 4-year-old son back to the city of his childhood. Not now.

"It's not because of the bombs that I wouldn't want my kids to live there; it's the mentality," he says. "There's one thing that takes a long time and real effort to repair: the hate brought by the war, between Shiite and Sunni, Kurds and others, rich and poor, you name it."

In the meantime, he will do what he's always done: keep calm and carry on.

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