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Door buzzer rings in Baghdad bourse

It may not have the familiar chime of the New York Stock Exchange bell, but the modified door buzzer that opens Baghdad's bourse represents Iraq's best hope for economic recovery. NBC News' Preston Mendenhall reports from Baghdad on the Iraq Stock Exchange a month into trading.
/ Source: NBC News

It may not have the familiar chime of the New York Stock Exchange bell, but the modified door buzzer that opens Baghdad's bourse represents Iraq's best hope for economic recovery.

A month into trading, the Iraq Stock Exchange, or ISX, is expanding at a frantic pace. It has nearly doubled its listings of Iraqi companies, and daily trading routinely tops 3 billion Iraqi dinars, about $2 million.

That may not be big money in Western markets, but for a country whose economy was subject to the dictatorial whim of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, and withered for more than a decade under international sanctions, every dinar traded here is a small victory for post-war Iraq.

"There is some risk here and there," said Taha Ahmad Abdul-Salam, the exchange's chief executive. "But we are doing our job. We don't stop."

Boards and markers
On a recent morning, the buzzer, a cross between an alarm clock and a game show gong, prompted a flurry of share trading of the Baghdad Soft Drink Co., which holds licenses to bottle well known brands.

Traders reached high to scribble their bids on white boards above the trading floor. Amid pushing and shoving, accepted offers were quickly circled in red, blue and black. In the background, traders punched buttons on calculators, weighing their next moves.

To get off the ground, ISX had to stick to basics, like white boards and markers. Automatic trading is slowly being phased in.

"We are trying to buy a building," said Abdul-Salam, who used a grant from the Finance Ministry to turn a former hotel restaurant into a trading floor. Abdul-Salam has big plans: "In six months," he said, motioning toward the restaurant's former bar, now doubling as an office divider, "this will all be history."

Stocks surge on 'supply and demand'
Iraq had an exchange under Saddam, but price swings were limited to 5 percent in either direction. Meddling by Saddam's cronies brought corruption, and relatives of the Iraqi dictator frequently demanded share issues just to get a piece of the action.

With those constraints lifted, ISX stocks sometimes surge 600 percent in a single day, creating bargain prices. Most shares cost less than a penny.

"The prices are now decided according to supply and demand only," said Talib al-Tabatabaie, a trader who worked at the old exchange before it closed on the eve of the war. "There are no restrictions according to anybody's wishes. Everything is according to supply and demand."

The new exchange holds trading sessions two days a week for two hours at a time. The short hours, to be expanded next year, produce a cacophony of cell phones calls and buy and sell orders before the closing buzzer.

Best bets for investors
As Iraq rebuilds, the service and industry sectors are seen as good bets for investors. And a strong showing by ISX-listed Iraqi banks demonstrates growing economic confidence.

The Baghdad Soft Drink Co.'s soaring share price reflects both summer temperatures (over 140 degrees) and a new license to produce Pepsi products.

"This exchange is the core of the Iraqi economy," said trader al-Tabatabaie.

For now, international investors will have to wait for their piece of the pie - but not for long. Guidelines for foreigners are expected to be in place early next year.