WORLD - MIDDLE EAST - ESSAY - Growing Pains:
The Damascus Stock Exchange and Its Second Year
The smell of jasmine, cumin and money is in the air. I am on the other side of the world from the New York Stock Exchange, but as deep into a vibrant stock market as I could possibly be. An invitation for a private tour of the new Damascus Securities Exchange (DSE) is heady, exhilarating and a bit surreal. How many people outside of Syria even know about the audacious start-up? The state of the art trading room, with its interactive kiosks and visitors gallery positioned next to the traders is like theatre in the round.
Walking in at the side of Mohammed Imady, the head of the Syrian Commission on Financial Markets and Securities, does makes for good theatre. Suddenly everyone in the room gets very good posture. From the moment we arrive, investors, staff and spectators alike greet the former Minister of the Economy like an old friend and are immediately gathered into conversation.
Everything at the DSE is cutting edge, with a heavy emphasis on educating visitors about the Exchange and how the market works. Pains have been taken to present the concept of a stock exchange clearly, and above all simply, at the interactive computer centers which are clustered in the back of the gallery. Schools regularly bring classes to introduce students to the spectacle of investing at its most elemental.
The small number of companies currently traded allows one to see how a market works, stripped down to the basic transactions. There is a digital trading board of course but the volume is small enough to permit an onlooker to watch the effect of trades on the market as a whole. Suddenly I am back at the fabled buttonwood tree on 18th century Wall Street.
The drama is nowhere more evident than when a gentleman seated in the gallery taps a few keystrokes on his laptop and within a few moments, one of the traders jumps to see his computer flash with the incoming data. Instantly the numbers on the board reflect this activity and an entire market moves on a single trade, smoothly and efficiently.
Dr. Imady arranged for me to meet staff from all aspects of the operation, from legal to IT to public relations. The latter department is actually called Public Awareness, which is a more truthful label than what we call our current crop of spin doctors and Mad Men. Through these professionals I receive the greatest insight into the inner workings of the new bourse. And it is they who personify the enthusiasm and the hope for the new exchange. Youth is everywhere at the DSE and the air behind the scenes crackles with eagerness and intelligence.
Young men and women dominate the workforce. It is the younger generation which has a critical eye on the success or failure of the Exchange. When I visit the highly secured IT heart of the operation, it is like walking onto the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Fingerprint scans were the least of it and I walk around the clean room terrified I’m going to trip and unplug something vital. I am assured by several people that the redundancies built into the system are klutz-proof. The hive of activity behind the scenes is no different from any high tech company in Silicon Valley, leaving this near Luddite in the dust of the 20th century.
My guides around the DSE were voluble about the new Exchange and about the challenges facing the Syrian economy. They have no illusions that creating interest and trust for the concept of publically traded securities will be a long, upward climb.
Three main hurdles face the DSE. Syrians saw a stock market at work earlier in the last century and keenly remember the pain and loss when it was nationalized. The older population has a long memory of that episode. Younger Syrians are watching one of the world’s worst economic collapses unfold right before them on the Web, CNN, Al Jazeera. This is not the most auspicious timing, some think, to invest in a new venture. A third hurdle is the reluctance of business owners to participate in a market where everything is a matter of public record. Why tinker with a trading system that has managed to work for thousands of years?
The reception of the DSE has been mixed. Some people have had experience investing in other exchanges in the Middle East and lost money. They view the Exchange with a jaundiced eye. Others believe it essential for the development of the country. And as with any large geographical location, there are vast areas outside the larger cities, and Damascus in particular, where mention of the DSE or of stock markets in general, is met with polite blank stares.
A great deal of effort was put into pre-launch publicity and the press has been provided with two intensive training classes, one held even before the opening of the bourse. The Public Awareness division has made a point of educating journalists so that the publicity, good or ill, comes for knowledgeable sources. Prospective care was paramount to try to ensure that what was written did not mislead the public, especially regarding disclosures about listed companies.
I was also able to talk to my guides on a less academic level. We settled into a discussion about attitudes toward wealth and how women figure in daily financial life. Young Syrians and their families have until recently invested in the classic markets of real estate, jewelry, and gold. It is considered déclassé to discuss how much you own, but interest in a new outlet for investing is clearly growing.
No matter how lofty a discussion gets, finances come down to who buys what and in Damascus as well as Des Moines, it is the women who make the ultimate choices. Despite their best attempts to present themselves as the decision makers, the young men in my group allow that indeed Mom holds the purse strings with that subtle power that is stronger than Damascene steel. Young women are filling the employment ranks in all the professions and economic sectors. Their participation in the general economy is growing at the same moment when the securities market, this new opportunity for wealth creation, is taking hold.
Women entrepreneurs are becoming more and more visible and conferences for business women are a focus of the DSE’s outreach. But when it comes to this new market, men and women ask the same questions about profit, development, or the wisdom of an IPO. Business has no gender.
By the time we wandered off to lunch, I had to remind myself that I was privy to a brave new economic world. For all the excitement surrounding the start of the DSE, the cares, concerns and consciousness of opportunity for my friends are identical to those I hear daily at home. After the dust of debate, philosophical and practical, blows off into the desert; after the drone of the pundits becomes so much white noise, the only way forward is forward. The younger population sees ahead with the perspective of 21st century Syria.
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