KARACHI (Reuters) - A little more than six years ago, immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. cities, few sane investment advisers would have recommended Pakistani stocks.
They should have. Their clients could have made a fortune.
Since 2001, the nuclear-armed South Asian country, blamed for spawning generations of Islamic militants and threatening global security, has been making millionaires like newly minted coins.
As Western governments have fretted about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of militants, the Karachi Stock Exchange’s main share index has risen more than 10-fold.
And it is not just that Karachi is a thinly traded market, able to be dragged skyward at time by speculators. Profits have taken off as well.
Even last month’s assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, and the brief but terrifying tornado of violence it unleashed, failed to make much more than a dent in the market.
Businessmen are more worried than brokers, but all agree it will take more than Bhutto’s death to destroy this boom, which has been based on open-door investment policies and privatization.
“It’s sad, and it does affect the business, but I guess it’s been happening for so long that people just get used to it,” shrugged Omer Sabir, who sells luxury sports cars from upwards of $100,000 each at Karachi’s only Porsche dealer.
Home to 14 million people, Pakistan’s biggest city is booming.
The port city, notorious as the place where U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamist extremists in 2002, has seen property prices soar and shopping malls sprout up.
Foreign banks such as Standard Chartered and ABN Amro have bought up local banks. Just this month Bank Muscat and Japan’s Nomura Holdings agreed to a $200 million takeover of Pakistan’s Saudi Pak Bank.
Barclays is also looking to build a local business.
Even during frequent power blackouts, Pakistan’s bankers can see by the light of their generators that profits are good, among the strongest bank returns in the world, says Invisor Securities.
At Karachi’s underground night-club scene — literally, underground — sons and daughters of the upper middle-class drink vodka, whisky or just soft-drinks in glittering semi-darkness and listen to DJs play the latest beats.
But right now, the party might be coming to an end.
The stock market is still trading just 3 percent below its life-time closing high (14,814.85 points), but the outlook is far less certain than six years ago, when President Pervez Musharraf began his reforms, spurring local and foreign investment.
The economy, which averaged around 7 percent annual growth in the five years to June 2007, is slowing and inflation is rising. Foreign investment and the farm sector, two important drivers of Pakistan’s economic success story, have also moved down a gear.
The street is also getting angry.
For many Pakistanis, the boom has been mainly a spectator sport. They can see the new shopping malls but cannot afford to buy anything there. About a quarter of them still live in poverty, earning around 1,000 rupees ($16) a month, though the proportion has been falling, according to 2006 government data.
A few blocks away from the Porsche dealership, men and women queue in vain for hours to buy a bag of flour at a government store. Power blackouts make the winter bleaker still.
“I have been coming here for a month and, look, my hands are empty,” said Taj Fareed, showing his palms as he stood near a crowd jostling at the door of a government store to buy flour.
So if these Pakistanis find their voice in elections scheduled for February 18, will there be changes in store for broad economic policy and the rich crust of Pakistan society?
The answer from businessmen, political analysts and economists seems to be a unanimous but rather hopeful “no.”
“Whoever comes in next, I can assure you that they will follow the same policies,” said Javed Faruqi, leaning back in his chair in the high-rise executive suite of Samaa, one of several new TV channels born out of a surge in advertising spending.
Samaa occupies the same tower as business channel CNBC Pakistan, a Middle East-backed franchise launched in late 2005.
“I don’t see it going into reverse but there may be a struggle with the forces who do want it to go into reverse,” admits Tahir Ikram, programming director for CNBC Pakistan.
Islamist parties, and their campaigns against Western decadence and corruption, appeal strongly to the poor, but recent polling suggests the mainstream parties will dominate the next government, assuming the February 18 elections are free and fair.
Bhutto’s party, Pakistan’s biggest, has been campaigning under the slogan “Food, Shelter, Clothing” and still plans to contest the elections, but political analysts do not expect it to usher in a state-driven economy if it wins power.
“The overall direction of the Pakistan economy would be the same,” said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
Editing by Megan Goldin