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Iraq's Stock Exchange Goes Electronic

Stockbrokers write prices on a board at the Iraqi Stock Exchange
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's stock exchange has launched electronic trading, listing shares in five local companies to start with but dreaming of bigger things to come.

Many brokers used to trading via whiteboards and pens were puzzled by the transformation that went into effect on April 19, scratching their heads in
confusion as once familiar company names were replaced by codes.

"I know it's essential to turn to technology, but it's difficult for us to catch on in just one day. They should teach us how to use these digital screens, otherwise we will lose our money," complained broker Akram Bahnam, 55.

The chaos did not prevent some investors from posting a tidy profit -- the shares in one of the first five companies listed electronically, Al-Mansour Bank, rose 20 percent in the first two hours of trade.

"It's a great feeling to see the Iraqi stock market enter the era of technology," said Taha Abdul-Salam, the head of the exchange. "It's a promising sign to see the price of the shares of one bank up 20 percent in the first electronic trading."

Abdul-Salam said a total of 91 companies were currently listed in Baghdad and all of them would be trading electronically within three months.

The Iraqi stock exchange enjoyed a bumper year in 2008, after almost fading into oblivion during the years of sectarian bloodshed that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Militia attacks and bombings made going to work too dangerous for brokers and investors. But the violence has begun to fade and trade on the bourse these days is brisk. Hotels and banks tend to be the hottest stocks.

Stock exchange official Abdul Razzaq al-Saadi said electronic trading would fuel the market and make it possible for foreign investors to place bets from afar.

"Electronic trading will boost confidence in the Iraqi economy. More foreign traders will enter the market in the near future," he said, adding foreign investment in the exchange reached 24 billion Iraqi dinars, or around $20 million, in 2008.

"As security improves and we switch to electronic trading, we expect many Gulf and foreign companies to make huge investments in this country," Saadi said.