Thursday, December 31, 2009

Banking Report: Analyzed

The EFG Hermes report on some of the banks is interesting by all means, while not aimed at a credit assessment but more at stock performance, it nevertheless presents a balanced view. While there are some notable exceptions in the report I have seen, like Mashreq and Union National Bank (my former bank), it does make the point that the current financial woes are not as bad as they sound. The 3rd quarter performance of the banks was better than expected and judging by the analysis the banks that appear as laggards in their analysis are not on account of credit issues but more management style and focus in terms of the economic segmentation they pursue for earnings. While I am a traditionalist who would not rely on inter bank borrowing to fund the loan book, I concede in the ten years I have been out of managing a bank a great deal has changed. While back in the 1990's international banks panicked at the slightest political trouble in the region, the trend since then has been more mature and banks do not cut lines at the slightest of whims as they used to back then. Thus inter bank funding is more stable and can be seen as a factor in funding the loan books of banks, even though I was surprised that some banks from the sub continent got over cautious through the recent Dubai World crisis and while not cutting exposures to the country did have a 'wait and see' policy.

Indeed it was interesting that their analysis of the Dubai Inc (a loose word to describe all the debt of Dubai Government and the GRI's) is spot on in mentioning that while the numbers seem significant, even to GDP, there are two aspects that need consideration, a) the surplus cash flow of the good companies can be used through the parent structure mechanisms to help the weaker ones. and b) there are a number of assets that are eventually available for a sell off or privatization, (though they don't make these two points-that is how I read it). The current restructuring is a major element of this conundrum that needs to be solved and for this I would urge the Dubai World and the government to set a much faster pace to come to a settlement with the banks on this issue.

While the financial press have made a big deal, even today, about the support that has come from Abu Dhabi and hinted about it not being available in all circumstances (see today's FT) they forget that no support can be a carte blanche and has to be discussed on the merits. Interestingly yesterday an Abu Dhabi official spoke to Moody's Investors, as they have reported, and discussed that they have more than twice the reserves of the whole UAE public sector debt (assuming even the GRI's) in just one entity, to which if you add the Central Bank reserves and the other assets held by UAE entities the situation is more than comfortable. This is where I get so frustrated with reporters than they miss the big picture. Abu Dhabi thinks of the country as a whole, and eventually will be there to stitch things up, perhaps at a cost but it will be done.

The analysis of the banks in each of the cases is interesting. It is heartening to note that banks like EmiratesNBD and National Bank of Abu Dhabi still figure out as the strongest and the impact of either one of them of the current situation is minuscule. EmiratesNBD with a captial adequacy of near 20% and a provision of 95.5% of loans actually stands out better than Moody's would have us believe just two weeks back. None of the banks in terms of their capital adequacy numbers or coverage for non performing loans seem to be a problem. It is highly likely that into the mid of 2010 we may find over provisions on most of the balance sheets, which I strongly advise the bankers not to move back into profits. This will offset some of the need for higher provisioning on the general commercial and personal lending portoflios that may have suffered through the slow down.

In the end the macro economic scenario will play an important part. Higher liquidity, small to medium sector finance availability, and better respositioning of the asset-liability mismatch, which plagues all banks in the region, will ensure a stable to better year ahead. Significant in this process will be the following factors:

a. Better GDP performance.
b. Stability on the issue of the debt restructuring.
c. Middle market performance being better, i.e. trading, retail and services.
d. A steady real estate market, which while overburdened with supply will still gradually get over the panic stage.
e. A greater awareness of UAE position as a regional hub for business.

While I am not predicting major new avenues of business income for the banks in the year ahead, i.e. IPOs etc, I do feel that they will protect their market share better, hoping a better corporate and government sector performance will offset a weaker personal debt performance in the year ahead. Banks who manage to address the asset-liability mismatch early into the year will find themselves lighter on their feet and more nimble to take advantage of a recovery.

In terms of safety of the banking system I have the least of worries. No Bank incorporated within the UAE has ever been allowed to go under. (BCCI was not UAE incorporated and interestingly according the Sept 2009 Liquidators report of that failed bank 81% of all creditors have been paid, which must be some sort of a record as normally failed banks struggle to pay off 40-50%). I am positive of this that the UAE cannot and will not let a bank fail, to which is added a better regime of regulatory control and a more mature management in most banks.

How do I see the year ahead for the banks? In a nutshell: stable to better performance, dealing with the recent past bringing cheer with each successful settlement or restructuring and in terms of safety pretty much at the top of the definition of 'prime quality'.

Monday, December 28, 2009

What happens Next: Part B

Just about the time I had posted the last blog, I read about a prominent World Bank official speak about Dubai and the future. Indeed I endorse the views of the learned World Bank official, especially on a number of issues. Most importantly the feeling that the debts that are maturing in the year ahead will be met and it would add that it is unlikely that the fiasco that was caused by abrupt announcements will happen again; all the more because lenders and the borrowers are in discussions.

However, some underlying anomalies within the economic system need to be corrected, and while this may take time, the building blocks needs to be put in place surely soon. One of these basic steps is to consider these measures, obviously in more detail than a blog can narrate, and then take a concerted view on the matters. I do feel that the economy has, since 2001 become highly skewed in two directions:

a. The private sector contribution to the GDP being an abysmal 13% imply that either government or government related entities were fueling the pace of the GDP growth. The result was that sectors like Hospitality (Jumeriah Group), and Real Estate (Nakheel, Emmar, Dubai Properties and others) were the dominant players and hence in a sense creating a huge concentration of rapid growth in the semi public sector or public sector hands. While as an impetus to start things off this is not a bad idea at all, but at some stage the diversification of this process into private hands through IPO's should have been considered.

b. The development cycle was being fueled by a high debt level, as most of the real estate developments involved infrastructure build out and the pace of planning outstripped the resources needed, resulting in a scramble for debt to fuel the engine. This was at no time seen in a broader perspective perhaps even considering inviting the private sector into a utility model to build the infrastructure, as is done in a number of countries.

This propensity of concentration in the sectors mentioned and the leveraging of the debt has to go through a process of de-leveraging and privatization. Ofcourse both these avenues pose some unique problems.

De-leveraging can only work with liquidity and appetite available for restructuring the loan profiles of the current debt, and this seems to be under way. However, privatization in the current market has to be put on the back burner. I personally think that this is somethign that should be given thought to.

Here is what I would do.

Announce soon after the debt resconstruction that the privatization is an option and to float mezzenine funds to take equity positions in some of the assets with a clear idea that within say 24 months the privatization will occur. This wll give the market the confidence that is needed, redress the private sector contribution to the GDP and most importantly decouple the existing situation. Yes it sounds simple, but it is actually something that needs planning and can be done selectively. eventually the government or GRE's can own about 30-40% of the entties and sell off the rest. I suspect the cash flow from these would be ample to redress the existing situation.

I believe some assets are perfect for this strategy, i.e. the hospitality sector, while others may have to be repaired and their timing of privatization may well be in the end of 2 years from now. But the intent itself, if made public, brings about the interest in the private sector, demonstrates a will to take structural measures to fix things and most of all shows the world the way out of the situation.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

2010: What happens next?

After the turbulence of 2009, human nature expects the new year to be one of positive difference. If 2008's ending weeks were tinged with the hope that the GCC economies would survive unscathed 2009 proved them wrong, as the Al Gosaibi debt issue, the Dubai World surprise and the general battering of UAE credit ratings by rating agencies brings 2009 final days with a gloom that focuses ofcourse on the hope all will be well. Yes I have mentioned the silver linings that accrue in this over cast moment of the regions financial landscape. While we can all hope for the best, there has to be a concerted effort to put into place the elements the will change the financial topography for the region. This does imply what are the likely events or processes that will change the economic outlook.

Here is a mind map of what perhaps will happen.

1. The Dubai World Debt.

Indeed this has been and will be the prime issue that the financial and media world will focus upon. It is crucial to the well being of the economic system for the region, and most importantly, it is where the confidence of the financial community can be best restored. I believe it is important that the banks and lenders agree to the restructuring of the Dubai World debt, whether through their negotiations with the company or through some prodding from the government, both Dubai and the Federal government. Indeed, Abu Dhabi assistance is already implicitly tied to the lenders agreeing to a restructuring and thus I do feel bankers and lenders will not be so short sighted as to scuttle a settlement merely to get brownie points. I believe there might be a few hiccups but in the end the settlement will be hammered out and a restructured debt will provide the breathing space to improve the repayment capacity down the road. I believe also that a successful deal with the lenders will allow either Abu Dhabi, Dubai government or the Federal Government, or a combination of them all, to be more forthcoming about their plans in a restructured environment.

2. Oil Prices.

The current bet is that an oil price hike would slow down the recovery in the US and Europe and hence derail any recovery that we have seen thus far. My own opinion is that a better economic performance from India and China will bring in a higher demand for oil, and a gradual up tick in the US and European economy will also add to the demand side of oil. I foresee a $15 increase, on average, for the price of oil in 2010, with a possibility in the summer for even a higher spike based of inventory management and constraints in stockpiles. Added there could be tensions between Iran and the West that could well add to the upward pressure on oil prices. The political dimension to oil prices is hard to follow and while most predict Iraqi oil production improvement could well keep a lid on oil prices, my own feeling is that we are a bit complacent about oil prices and it could well be a benefit for the region adding to the reserve pools of the sovereign wealth funds.

3. Increased Government spending.

I do believe Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar within the GCC, and Iraq and even Iran, outside the GCC, will be investing more into infrastructure, health and education. The first two countries have already announced major plans for power, railway and roads and health care upgrades. These are massive investments which will become the base of economic recovery for the region. Though it may well be that the fruits of these spending programs may not show up immediately there is no denying that it will set the stage for the decade. UAE's announced investment into nuclear based power generation already promises to benefit the region and indeed the US and European suppliers of technology.

4. Revenue Leaders.

If property was the revenue leader for the region in the past decade it is clear that new revenue leaders will emerge. I feel the service industry and the trading sector will come back into the limelight, with tourism becoming a new major revenue earner for the region. The model of an enabling economy in the UAE, through which the service and trading sector can thrive has been a tried and tested model and all we have to see is the return to those values as the prime drivers of the economy. In addition the attention that has been put into creating tourism as a destination driver for UAE there is the promise that this could well be the new bright star for economic performance. Countries like Oman who have a very rich tourist content will also begin to play this card more effectively, resulting in a broad based attraction for the region. I also feel in some ways manufacturing will become more important as more electric power is available in the years ahead, allowing the strategic advantages of the region coming into play.

5. Financial Performance.

I do believe banks will continue to be burdened in their performance through the effects of the past two years. There is alot of clean out of these balance sheets and that may well be the focus for the years ahead. I know that banks are in better shape than our rating agencies would like us to believe, but their focus on asset management will be more crucial then trying to get run away performance numbers each year. I also believe banks will have to change the way they compensate their senior staff as some bonus schemes only implied that the more risk they took the higher their bonus. I do however feel that the stock markets will do better than they have recently and while the maturity of these stock markets is still doubtful with true depth and two way liquidity still down the road attention towards superior performance compared to other markets is on the cards.

I do feel in addition some important steps need to be taken for the year ahead. Paramount to this would be the setting up of a 'think-tank', perhaps sponsored by the banks, to bring in the mind power to frankly and openly discuss the issues that face the economy. I also believe that people within the UAE government also recognize that there are many here, both Emirati and expatriates, who may not agree with some of the ways things are handled, but their sincerity and care for the country should not be questioned. I believe a broader base of discussion is what will improve the understanding.

Yet we have to understand that there will always be the cynics, like some of my banker friends who call me to tell me how bleak things are, and there will be the over enthusiastic admirers who will pretend there was no problem. Perhaps the truth is squarely in the middle, and this is perhaps why I ask for balance, not hysteria, for understanding rather than idiocy, for patience rather than panic, and most of all, when in doubt 'ask' do not 'guess'.

My single line call for 2010: 'Will be an anxious year, with more reasons to cheer than weep."

The Silver Lining.

Telling someone that one is based in Dubai, or the UAE, these days is tantamount to admitting that one is under the strains of a financial system that is groaning under debt and piles of newspaper analysis, which range from brilliant to pure junk. While there is not doubt that the fall out from Lehman Brothers in the US in September 2008 took a while to be understood in UAE and the Gulf, especially in terms of its possible impact. This was certainly the case of most countries in the world who felt the US economic problems were isolated and their global impact would be marginal. How wrong we all were, as it was often said when the US economy sneezes the world economy catches a cold; in this case this is not a cold, this is full blown bronchitis.

Dubai perhaps was in a state of denial as to the impact that was seething below the surface, with prominent officials making upbeat statements right into the face of the storm that was approaching. But enough of the dissections of the situation. I believe that this situation has caused some benefits that might well be ignored by people. I believe these are the silver linings on the clouds that need to be seen and pondered upon. I list them in no particular order of preference.

1. Governance and transparency will become the watch words of the coming decade. The UAE as a whole, and Dubai in particular, has, reading between the lines, realized that the maverick ways of doing business will not just work from here onwards. Yes they have a wonderful vision but with that vision a sense of clarity and focus are to remain paramount. A greater adherence to critical reviews and financial planning will be the result of this. I believe, at a Federal level, the UAE will want to monitor how their financial system, and more importantly the quasi government entities conduct their business will be under more closer review and oversight.

2. Dubai will need to go back to the basics. Traditionally the soul of Dubai's economy was the commerce generated by the trading houses; it is this sector that was ignored in the rush to become a metropolis of high rise buildings. It has been the trading hub that Dubai gained its reputation on and this is where the superior infrastructure in terms of ports and facilities will come into play. As demand grows in the Sub Continent, Iran and Iraq the service ability of UAE and Dubai will become of paramount importance giving the traders the traditional advantage they have held for so long.

3. Dubai's underlying story has not been shattered, it has been ofcourse seriously dented, and the repair work is going to be on the back of a restructured financial position, focusing back to the enabling economy model that allows businesses to thrive and do well here. The financial hub, the technology hub and the trading hub status will come back into focus. While pundits predict that properties will remain subdued, I anticipate from 2010 a 5% annual rise in property prices, on average, through the next 6 years. While this may seem minuscule to the dizzy levels of a couple of years ago, so be it. Some smart Germans even announced they will proceed with their development on the World Islands, perhaps aware that when in 3 years time they complete construction they will be walking into a recovery.

4. The focus of a more Federally driven economy will be the key aspect to consider. This is indeed good and this crisis has brought focus back to one nation and one economy as a model for moving forward. This cannot be bad for the economy and its future, and I do feel all these statements about political compromises are really humbug. This new economic focus on a Federally driven economy will actually benefit Dubai in more ways that one, mostly by allowing the integration of the infrastructure covering areas of public transport, power generation and perhaps eventually ports management.

5. UAE position within the GCC as the most favored place to do business from has not been compromised in this crisis. On the contrary they have not gone an blamed the excesses of foreign property developers and indeed have held their words even against their own plans. Quite simply the floor fell of the real estate market and whether this was the reason the debt implosion happened or because of a world wide financial contagion will always remain open to debate.

6. Finally the business laws and financial management of the system will become more streamlined. This will be a welcome step for the business sector. It might be a teething process but it is clear the regulation and over sight support by a sound business judicial system can only mean well for all.

Indeed there will ups and downs in the process. The first and most pressing issues will be the restructuring of the balance of the debt of Dubai World, which the bankers and lenders eagerly await into the new year. I tabulated, from the public media, maturity profile of the debt in Dubai, and the UAE and it is interesting to note that if banks were to consider around $ 12 billion to restructured from a 2 year maturity profile to a 5 year maturity profile then indeed the pressures what seem so immediate will be released. At the end of the day this breathing space is needed for the positive economic fundamentals to come into play. The service sector remains strong and indeed the tourism industry has actually performed remarkably better than expected. These are the silver linings we are missing, and while pulling out the check books and putting money into real estate may not be the first thing that comes to mind there is no doubt that not being a player in this economy is not the right thing to do.

Yes Dubai, especially, must cut back on its long term project plans and make them fit the needs that they realistically assess, and side by side phase the development from here on. They must also realize that a fair amount of the splurging of the past years was indeed wasteful and even at times questionable. This is why the return to basis is so vital at this stage to be emphasized by all and sundry.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Dubai World debt puzzle.

I get accused these days of being a Dubai 'fan', all the more strange since I hope I have been pragmatic in my advice to both sides. Yes there is not denying that I do love the UAE, it has a great deal what is good and when it has needed improvement I have spoken out, not as a cynic but as a friend who means well. I have been a banker for a major part of my life, and have viewed banking and bankers from a close distance this past ten years.

As Dubai World announced its intention to restructure its debt, even though getting to that stage may well have been a comedy in its own right, I wondered about what bankers were thinking. Indeed, some claimed they were under the 'impression' that the Dubai government was the ultimate guarantor of the loans; a silly argument on two accounts, a. the documentation for the loans never state that, and b. the decree that set up Dubai World clearly states that the government would not in away guarantee the loans or obligations of Dubai World. So how come this sudden myopia on the part of the bankers.

Bankers are forgetting their heydays of lending, and this was like a wild spree. A European banker had the gall to say to me that they did not know the extent of the obligations of the Dubai World, and had they known them they would not have lent money! First of all if I had to choose the most ridiculous statement in this whole saga that would surely be my choice. You expect me to believe that banks piled on $26 billion of debt and did no due diligence, did not ask for financial statements, did not check the news back then where every month banks were announcing new lending syndicates, and my European banker friend was tucked away in London reading the Financial Times and signing away loan approvals. Banks have risk management departments, credit committees and legal minds that are keen to know the interconnectedness of each entity around the borrower and indeed the relationship, in legal and contractual terms with the shareholders.

But then when a bankers bonus is determined by the number of assets he writes onto the books of the bank, and the bonus is paid soon after the loan is booked, why should he really be worried about all the details? Were the bankers negligent in their lending? Perhaps in a sense yes; after all if they did their homework some of the lending could have been curbed based on the 'concentration of risk' argument, where the leverage piled onto Dubai World, even in the bright days was remarkably more that what the Dubai government itself was borrowing.

My banker friend also suggested he did not know what were the assets of Dubai World? Then the simple idiotic question comes up as to what was the basis of them lending? I can understand bankers wanting to know what is the value of the assets today, after the impairment in the market place, but to claim at that time bankers did not know what assets were covering their loans really sounds totally out of place.

I believe that while Dubai World may have been careless in its pursuit of glory or possessed with and abundance of wishful thinking that people will buy into their dream in droves, or a mixture of both, it does not absolve the bankers of their loss of reason. Yes corporate governance and all is fine, but this is all about asking the bankers and lenders to be clear of what they did wrong. I am surprised the financial press, who normally are good at pointing out who messed up are giving the bankers a bit of a free ride. But then every saga needs a victim and somehow the bankers want us to believe they were duped into this huge lending.

This is certainly not the case. The banking world does not work this way. The details on lending applications, especially of this size, run into volumes of analysis, opinion and credit and risk assessments . If these were not done then frankly these banks should just have to bear the brunt of their mistakes and at best agree to reschedule the debts and wait out the recovery.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Around the Debt Table

One of the crucial lessons of banking is that when you lend someone say $1 million you, as a banker, have a commanding position with the borrower, but when you lend him $26 billion, as is the case of the Dubai World bankers, then frankly speaking you cannot afford to take as tough a position as you may seek. As dismal as that may sound, Dubai World, Dubai and the UAE also have a reputation they want to protect and ofcourse heal the recent acrimonious display of relations with lenders and bond holders. Armed with a new bankruptcy law, administered by some of the best western legal minds, does mean that creditors of Dubai World will have to get used to the legal formalities of such laws in the case of debt recoveries. The litmus test that will apply in such reorganization applications is that a) the company made its best efforts to convince the creditors on its reorganization plan, b) the plan provides relief to the company to reorganize itself and implement a plan that c) provides the economic possibility of a recovery better than say a fire sale would at the present.

If this test is met then the judges will be inclined to allow the company the time and the patience to meet the objectives of the plan and something the creditors may well have to swallow. Indeed, UAE entities will be penalized over the cost of new borrowing should this be the route taken.

However, my call is that when the bankers sit around the table with the company and its advisers there has to be a sense of balance that they will have to gauge. Its all fine to be publicly emotional about the whole sordid episode but we are dealing with huge sums of money and bankers cannot, and should not, let their ego's into the way. I would suspect if the plan is workable, and this is reasonably demonstrated in such a meeting then banks could agree to a restructuring of their loans in a manner which allows them interest payments and a defined structure for the future repayments of the principal amount lent.

On Dubai World's side, just because the recent legislation gives them negotiating clout does not mean they wield it. Some of the best deals break down when people get stubborn over what in the end are minor issues. Dubai World should, in my opinion look at some of the assets it holds and assure the banks that there is a plan for the sale of these assets and to satisfy them that their entire lending did not go down into a bottomless pit. Yes the land bank held by Dubai World's property arms is seriously impaired, but realistically speaking real estate may get sick from time to time but it never does really die. If the wait period is say 5 years under a restructured plan then there is a high chance that some of these impaired values may well recover, while not the to dizzy heights of two years back, but certainly well off the bottom that we saw a month back.

Dubai`World will have to also think more pragmatically and let go those plans that do not seem feasible at the moment. There is no joy in hanging onto a master plan of a project when it is highly unlikely for it to materialize in the next few years. What bankers and lenders need assurance is that the realities of the market situation are recognized and there is a willingness to cut the cloth to that size. I do know that some bankers will remain adamant about being repaid in full, perhaps buoyed by the recent news that in talks in London senior Dubai officials said repaying all the debts in full was an option. However, testing that will through the bankruptcy court is not a wise choice. I would always say that sometimes a bad settlement is better than a good court case.

I do feel that bankers are well advised to hammer out a balanced agreement and assist in the restructuring of the company. This is really the way forward that gives enough elbow room for everyone to move forward and has the best chance of being in a position that is better then where things stand today.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

UAE Bashing- time to stop it.

Since the last week of November 2009, and after Dubai's surprise, but badly handled announcement about Dubai World, it almost became a fashion to indulge in some Dubai Bashing. So much so that the rating agencies, for whom I have scant respect, jumped in and turned the Dubai bashing sentiment into an all out assault on the UAE. Pundits who just a year ago were queuing up for invites to the latest launch of a real estate project were suddenly become experts on who felt they have to join in the assault. I am not suggesting a conspiracy theory in the media, but simply pointing out that it seems its fashionable to run down UAE and Dubai because that is what sells newspapers. I fully admit that there are problems and yes there is a need for transparency and accountability of the situation and a great deal needs to be done to bring back confidence to the system.

However, it is deeply irritating that when the good news has come out, the bond that was the subject of such concern has been paid, and most importantly Abu Dhabi and Dubai have shown that there is a supremacy of the Federal system, resulting in the $10 billion assistance from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, all this good news is not being presented in the right light. A senior correspondent of a class A European newspaper asked me, in a rather sinister way, as to what was the price Dubai will pay for this assistance. Even though whether the assistance is a loan, or indeed an asset purchase, frankly who cares? The bottom line is a crisis has been averted, and some measure of confidence has come back to the market place.

Rating agencies have found more reasons than one to continue to make it sound like a contagion. I wonder what did they know that was new now compared to a year ago? Did they not know of the debts of Dubai World? Had they not in their review process and due dilegence with banks, when granting the ratings, discussed these issues? So they say the standstill suddenly brought home the vulnerability of the situation; it highlights how weak their research was in the first place.

It is time to look ahead now. I know that the financial system has been tested in this crisis, and more importantly the country's political will as one nation has been tested and this came through with flying colors. I have been resident here for close to 30 years, and have often spoken out about matters that have needed improvement. I have not been candid and blunt because `I am not some journalist who might want sensationalism to promote my name, but someone who really believes that in the past 38 years UAE has grown to be a fabulous place to live and work. Its a safe place, with a great infrastructure and people who have been more welcoming then others. Yes there are tons of issues that need to be resolved and this is where the focus must shift.

I was asked what was the lesson learned from this crisis.

I would say if there is one thing that is not need is a system of governance, at the Federal level, whereby debts of each of the emirates and their GRI's can be monitored. I was taken aback that Dubai World, on its own was allowed to pile on such a colossal debt, much larger than Dubai's own debt. I believe that this situation should never be allowed to happen again. I am not concerned with the politics of the situation, it is in a sense, a risk even a rich nation like UAE cannot afford to take. Indeed this crisis will pass, and I say this with knowledge and confidence that there will be support from all quarters within the country to resolve the problems of Dubai World, and there will be a clear process to ensure it never happens again.

Lenders must also be made to realize that they have to carry part of the pain in this. I asked a well known journalist who has been writing about this matter every day as to why hasn't the carelessness of the bankers been questioned in this lending? I never saw one hard hitting piece on this subject, it was almost as if only the borrower was being blamed for the excesses. I believe that while the new arrangements for Dubai World have, in the longer term created the means for the repayment of the debts to take place, there is a need for bankers and bond holders to also agree to a restructured debt. This is the pain of lending and it is time that all parties understand this comes with the territory.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Wolves need to back off.

When the crisis of credibility and debt was unfolding in Dubai and the region, I had commented that this crisis has one benefit that it will make the UAE think like a nation and not as individual city states. Irrespective of the rumors of assets deals between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the bottom line was, in my eyes, that an adherence to a one Nation concept was all the more important to all parties. Since September of this year this has been the message of one people and one nation. It was in this light that the announcement today of Abu Dhabi's $10 billion support for Dubai has been made. Yes it leaves one wondering why all this drama if the end the Sukuk maturing today was going to be paid in the first place. I have all along said the public relations side of this episode leaves a great to be desired and I am sure all parties have learned from it.

I now have to smugly look at my friends in Moody's and other rating agencies and wonder where their argument that support from government to commercial entities is 'questionable' stands? In the parlance of the real world will they admit they jumped the gun and became over cautious, will they step forward and correct what has been done wrong in the downgrades and the review notifications? I suspect not, because rating analysts hate to admit they are wrong.

For Dubai indeed this is a bitter lesson learned, in terms of its relations with debt holders, the media and indeed the manner in which crisis is handled. However, I always say if the end has been satisfactory then all said and done it works to the better of all. Yes there will be questions over access to new credit lines, and there will be the rumor mill wanting to know the background of the 'deal' between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Frankly, as someone who has lived here for three decades and followed all this carefully, I believe that the good of the country has been restored. Yes Dubai needs now to do a proper public relations exercise, not those glitzy statements of the past, and get some serious repair work underway. While the debt has been paid today, the damage still needs to be repaired and this is where the hard work must go.

While the credibility of UAE has been restored, there will be a number of doubters out there, and these will need to be talked to, engaged in discussions and a manner of governance brought back to the forefront that will bring confidence and support for all that is being done from hereon. I do believe that all parties who care for this country, both UAE Nationals and seasoned expatriates should now speak out and talk of measures that will be needed to restore confidence in the system. Today an important brick has been laid, more work has to be done from here on.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Night of the Rating Agencies

The rating agencies have in rapid succession changed their position of Dubai and UAE entities, almost like in famous night of the generals from World War II, where former darlings fell from grace.. Suddenly the very story they were selling so well a year ago is being shot down by them in their supposed zest for 'caution'. In what clearly seems a case of jittery nerves Moody's has down graded three UAE based banks citing the over all financial situation over the Dubai World debt to be the reason for caution. Interestingly they say this when on November 29th, 2009, yes just about 10 days back, they said that UAE Banks rating were on review and then do not explain the reasons for the downgrade other than some prosaic general statements. I know a Moody's spokesperson will say yes the result of this review is the downgrade yesterday of EmiratesNBD, Dubai Islamic Bank and Mashraq Bank.

To us who are familiar with rating processes one has to see what happened since the rating review was announced and the actual rating was downgraded. Ratings are not the whims of financial analysts, as indeed Moody's, Fitch and S&P are finding out being sued recently by CALPERS, one the largest public sector pension funds in the US. I would suggest readers see where transcripts of the actually filed complaint appear.

Frankly since the 'intention to ask' for a Standstill on Dubai World debt a number of positive things have happened and have been over looked by our friends at rating agencies and in sections of the financial press.

Before I go further let me be clear I am not suggesting that there are no issues with the $26 billion debt of Dubai World or there should not be questions asked that need answering on a number of other financial commitments in UAE. This is indeed a normal and healthy process, provided all parties engage in constructive discussions on these matters.

Here is how is see why the panic is not being seen in balance.

1. Dubai Government did not ASK for a 'standstill' it said it was its intention to discuss this with Dubai World bondholders and debt providers. Till today NO formal written request has been made asking for this 'standstill'.
2. Governments and companies all over the world use the media to convey to its bondholders such intentions for discussion especially as there are hundreds of bondholders, all the more so in a traded market. The wording of Dubai's press disclosure may not have been politically or financially soothing in the choice of words, but it has been a modus operandi for bond issuers to use the media to engage in a dialogue.
3. The recent panic two days back about DEWA bonds suddenly being due for payment due to a Moody's downgrade was resolved in 24 hours with the bankers holding the bonds, which mature in 2036, agreeing to continue with the terms of the bond as issued indicates that there are banks who are prudent enough to understand that rating agencies cannot be the ultimate arbitrators of investment decisions.
4. I find it appalling that the DEWA news of resolving the issue has not received the same front page focus in the financial press, perhaps because it does erode the sense of hysteria that has been generated. I have always asked my friends in the media to be fair and balanced.
5. The UAE Central Bank at the beginning of the crisis made it clear that it not only guarantees the deposits of the banks but also will stand by the financial system. It also arranged a special tap facility at 50 basis points over the interbank rate for all banks, domestic and foreign branches, in the UAE for any liquidity support. Perhaps my friends at the Central Bank should send a copy of this announcement to the Moody and S&P offices.
6. EmiratesNBD being downgraded is perhaps the biggest surprise to me. Its Tier one capital ratio on risk a healthy 12.1% or more. In addition its Tier 2 capital ratio is a very robust 19%. The banks balance sheet as at Sept 2009 shows its strength as a $ 80 billion bank with substantial liquidity and prudent lending policies. Dubai Islamic Bank was downgraded a punishing two notches when there is no clear reason for such a drastic move other than the analysts perception that things were still bad, ignoring that a substantial part of the problem is being addressed.
7. Putting major entities in UAE, including Abu Dhabi, on a downgrade review clearly shows how little these rating agencies know of the region.

I am not disputing an agency's right to review or downgrade, but please give me something sensible and substantial to chew on rather than the flippant words of a young man too over worked or over partied in Dubai's social scene. It was good to see my friends in Abu Dhabi not to be too perturbed by the likes of Moody's ratings, I bet many smiled and said 'business as usual'.

I have a simple question to ask? What happens to these rating agencies when the bond is paid off? Will they have the guts to say they got it wrong? Or will they then say well there are long term issues?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Moody's Cheap Shot.

During my banking days I often met with rating agencies and always found them to be a rather pompous lot who 'researched' alot and often were judgmental to the point of sounding like pontificating pundits. They performed an important task for the financial markets and while generally did a decent job, but once in a while they messed up in royal style. Moody's downgrade of Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) is based on Dubai government's "recent decision to explicitly segregate its direct obligations from those of its GRIs, following which a decision was subsequently made to pursue a debt restructuring for Dubai World'.

Moody's conveniently sets aside Dubai's assertion that it was never a guarantor of the liabilities of Dubai World, this was stated and known to all Sukuk holders, while Dubai government does seem to suggest that as a shareholder it will support the restructuring of Dubai World. Admittedly, as I have said before, the public handling of this matter was far from elegant, Moody's downgrading of DEWA and then going over the top and downgrading companies lilke Mubadala, TAQA, and other GRI's of Abu Dhabi Government is perhaps clearly evidence of their lack of understanding the risks in this market. In addition the biggest surprise of all is the assertion that Etisalat, the Federally owned largest telecommunications operator, is also slated for a downgrade review.

Moody's baseline credit support for GRI's is based on whether the governments who have substantial interest in the GRI will lend it the support if it is needed. Thus these down grades imply that Moody's feels that Abu Dhabi Government may not be able to or willing to support the likes of TAQA, Mubadala, Etisalat and others. This truthfully suggests that somebody at Moody's has not done their homework, Abu Dhabi has the financial means, liquidity and will to support any of the entities that have been named in the review for downgrade of Moody's. DEWA is a large utility company and Moody's downgrade triggers a payment of $872 million and not $ 2 billion as is being reported in some sections of the financial press. It must be stressed that the particular sukuk in question was not guaranteed by Dubai government and was against the billings inflow of DEWA.

Moody's is not being entirely fair in its massive across the downgrades of all the entities it named in its recent press release. Ofcourse, one is prone to wonder what their motives were in a situation where such reviews while acceptable for say Dubai World or entities directly effected by the debt resturcturing attempt, certainly do not warrant the same of the other entities named. This does remind one of 1997 fiasco when Moody's downgraded Hanover Re (one of Europe's largest re insurers). It transpired that Moody's has issued an unsolicited rating on Hanover Re and then asked them to formally apply for a rating, which Hanover Re did not accede to. When Moody's demanded payment for the unsolicited rating and Hanover Re refused, Moody's downgraded the company causing $175 million losses to the company in the stock price. In 2005 Moody's was subpoenaed by a court in the US and only in July 2008 it sheepishly admitted that some of this officials, who they conveniently called 'independent financial advisers' had engaged in unethical practices and that it had corrected the problems for the future.

The 'issuer-pay' model for fees of Moody's is highly questionable as it asks the issuer of securities to pay for the rating that it issues and is a subject matter still under serious review by regulators. It also gives Moody's the power to not only negotiate high fees but also hold companies whose paper it rates to ransom, as was indeed was the case of Hanover Re. The Securities and Exchange Commission in the US in July 2008 issued a scathing report questioning the practices of rating agencies and pointed out Moody's in particular. When nine employees openly questioned Moody's own ethical practices in 2007 they were 'downsized' from the company and Moody refused to comment on the 'internal matter.'

I am not suggesting any conspiracy theory but rather the lack of proper analysis, or depth of knowledge on this matter.

My simple consideration now is that that these ratings that have been put on review for downgrade, i.e. Etisalat, Mubadala, TAQA and many others in the UAE, clearly do not deserve such a harsh treatment. So I wonder why Moody's would take such an nonsensical and rash step when a person familiar with UAE, and especially Abu Dhabi could easily explain that for say Abu Dhabi alone the daily revenue of oil alone is over $140 million per day, then add the investment income, and income from services, and the list goes on. I am sorry to say but the boys at Moody's you got this one wrong and it would be wise to wipe the egg of your face and get your act right. But then I better be careful they might downgrade my sukuk's, glad no one issued one in my name.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

dubai and the press

Currently the financial press is littered with stories about Dubai and its current woes. In the plethora of articles from Hong Kong, to India, and the West, soothsayers are predicting the end of Dubai's glory days. Indeed the botched public relations attempt by Dubai was not only lacking elegance but also spat into the face of the financial community almost demanding a 'standstill'. Yet we live in a sad world where in moments such as these analysis that is objective are drowned in the moment of sensationalism. I am not suggesting that the urgent $26 billion debt restructuring of Dubai's world is a mirage, but I do feel that understanding defaults and quasi government debt is a little more complex then just being hyped up about it all.

But lets see the context. It is not as if Dubai is the only economy that is having to respell the word debt in one hundred different ways. Companies, public sector enterprises and indeed governments all restructure debt, sometimes by issuing new debt at other times by negotiating new terms on existing debt. So why be so surprised that Dubai has asked for some concessions and understanding? Yes admittedly it has done it with a blend of arrogance and naivety but lets move on from that and concentrate on the issues at hand. Are debt holders of Dubai World so sure that enforcement of claims will give them a better reward then cajoling the shareholder of Dubai World, which is the government itself, to put some meaning into the word 'support'.

There will be some pain through this process, and indeed for debt holders they too should know that the document they signed for the debt nowhere uses the name of the Dubai government as a guarantor, so now suggesting that there were implied guarantees is wishful thinking. It is another matter that Dubai World can ill afford to 'default' on the debt as the repercussions for Dubai and the UAE, if not the region, will be enormous. Analogies with meltdowns in the past, and references to the 'last days of Rome' are all sensationalist penmanship, and do nothing to provide merit to the discussion in hand. I have always argued that Dubai needs to create some medium term debt to replace the short term nature of its borrowings and this mismatch needs to be adjusted at the earliest.

As Dubai will tone down its 'Las Vegas on Viagra' sentiment and scale back some of its ambitious plans, there will also need to be understanding within the financial community that strangling the chicken does not always mean every one will get a meal as the wolves that tear the chicken sometimes leave nothing for anyone including themselves. The state of the financial press is such that is not even willing to see the broader picture. Dubai is a part of the UAE, and beyond the Federal Reserves held by the Central Bank, there is a huge cache of funds with Abu Dhabi entities who, as I calculate need only to give 100 days if their revenue to pay off all of Dubai's debt! Yes it is not forthcoming like a spigot turned on, because quite frankly it would be too rewarding for bankers who now claim they didn't know what and who they were lending too. If push came to shove, irrespective of the supposed political intrigue, UAE can and will act as one nation.

Some articles have claimed that there is not hope as the total public sector debt of Dubai is equivalent to its GDP. I conceded this was the case as of today indeed, but then the total debt of the US government is 90.4% of its current GDP! Why is this financial press so paranoid about the failure of the US system? In the 30 years I have been here not one bank has ever gone insolvent, and i mean a bank incorporated within the UAE. Yes I have long argued that some projects planned and being executed within Dubai would never really have a decent return on investment and some projects were about ten years before their time. But we must not forget that ten years back when a six lane highway being built between Abu Dhabi and Dubai many thought it was way over the needs of the time. Even today in this recession we see its not really an empty highway.

My point is simple, yes Dubai may not have held up to its much celebrated PR machine status, but then while these problems may well be real, there is a need for balance. Dubai government must bring to the forefront its own faces, not those of expatriates and hired guns to deal with the issues. It must also sincerely and truthfully explain what went wrong and seek substantive discussions about the way forward. The press for its part should remember that sensational stories have an expiry date which is usually one day. Look ahead, educate, explain and suggest the way forward.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Can Dubai survive the Debt crunch?

Dubai's dream of progress and prosperity may well have been dented but its not a failed dream. In the context of the world economic crisis the crisis that Dubai faces is not as monumental as is being suggested. Dubai Worlds obligations are listed at $60 billion but these are obligations to contractors, suppliers, and indeed bond holders and debt providers. A number of contractors and consultants have only recently indicated that they would be willing to take a haircut on their receivables, some suggesting as high as a 35% reduction in exchange for a payment plan. After all, the logic goes, that these contractors benefited with robust profits from the same clients in the good days and indeed are more accommodating as the times get rough.

Over the weekend Bond holders of the $4 billion Sukuk were adamant that given they have 25% of the Sukuk holders on their side they can negotiate tough to force a payment of the bonds. Failure to have this 25% might well mean that Sukuk will be restructured, and even if an enforcement is done there are complex legal issues concerning Sukuk's which, frankly, have not been tested in a court of law before. Interestingly, if Dubai government, as the shareholder of Dubai World, did want to pay this Sukuk off, then even it runs the risk of being accused of causing losses to Sukuk holders who sold the bonds after the initial announcement of the standstill, since the standstill announcement came from Dubai government and not Dubai World itself.

Paying this Sukuk is possible and if the restructuring or extension to May 2010 is agreed by more than 75% of the holders then the current issues will subside to some extent. If not then I do feel that the resources to pay this $4 billion bond will happen even though may leave many of us wondering why the whole drama happened in the first place. I suspect that when the Dubai Government announced the 'standstill' it was felt that the market would take this news positively as the government was stepping in. This clearly backfired and the market took the news they didn't like most and made a meal of it all. If I was a bond holder and a principal shareholder being the government was initiating a new plan for repayment I would rather go with it then to rely on the assets of this particular Sukuk (in this case Nakheel's land bank which is highly deflated at the moment). But lawyers and bankers do not always make the best decisions in such moments.

However, we have to look beyond to how Dubai can survive this debt crunch.

The issue that needs to be addressed for Dubai is essentially $26 billion of debt for Dubai World, which is like a fly in the ointment at the moment. In essence the Dubai story is not over simply because a recovery in the region will bring focus back to the essential element that everyone asks. Where would you like to be based to do business in the Middle East? The answer is always going to be Dubai because of the investment it has made in the infrastructure, connectivity with the world, its airports and ports and most of all the UAE as a whole is a pretty safe place to be in. Yes its property market is dented, some believe taking as much as three years to repair itself, but its position as a financial hub, a tourist stop over and a traditional role as a commercial hub are not effected in any severe sense.

The most important thing Dubai must do is initiate a seven to ten year bond program, some of it supported by the government itself, and thus plug the gap between short term obligations and long term cash flows. To do this their handling of the current Sukuk crisis is important and will set the stage for restoring the dented confidence. Yes support can come from the Federal Government, as it has recently, or the Abu Dhabi controlled entities (as the recent $5 billion placement shows) and once goodwill is restored the ability to restructure may not be all that hard.

Interestingly, my banker friends tell me, prior to the November 25th standstill announcement discussions with bankers on an over all approach were going very well. Infact some even felt that an over all restructuring of the debt was a foregone conclusion. Indeed a bad public relations gambit backfired it all and focus on a smaller piece of the debt became paramount. Now the task ahead is to get back to the same level of confidence that was there three weeks back and build from there.

In the realm of a three year period the over all position of Dubai will be considerably better, even though we only look at the GDP as an indicator we forget that a substantial part of their GRE holdings are overseas and these can, in a global turn around, be crown jewels can can be sold off for a sizable profit. I believe the return to the enabling economy model where commerce, tourism and services will become the rock bed of the recovery that is highly possible.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Dubai World Debt: A perspective from Dubai.

In moments of crisis, especially financial ones, bankers tend to seek the shortest distance to the source they think can pay them off best, and ofcourse, with the least of hassle. While I have offered my perspective on the way the Dubai World matter was handled, or mishandled, I may have come across as rather 'soft' of the bond holders and the debt holders. While some may suggest that Dubai Worlds handling of this debt saga is more akin to the way someone might be handling their credit card debts but shuffling around payments to keep every card issuer happy, they have, till yesterday, actually failed more on public relations side of the story.

For bankers, on the other hand, they have found an unlikely ally in the media who have questioned why the Dubai Government or indeed Abu Dhabi do not step in. Both miss a crucial point. If support, financial or in the shape of explicit guarantees, comes from these sources then it should be the choice of Dubai government rather than something the media or the bankers cajole them into. Yes Dubai World could be seen as a public sector company of the Government of Dubai, but this merely makes it a stakeholder, and while generally governments do prop up such companies in times of stress, this propping up is not necessarily done through guarantees, but more through restructuring and financial support as a stakeholder rather than as guarantor. Indeed banks are seeking more the goodwill of the government, but rather than asking them to help out it is being implied that they must do so.

What Dubai Government is saying is really that the distinction has to be first made of the capacity in which this help is sought. In doing so it is distancing the call of the media for some sort of government led financial support in the form of a pay up, with actually saying that the government as a stakeholder is helping in the restructuring of the companies in question. This has to be, in my opinion, a first and important step to move forward with the solution of the problems for the long term. Only after these steps are exhausted then Dubai must make an independent judgment on how to deal with the systemic risk that an non-resolution of the problem effects Dubai's other companies and the economy.

Indeed while at one end of the spectrum some may argue that the credibility of Dubai has been hurt to the point where bankers may not be so forthcoming to new commitments, the fact remains it glosses over the inadequacies of the bankers own assessment of risks during the hey days. While Dubai cannot simply argue 'why did you lend so much to one company' it still does bring home the truth that bankers assumed that lending to some entities in Dubai as akin to lending to the government. Dubai government has not told the bankers you are on your own now, but have asked them, without being too clear, that Dubai World will restructure itself and to do this it will engage with all parties concerned to come up with a plan. I believe the statement of disclosure of the debt, and the problem segment of the debt, was a huge first step in the right direction. It is this that we have to focus upon rather than the sensational elements of this story.

It is sad, that unlike the US where there are 30 year treasury bonds issued by the government, there are no long term debt instruments available in the market to match long term funding needs with the demands of a long term development program. Eventually I believe that once the restructuring is considered and banks and bondholders have assessed the merits of the situation, Dubai should consider a longer term bond program. However, how they handle the Dubai World issues will be instrumental in the way forward for this strategy to work.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Dubai World saga.

The story of Dubai World and its debt is turning into a soap opera that it really does not deserve to be. Some simple facts are being ignored from all sides, and suggests that we are all either naive or simply hoping that somehow the realities of a debt burdened company will simply change by 'talking' our way out of it. There are some essential media mistakes that indeed Dubai government officials have made and made it all the more difficult to handle then it really was.

The way I see it is that bond holders and lenders always knew that they are lending to a government owned entity without the explicit guarantee of the Government of Dubai. Whether their argument that being a shareholder of Dubai World they didn't need the guarantee to be explicit is really worthy of being tested in a court of law is still to be seen. As a former banker I am clear in that being the sole shareholder of the company doesn't mean you have guaranteed all the debts of the company, even though it may place moral responsibilities on you, strictly from a legal point of view such a guarantee is never explicit unless stated in the debt documents. This the bankers and the bond holders knew when they lent the money, even though they may argue their 'assumption' was that being a Government Related Entity (GRE) the risks of lending were less.

On the flip side of the coin, government officials who are stating that such lending to Dubai World is 'not guaranteed' may well be stating the legal position very accurately, however, they are missing a crucial part of how banks and lenders will see this statement. They will assume therefore that statements in the past three months of support for Dubai World and other GRE's were not meant in the spirit they were and with the current statement of disengaging the debt from being a government obligation, while legally correct, actually limits Dubai's ability to raise debt in the future.

This is where the much admired PR machine of Dubai has totally failed. In the first place what was the need for the 'standstill' statement on November 25th? They should have first had discussions with the bond holders and agreed a 'rollover' or 'extension' and then AFTER an agreement on the matter or otherwise made a statement. Secondly, when all the uproar is going on, why should a government official go on TV and state the obvious 'the government has not guaranteed the debts of Dubai World'. This is known to the bond holders, why say it again?

I am asked often about what I would do in this situation. Well first I am not fully aware of the all the financial matters within Dubai World so I am venturing a guess of a strategy that I believe will work, and perhaps will be excused not knowing the exact asset details that Dubai World. But in essence this is what I would do.

1. Dubai Government to state that yes it is the shareholder of Dubai World and given it is taking a more direct oversight of the current situation it is going to issue a White Paper on the status of Dubai World. It should then commission this study.

2. The Government along with Dubai World management should issue a statement of its total assets and assume they are, as some reports suggested in the past US$75 billion, then state how much of that is impaired with the current global financial situation.

3. Given that a major problem has been the mismatch of funding to the projects it should then offer a new program of debt which would be in chunks of three years, five years and seven years. The longer term debt could be supported by the Government of Dubai, or specific assets, or a combination of both. All short term debt holders then be convinced through a proper dialogue to participate in the longer term restructured debt, and where possible seek support from regional long term fund providers, be they from Abu Dhabi, or Federal Bodies, or even GCC banks.

4. Consider a selective program, stated now as an intent, to take some of the parts of Dubai World public through IPO's and in some cases with the recovery of the world economic situation, to even consider selling them off to repay debt.

5. Create a single platform for communication on the debt issue and related matters to avoid statements from all over the place.

While this all may sound simplistic, but I believe these steps will be better than what is the situation today. Lenders will be happier to have a true dialogue with the stakeholders rather than talking through the press on these matters. I do believe that as confidence is restored through these steps the over all picture will improve exponentially and restore much need confidence back to the system.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dubai World: A spin that is hard to follow.

Dubai's debt woes have captured the world news attention, with articles written by people who are familiar with the region and the issues, and some obscure journalists who would be hard pressed to find Dubai on the world map. My three decades of experience living in UAE, and almost all of it in the financial sector, as a participant and observer, has taught me that in many cases the depth of the problems may well never be known, but in equal measure the efforts going into the solutions are always clouded in a measure of secrecy.

Yet globalization and the presence of international media has made it more difficult to not tell the extent of the problems. Some weeks ago when it was revealed that Dubai World alone had $60 billion of debts, out of possible $82 billion of total Dubai debt, I did balk at the number for two reasons. In the first place how could a company with the size of DP World have acquired such a huge debt, totally disproportionate to the overall debt of Dubai and more importantly, who were the silly bankers who had not only opened the tap of finance to that level but perhaps opened the floodgates to lending money to one entity?

It would seem that someone advising the Dubai government might well have thought that since the majority of the debt is in one entity lets isolate it from the other good parts of Dubai and hence proposed a 'standstill'. Interestingly the standstill concerns mainly the $4 billion of an Islamic bond maturing on the December 14th 2009. From what I gather is that perhaps only 15% of this bond is held by hedge funds from Europe and some from the US, or perhaps tax havens, leaving the chunk of the bond to be held by local banks, investment companies and private investors from the region. While preferential treatments of bond holders are not possible, my guess is that a two tranche payment of this bond will be a solution that might be proposed.

Alternatively, a new short term issue will be put together in the next week allowing local and regional banks to fund it, and use those funds to retire the old bond thus allowing perhaps 60% of the old lenders to roll into the new structure and thus saving face. This new bond/lending may well carry the express backing of the Government of Dubai, which unlike the chunk of the $60 billion is really not guaranteed by the Government.

Interestingly Abu Dhabi had, over the weekend, said it was there to help and support Dubai and will 'pick and choose' its support, thereby indicating that there is a dialogue of substance going on between the two neighbors. It was also a neat way of telling bankers that their follies of the past cannot be bailed out at will by simply creating crisis. We have to also remember that Abu Dhabi has always been very sensitive to the issue of defaults and has, more than Dubai, seen things in a Federal light rather than just about their own Emirate. I would therefore say that through the Central Bank and Abu Dhabi based banks there will be support coming in, even of in bits and pieces. The difficultly will be to know exactly what amounts and when they will be available.

As for Dubai World, it has perhaps learned a harsh lesson in public relations. One government official told me privately that it was hoped the announcement that actually caused all the nervousness would have been seen positively that now the Government of Dubai was going to reorganize DP World and all that was being asked for was time to do this. While that may well have been the intent of the move, the only thing that stuck in the minds of the banks and the financial press is that an obligation was 'not going to be paid' on time.

Dubai World, while a combination of real estate, capital markets and venture capital assets, has borne the brunt of the real estate meltdown, still has assets that could, in a recovery, be worth a substantial amount of money. Its largest and most publicized acquisition was of P&O for about $7 billion, and its port management operations are in the top three in the world. The impairment of the real estate portfolio and the lack of cash flow from it may well be where the bulk of the problems lie. However, with revenues of over $3 billion and a net profit of $ 800 million, bankers will have to see how this revenue can pay off the huge debts in the future. Yet it would seem that a selective sell off, rather than a fire sale, can bring in the cash to deal with a major chunk of the obligations.

However, the problem has been that most of the debt has been short term and it has been supporting long term assets and it is this mismatch that has caught DP World off balance, especially as the financial crisis of last year dried up not only liquidity but appetite of bankers to lend. Indeed a stable real estate market will help matters but so too will the scaling back of some of the real estate projects this company wanted to do. It will need to go back to the basics of its logistic and port management business, at which the company has proved itself to be very good. As for the huge pile of debt, this will need to be restructured and not by announcing standstills but by engaging in hard negotiations with the bond holders and debt holders for a restructuring that is realistic and well backed into the realm of a five year plus debt.

As a PR exercise DP World or the right people in the government should come out and admit that the way the matter was handled last week was not elegant. At the same time the current discussions in resolving this matter of the standstill should be revealed more openly and a degree of engagement and transparency brought to the table. I am personally confident that a solution is on hand, and it may well be a combination of Federal, Abu Dhabi and Dubai initiatives backed by the banks who have been at the forefront of resolving this matter. I also suspect that the financial markets also realize that the international impact of this embarrassing episode do not warrant the hype that has been created. Importantly the next two days are important we then the country goes into the National Day holidays, perhaps an opportune time for Abu Dhabi to emphasize that the country's unity and financial strength is more important and perhaps the act of this might well be a solution to the current issue.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Dubai's Debt Surprise

Almost thirty years back if someone had told me that a financial event in the Emirate of Dubai would shock world markets I would have smiled, sipped my tea and wondered what the person making such a statement was smoking. Three decades on, and with highways, a Metro, the tallest buildings in the world and an assortment of what were commonly called Dubai's crown jewels, Dubai had become, till the mid of last year, the choice economy to comment upon. Yet suddenly, with perhaps the worst timing possible, a terse announcement of a major Dubai conglomerate asking the banks for a 'standstill' on its debt, Dubai became the center piece of not only a financial crisis around the world but also the whipping horse for the financial press. The fact that the Dubai Debt Crisis has become a talking point is not a surprise, after all the US governments debt is also worrying at times through our civilizations financial history, however the way all this has been revealed has been more of a shock. The following reasons for this stand out.

1. Why publicly ask for a 'standstill', when the English financial dictionary has more subtle words like 'roll over', 'extension' and 'renegotiate' that are available to soften the impact of what is being asked for?
2. Why time the decision a day before the local markets will be closed for an extended holiday and the international markets going into Thanks Giving?
3. Why not explain the connection between a tacit Government announcement a month back that the debt would be met, and also the arrangement $5 billion of fresh debt the very day an old debt is being placed on 'standstill'?

Indeed the questions are many and the answers have been few. The fact that the episode, if I may call it that, has not been handled elegantly is an understatement. Yet analysts will be wondering where do we go to from this juncture? I believe a few explanations may shed light on this bizarre handling of events, given that a debt of almost similar size maturing on November 30, 2009 was successfully rolled over, why a debt maturing two weeks later has been so badly managed?

A. I believe that proper advice from seasoned bankers was not taken and had it been so then the possibility of a debt roll over was more easily possible than such a blunder. If the intention was to financially protect the assets of DP World then when the Sukuk was trading at around 65 it could have been a better time (about eight months back) to simply ask for a 'standstill' or a retirement of the debt and save over 55% of the $4.5 billion bond value (it was set to mature at 115). So I do not believe the intention was to 'default' but more likely to get some breathing room.

B. If the intent is to get breathing room then the fact that the committee managing Dubai's financial matters has been recently restructured (only a week back), they could have gone to the banks and bond holders and suggested that as the new committee gets a grip of things time is needed so a breather is requested and an extension is necessary.

C. It would well be that a distinction is being drawn between direct Dubai Government debt and the debt of Dubai owned corporations who do not have explicit Dubai Government debt insurance or guarantees. While this is a dangerous course to take in the current environment it does nevertheless stress that the point has been made and might well lead to the Government then 'stepping in' to retire the debt and in effect negotiate with the banks that a retirement should be followed by fresh debt against the full faith of the government itself. This is a tricky path given that the very faith that backed this lending has been dented by the way the 'standstill' was handled.

D. The fact that another US$ 5 billion is on tap from the second tranche of the US$10 billion bond offering (of which the first $5 billion was placed the same day of this dreadful announcement) indicates that there is a possibility that this will be tapped immediately to cover the DP World bond needs by December 14, 2009.

All these routes all may well put some badly needed band aid on the wounds to the reputation of Dubai, but for the long run it will be clear that Dubai will need better advice of how to handle already frayed nerves of bankers and bond holders. Will there be enough goodwill left on the table for all parties to carry the trust forward is a matter that will be tested in the coming weeks and months. While the debt seems large and perhaps unmanageable, the truth is that Dubai had the goodwill to have steered through these waters. Now bankers feel that goodwill was cast aside in large measure not by what was needed to be done, but how it was done.

Yet I would be optimistic for this being resolved simply because at some level parties within the UAE will stop seeing this as Dubai's embarrassment and realize its an embarrassment for the UAE as a whole. It is at this level that the matter can best be resolved and I suspect this will be the way this will be solved.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Recession: A year on.

A year back, Lehman Brothers, the icon of Wall Street and all that it stood for, came crumbling down, in almost prophetic fashion ushered in the worst economic recession that the world has ever seen. The event was not the crash of Wall Streets premier bank, but it was perhaps the proverbial straw that broke the camels back. Economies around the world felt the economic tsunami that ensued, wave after tidal wave of what was bad news. The GGC economies, who had on the back of their liquidity, weathered previous recessions of global proportions without more than a sneeze, suddenly realized the interlinking of economies was perhaps more closely knotted than one would have imagined in the past.

The issue is what does it feel for a recession to be one year old? Well in large measure some people would say 'miserable' while others, who are prone to seeing the forest rather than count the trees, would say well 'value was created'. Indeed, its all about perspectives and its not like the world came to a standstill, even though belts were tightened and a difference emerged between those who hope it will all go away, and those who did something about it. China and India shrugged off the recession with remarkable ease, Germany and France has shown more grit than was expected. The United States has been a bit of a struggle but the stock markets are off their bottom levels, the impending collapse of some banks has been averted and in a sense there is evidence that things do have the thinest of hopes for a better recovery.

As bizarre as this may sound my guess is that the slide in the market will be arrested now and we may begin to see signs of a gradual recovery. It is more likely that this recovery will be slow with some stops and starts. In the context of the GGC and specifically the UAE I feel a little more optimistic given that liquidity levels have improved and the banks are beginning to see they have a more positive role to play and this will translate into a better economic performance. The recovery will not be euphoric but more cautious and this will be good for the overall health of the economy.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Rachel Alexandra: A filly that was born to triumph.

I am usually writing about social, political and economic issues, so why would a 3 year old filly called Rachel Alexandra capture my attention? Well for one, I have always loved horses and owning 56 of our own I guess makes the point, but more importantly I have loved those stories of triumph against impossible odds, and this Rachel Alexandra brings to us.
I have watched every single race this filly has ran, You Tube will testify to that obsession, and when she took on the big boys at Saratoga for the Woodward Stakes, I stayed up till past 2 AM to see her run. Two days later I see the video clips and the enormity of her victory dawns on me.

Calvin Boral is a great jockey, one who understands her well, but in the Woodward Stakes, perhaps seeking the safety of the rails he moved Rachel Alexandra towards them early in the race. Half way through it was apparent that the ruse was not working, as Rachel dug deep into mud and slush and it seemed that she would finally be beaten. Then 400 meters from the end as the two other bigger and stronger colts closed on her, Rachel found not only a second or third breath of air, she found the deep courage within her and suddenly you could see her hindquarters found that extra gear of power and stretched as she was in those closing moments, Rachel Alexandra brought a new meaning to the word determination.

To me it was Rachel who wanted to win the race more than Calvin Boral, her jockey, she wanted that race and she won it, irrespective of the quicksand of mud and slush she had to trample through. I believe if she has been on the outside of the track her victory would not have been a head only, it may well have been a few lengths.

I have photographed some amazing horses, Escape Ibn Navaronne (Arabian World Champion Stallion) Bess Faizah (Arabian World Champion Mare) Pysche’s Ambergem, and Marraaj, and to me getting the beauty and spirit of the horse matters a lot. Estishama, who we fondly call Esti, has been a pleasure to capture in the desert settings, trotting off with another mare.

Now I would love to capture the essence of this horse, Rachel Alexandra, not in her role as a racehorse, but in her role as a testimony to her will, her spirit and determination. This horse speaks to us, this is not only a journey of victories, as much as they matter to some, it is a testimony to the character of a horse that just wants to be the best and not in a race machine style but with the sensitivity and heart that I would love to capture in a photo.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sizzling Summer Ending

Though from a weather perspective the summer in Dubai was not as severe as previous year, even though mid day temperatures were scorching, evenings were bearable and even the odd day was pleasant. On social scene the question most asked was about the economic situation and when did one expect the down turn to reverse, even though it was reported that events were not as frequent on the social calender was a year back, there was nevertheless, amongst us long time residents a sense of relief. Relief that the glitzy and plastic side of Dubai has suffered from the economic downturn and now those who love and appreciate the city for could actually enjoy it.

Dubai and the region has been in for some bad press for while, and this is obviously the media loves to garnish its readership with, and fine with that. I am however, also of the opinion that some of the noise has come from people who themselves were the beneficiaries of boom and now having either extended themselves out too much, or not finding enough honey in the pot are the first to condemn all that went wrong with the place. Yet let us seek some balance in the argument and we will find that economic ups and downs are the feature of any economy, but never before have I seen so many rats abandon a ship so fast, assuming it was sinking. Well the way I personally see it this was a much needed clean up of the economic and social scene.

I have spent the past week speaking to bankers, tour operators, hoteliers and people who have a good lay of the land. Here is my impression. No doubt to expect the market to go back to dizzy heights of 2007 is wishful thinking if it was expected to happen in a few months. However, there is a general consensus, especially amongst property people, and I am talking of those who are truly in the know, that the bottom seems to have been established on property prices. Bankers on the other hand are seeing a welcome return of liquidity and some banks have even opened their fists enough to show that selective funding is going on. Tour operators, and especially the cruise ship boys, have indicated that their order book for the winter is filling up and there is an inherent demand that is coming back to the market.

Hoteliers are having a more torrid time as business travel seems to have shrunk and with a world wide recession the 'business travel' dollar amount has come down significantly on a global basis. While occupancies may be a struggle to achieve, I do suspect hotels are being a bit stubborn about their rates causing some of their own grief. As we know the hotel business is about putting heads on the pillows in the room and at some stage turn over versus the average room rate needs to be balanced out.

My gut reaction is that the worst seems over, and as confidence returns, the Dubai Metro soon carries its first paying passenger and indeed people come to realize the that the fundamentals for the long term are valid a better 2010 would seem on the horizon. The charm of Dubai to the sub continent and the Arab world has not diminished and on the country level all that Abu Dhabi is doing to show its capability to weather the storm abodes well for Dubai and the country as a whole. I do predict that as suddenly as someone turned of the light on exuberance it will be almost as sudden when suddenly everything will light up and I feel a scramble to buy value in a market where not long ago people were exuberantly crazy enough to pay ridiculously high price.

The summer has sizzled past us, and as the winter approaches there is more good news on the horizon than bad news. The social scene is more likely to find a mature balance and everyone will have realized that as difficult this sounds there is still alot of fun things to do.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dubai: Deflation path to Recovery

Sitting on the inside, watching the economic crisis is not more a secluded exercise. This economic meltdown is a world wide episode, with ramifications that have not been quite fully understood, especially by the actors who are expected to bring about a change in this scene we stare at. As the global crisis has unfolded its own unique economic tsunami the effects of it have manifest itself in each country in a rather different way. While focus has remained on the United States in terms of the sheer size of its economy, large consumer economies like China and India has been better placed to absorb the tidal waves given that there is a basic level of consumer demand that does need fulfillment.

Dubai has received a great of attention from the world media, and understandably so; during the boom years it was the darling of the media world, and as it is learning, in the down days the same writers who showered accolades are the first ones to throw eggs. This does not mean that the entire negative press is not without foundation, but more like exaggerated to the point of sensationalist fear. For the record yes the recession has hit Dubai hard, and understandably so as it had the most grandiose of plans in the region. The debate rages over the size of its financial commitments and what it will do to revive the economy.

I would say three decades in the region, two of which were in banking, gives me more perspective than a reporter who perhaps would think of a story over a month at best. First of all Dubai has been what I have always called an 'enabling economy', whereby it has created the infrastructure for private sector to thrive. Though, understandably, over the past decade over zealous government officials donned the entrepreneurial hat and goaded the government to become in effect the biggest business conglomerate, having the disadvantage that it pushed the cautious private sector to the sidelines and yet having the advantage that government funding would ensure completion of the grand design. We must remember it was not the real estate sector that caused the problem it was a combination of financial issues within the banking sector and the effects of the global economy that started the downward spiral.

To explain this further one has to appreciate that in middle to late 2008 there was widespread speculation and debate that the UAE will delink the Dihram from the US dollar, a fixed rate that has been unchanged since 1970's. This speculation drove through most of the early part of 2008 substantial funds from Hedge Funds in Europe and elsewhere into the banking system in the UAE expecting a delinking will mean a stronger UAE Dihram. This did not happen and when in September or so last year the UAE Central Bank made its position public that there was no such delinking on the cards, billions of dollars playing this trade and sitting in the banks here too flight. Ofcourse in a sense the hedge funds had their own problems brewing with the sub prime crisis and a stock market that was not entirely comfortable.

The problem would not have been more than that it seems had some fundamental errors not taken place. So lets say $15 billion comes to the banks here, is laying in deposit waiting for the delinking, the delink does not happen the money leaves so no big deal. However, our clever bankers, and I was one of them a decade back, had lent a substantial part of these funds to domestic borrowers, so when the delink did not happen and the funds went back almost every bank was caught with their loan to deposit ratio (which is normally 80-85%) suddenly find they had more loans on their books then deposits to fund them. Well established banks with loads of liquidity were caught with a ration of close to 135% on loans to deposits. Given that international banks were stuck with their own problems even the inter bank market was struggling to fund the banks here.

The timing of all this was smack in the middle of the meltdown happening thus closing the door to the one thing that could have made this crisis less dramatic; the access to liquidity. If the banks had not been so exposed then in a nervous market more monetary moves to increase liquidity in the banking system would have given the buffer to soften the blow. This is what happened in India where huge amounts of liquidity were pumped into the banking system to make sure the consumer did not panic.

This does not mean the real estate crisis would not have happened. I am only arguing that it would not have been so serve and more importantly one has to then question was the rationale for the development model for Dubai wrong? I do not believe the model was wrong, but two things needed adjustment that just did not happen.

1. The size and scale of the development was not tuned into the sustainable demand levels.
2. The role of private sector should have been the bigger chunk of the development cake rather than end up making government owned companies the biggest competitor to the private sector.

I am often asked a question about how long this recession will last and how will Dubai come out of it?

In the first place the recession is a global event and while France, China, India and Germany have shown signs of weathering the storm better, the chances are that towards the fourth quarter of 2009 the financial elements needed for a recovery will be in better shape. This deflation we have seen globally, and in Dubai, was needed for two reasons, one to slow down an over heating economy, and secondly to bring some value back to the process of development. I believe that consumer confidence will stabilize towards the end of this year and net investments will begin to show an increase in the first quarter of next year. Yes this is totally contrary to what some leading bank researchers are saying that we have another 18 months of hardship, but trust me I know that crowd well, they are the same researchers who a year back were predicting some very exuberant predictions.

The way Dubai will come out of this is actually simpler than it looks. While the current funding of Government Bonds of $ 20 billion as a first step forward Dubai has a good collection of companies it can privatize, from airlines to hotels and property companies too. The question is the timing of such privatizations and whether this is the route to take. I believe the enabling element of Dubai's economy means in the region it is the best suited in terms of ease of business and infrastructure to be the place of first choice for regionally based companies. I believe a spending spree in Iraq on account of rebuilding the country will commence early next year, this backed up with a higher oil price will bring stability to the region and a demand led economy will emerge, but gradually. UAE and Dubai are best positioned to take advantage of the support role it will perform and this is where there base of the demand side of the equation will come to the economy.

This does not mean that the government of Dubai should not rethink their role in the economic model. I think they should go towards being more an enabler and privatize some of the business concerns, perhaps with the timing of the first offerings to be in the early part of next year. There should also be a revisit to some of the more grand projects and these should be put on the back burner and bring back the confidence that with some projects shelved the expect financial load will be substantially less. As I said to someone the other day "You can still plan to do all you wanted but just don't do them at the pace you were trying to.'

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iran Imploding?

Iranian politics is as much about what the people in the street feel and express, as it is about the bizarre behind the scene politicking and the power play that makes Iran the strange enigma that it is. To simply view the election fraud as limited to what President Ahmadinejad manipulated misses out some key aspects of undercurrent of why such a massive election fraud was done in the first place. It simply could not have been the fear of a Reformist election victory since in 1997 and 2001 Reformists did come to power. The fact that Ayatollah Ali Khameni the Spiritual Leader intervened into the election process and clearly supported Ahmadinejad before the election and was quick to endorse the fraudulent results the day after the election might hold some of the clues as to whether a internal coup is under way in Iran.

Previously Khameni has accepted Reformist governments and in both terms of office of these governments he balanced the reformist impact by appointing ultra conservatives to the Judiciary and the Media ensuring that the reformist governments were reined in and not as effective as they would like to be. At the start of this election campaign a shift started to appear as the important elements of the clergy, especially from Qom were expressing statements that they would not support any of the candidates. For these very conservative clergy from Qom, who have supported every conservative candidate in the past elections, to say they will not support anyone was simply the politically correct way of saying they do not agree with Ahmadinejad's policies.

Keeping in the that the former President being the head of the Assembly of Experts, a power group from the parliament who advise the Guardian Council was supporting the Reformist Mousavi in the election and is known not to have a great relationship with Ali Khameni could well hold the reason why this election was allowed to be rigged and why the Grand Spiritual Leader is taking sides so openly.

Unlike his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeni, Ali Khameni has ambitions of protecting his vast business and political interests within the country. He also wants to ensure that his son Mojtaba, has a role in the political future of Iran and it is strange that for the past year conservative media close to the clergy have been portraying Ali Khameni as 'Ali of the Age', almost giving him a special place in history and perhaps making a subtle reference to Imam Ali, the First Shia Imam who passed on the reins to his son Hassan. Whether or not Mojtaba has the standing or the support to take his fathers place is moot, but one thing is clear that Ali Khameni does wish to protect his business interests and a Reformist government with Rafsanjani heading the Experts Assembly and the clergy in Qom not happy with the way Ali Khameni has blindly endorsed the reign of Ahmadinejad all indicates that this current situation in Iran is as much a battle for the survival of Ahmadinejad as it is of Ayatollah Ali Khameni.

It is thus not surprising at in some of the street demonstrations there have been calls to also reform the Iranian system to ease power, which is absolute, from the Spiritual Leader back to the elected government. Had the Ali Khameni not taken sides the issue would have been easier to resolve by asking for an impartial inquiry and dependent on the results a re-election. Now, ofcourse, the lines are being be drawn harder by the day. The arrests and the nature of the reprisal by Ahmadinejad and his supports to the demonstrators and voices of disagreement shows that the hard liners are fully aware that the stakes are high. Mousavi supporters and his political machinery are being careful not to let the demonstrations spill over into violent clashes giving the State apparatus to impose curfews and a full scale crackdown.

The worlds response has been rather muted, calling it Iran's internal affair. This is a convenient side step if I may say, because events in other countries are not seen as 'internal affairs'. If the world does want to see the rule of the ballot box then Iran's current situation does call for the condemnation of the election fraud, and the end to the repressive measures being used against opponents of Ahmadinejad. There cannot be two ways about it and this is a matter of political and human ethics and not one of diplomatic niceties.

As far as the effect on the Middle East, it is clear that a 're-elected' Ahmadinejad will feel more vindicated, even if in his own eyes, about his past policies and may continue his policies of the past four years. There is a highly unlikely possibility that Ahmadinejad may try and become a reformed man and deal with the Middle East and the West differently to show his political acumen and in a way deflect attention from his crackdown on the reformists opposing him. His bet will be that the West accepts the dictates of political realities and if he can soften his position on some key issues he may find Washington and the West will be happier dealing with a devil they know, and who is trying ti change, rather than see further turmoil within Iran. I am afraid that with time this might well be the outcome of the situation as it seems the current impasse will not be resolved by a recasting of votes, unless ofcourse the powerful Guardian Council has a change of heart and signals that the clergy will not support Ahmadinejad. I would call this the Qom effect, where it has become clear that the Qom clergy, who unfortunately command more spiritual importance than political power, have abandoned Ahmadinejad.

Whether Ali Khanemi can come to realize the precarious situation the country is in with is partisan policies is another matter. Perhaps the pressure from the clergy itself may allow him to save face by leaving matters to the Guardian Council to decide and play more of the spiritual patriarch that he is supposed to be. This will be the only solution to the current problem, unless ofcourse the reformist tire of the demonstrations and the lack of progress and resign themselves to another four years of Ahmadinejad.