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.