Overall, the economic and political outlook has become more clouded for the MENA region, even for the oil exporting nations that should stand to benefit from higher fuel prices, at least until demand destruction kicks in. As the chart below shows, demographic traits and unemployment levels contribute to this uncertainty to different degrees, depending on the country. Across the region, governments have responded with a mixture of reinforcing food subsidies, transfers to the population and, increasingly, more extensive use of force.
Less than 24 hours after Dubai’s finance chief was demoted, the UAE announced its decision to withdraw from the GCC Monetary Union, putting the broader union at risk. This decision comes two weeks after a major milestone; selection of the location of the GCC Central Bank. UAE officials did not conceal their reservations about the choice of Saudi Arabia to host the institution. UAE newspapers heavily criticized the Saudis in what may have developed into a political rift.
For starters, the GCC Secretariat is already located in Saudi Arabia and other institutions in other GCC countries, and with plans to diversify the government institutions, they believed that the GCC Central Bank should be located in the UAE, given its development as one of the region’s financial hub, possibly with a presiding Saudi National.
On May 14th, the Central Bank of Kuwait, the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA) and a number of private companies entered into discussions to establish a fund, or a “bad bank”, to purchase toxic assets from the country’s investment companies’ balance sheets. This could be the latest new tool in Kuwait’s tool box, and such plans come less than a week after the central bank proposed a third round of stress tests. While details have yet to be released – and there is still reportedly some concern about who and how it might be administered, this could be a step in the process of rescuing Kuwait’s financial sector, though only if it is done transparently.
Following the rescue of Gulf Bank and the default of Global Investment House of one of its bonds last fall, the government has been rolling out new measures in the face of weaker risk appetite in the GCC and globally. On the financial side, it has provided capital to banks, guaranteed deposits etc. It has continued monetary easing and plans to maintain spending though the details of allocation are uncertain. The political stalemate in the Kuwait has not helped these responses and uncertainty about the exposure of corporations and investment companies, as well as the fear of asset ,market losses have kept banks unwilling to lend. The default shed light on the vulnerabilities in other Kuwaiti institutions, underscored by a wave of banking downgrades in the GCC and in Kuwait’s overall banking system, towards the end of 2008 and start of 2009. Moreover, delays in reporting financial results led to trade of many financial and non-financial corporations in spring 2009. Although trading in most resumed after Q4 results were released, reports suggest that the same thing led authorities to stop trading today in 26 companies.
In recent days and weeks, most of the GCC governments have announced plans (or hinted at) issuing sovereign bonds. Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai (of the UAE), Qatar and Bahrain have all suggested they would issue bonds in coming months, totalling several billion dollars.
In recent years, the issuance of sovereign debt by GCC governments has been quite limited to Bahrain and Oman in light of the enormous surpluses accrued in light of the once-soaring oil prices. In fact a few sovereigns, and sub-sovereigns like Abu Dhabi, did not even have credit ratings. Instead most of the limited bond issuance was by government-linked companies throughout the region. Yet, and as we have explained in a recent piece, with the reversal in hot money, in addition to the the losses and continued losses in the region’s equity markets, the cost of long-term borrowing sky-rocketed, highlighting the vulnerability of relying on external finance even as new revenues began to fall as investment returns and oil revenues fell sharply. Also, with external finance expected to grow at a slower pace in the face of the continued global liquidity crunch, GCC countries are left with no other option but to try to explore other sources of financing to tap the latent funds available in the region and from foreign investors looking for relatively safer credit risks.
Throughout most of 2008, fighting inflation was the primary target of Egypt’s policy makers. However, with the reduction in international food prices, a global slowdown, and other easing inflationary pressures, priorities for the Egyptian economy have been adjusting. For the fifth month in a row, Egypt’s consumer prices have continued to fall, dropping to 14.3% in January 2009 after peaking in August 2008.
In this note, we survey how Middle Eastern markets fared in the recent turmoil in global financial markets triggered by the response to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the demise of the other independent broker dealers and the U.S. bailout of AIG and of the broader financial system. The events of last week, illustrate clearly that the Middle East is not, if it ever was, immune from global trends. However, it is the real economy linkages and various home grown liquidity vulnerabilities that provide the most pause going forward. However, this isn’t a time to be drastic, with oil still over $100 a barrel, there are a lot of oil revenues going to the GCC and the broader region but the Middle East may be as prone to capital misallocation as anywhere.