Sunday, 29 November 2009

Dubai: what the immediate future holds

Dubai: what the immediate future holds
Until last Wednesday, most investors saw Dubai as an attractive tourist destination, a regional financial centre and an example of what bold and visionary leadership can achieve.

By Mohamed A El-Erian
Published: 12:23AM GMT 29 Nov 2009

Some worried that Dubai's impressive achievements came with a debt burden that would prove difficult to sustain after last year's financial crisis.

This weekend, investors around the world are united in wondering "what does Dubai mean for me?"

Dubai has triggered local, national, regional and global forces that will play out in the weeks ahead.

At the local level, the standstill is an explicit recognition that the Emirate's debt and leverage levels cannot be sustained in what, at PIMCO, we have called the "new normal". The question for Dubai is now two-fold: can an orderly extension of debt payments be achieved; and how will this impact the risk premium that is attached to other economic and financial activities in the Emirate?

The key issue at the national level is how Abu Dhabi, the largest and richest of the seven UAE Emirates, will react. Here, it is a question of willingness. The leaders of Abu Dhabi must strike that delicate balance between using enormous wealth to support Dubai and ensuring appropriate burden sharing among those that repeatedly failed to heed Abu Dhabi's past warnings about the excesses in Dubai.

The regional dimension is captured by a word familiar to investors in emerging markets: "contagion". The immediate reaction of almost all markets (and too many commentators) is to lump together countries in the region that have very different characteristics. Witness how market measures of risk have surged for all the oil exporters in the region even though they share none of Dubai's debt and leverage characteristics.

At the global level, the Dubai announcement serves as a catalyst to take the froth off expensive financial markets. For the last few months, massive injections of liquidity (primarily by the US), aimed at limiting the adverse impact of the financial crisis on employment, have turbo-charged financial market valuations rather than make their way to the real economy. While many have worried about the generalised over-extension of equity markets, most have hesitated to take money off the table as there did not appear to be a catalyst to break the general "trend is your friend" mentality. Dubai is that catalyst.

So, what next?

First, it will take time to sort out the Dubai situation. Inevitably, this is an uncertain and protracted process that involves both on- and off-balance sheet exposures. It will cast a cloud not only on companies in the Emirate itself but also on institutions that have large exposures there, especially in the banking and real estate sectors.

Second, the immediate indiscriminate sell-off in regional (and emerging market) names will, over time, give way to greater differentiation based on economic and financial realities. Those with strong fundamentals will recover (including Abu Dhabi, Brazil, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia) while others, including countries with large deficits and debt burdens in eastern/central/southern Europe, may come under more pressure.

Finally, and most importantly, Dubai serves as a warning to those that were quick to find comfort in the sharp market rally of the last few months. Since the summer, the appreciation of risk assets has been driven predominantly by artificial liquidity injections rather than fundamentals. The Dubai announcement is a reminder that a flood of government-induced liquidity cannot mask all excesses, all the time.

Investors should treat last Wednesday's announcement as an illustration of the lagged financial effects of the global financial crisis. The Dubai situation is no different than that facing commercial real estate in the US and UK.

Let Dubai be a reminder to all: last year's financial crisis was a consequential phenomenon whose lagged impact is yet to play out fully in the economic, financial, institutional and political arenas.

Mohamed A El-Erian is CEO and co-CIO of PIMCO, the investment management firm

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