Marketplace Middle East - Blog
Tremors after the Earthquake
The temporary migration is officially underway. Arab businessmen swap 45 degree temperatures on the Arabian Peninsula for the very pleasant 25 degrees in the City of London to garner perspective for the year that was and where we go from here.
There is a certain irony in annual summer escape to London. Only nine short months ago during the third week of September, depositors in this financial capital were wondering if they could find a safe haven for their hard earned cash. This week at the Arab Banking Summit they were in their comfort zone gauging the state of their union and the state of global banking.

As one senior Arab private banker noted, we are still feeling the tremors from the earthquake. But all told, the 280 banks in the region, 80 of them in the top 1000 worldwide, are faring much better than their Far Eastern and western counterparts.
The region is still growing, which provides some comfort with projections of 2.5 percent this year, 3.5 percent next year. This allows a base from which to work through non-performing loans. But all told, regional banks are sitting atop more than $2 trillion in assets and about half of that in deposits. Leverage was not in fashion the past few years and this allowed a few in the audience to say “I told you so.” One banker kindly suggested I take off my headsets during the heated comments pointing the blame at the “Americans.”

As a long term resident of London who now spends up to ten days a month in the region, I take little offence when Uncle Sam comes under attack. But the banker made a valid point. While Wall Street is probably responsible for three-quarters of the banking crisis, the U.S. economy has had to absorb only 25 percent of the fall out. This was an equal opportunity crisis which spread its virus pretty evenly around the globe, hitting the large institutional investor and the small retail client with equal measure.

These ministers and bankers also feel the discussion of the green shoots of recovery is lulling many back into the business as usual mentality. Compensation levels were and remain out of touch with normal society; they see bonuses creeping back up again and restless shareholders seeking 10-20 percent returns on capital, when the global economy is struggling to come back.

Many of the participants talked about returning back to basics, which means knowing your customer, their appetite for risk and most importantly the bank’s appetite for risk. This is clearly where there was misalignment. The challenge now is insuring that the proper road to recovery and yes regulation is followed.

This meeting took place as the largest debt restructuring in Saudi Arabian history --some $6.3 billion to two of the largest family companies in the Kingdom is unfolding. It was revealed that BNP Paribas and Citigroup top the list of 37 creditors with exposure to this restructuring. Hard lessons still need to be learned.

These isolated incidents aside, the region has benefited greatly from traditionally high capital requirements and restrictions put in place to block exposure to the high risk instruments created over the last decade in London and on Wall Street.

So the region will be forgiven for thinking it shouldn’t follow the trends in the West. One Arab executive even pleaded with his European counterparts to avoid the gravitational pull across the Atlantic. To make a new interpretation on the famous phrase from scorned financier Ivan Boesky, greed is not good at all cost.

These bankers are eager to see the next phase of response to the crisis. There is some legitimate scepticism about whether the G20 will indeed follow up on the long laundry list of remedies to the global financial system.

Supply side economists went out of fashion long ago and there is a strong belief that the region will have a nasty aftertaste from the deficit spending within the industrialized countries right now. With high deficits to finance for years to come, less money will find its way to the region in the form of foreign direct investment.

This region continues to open up to the outside world to foster long term development, but as we work our way through the next few years, it will be funding closer to home that will need to be available.
The conservative Arab approach to banking is still paying dividends.
John Defterios’ blog accompanies the weekly business program, Marketplace Middle East (MME) that is dedicated to the latest financial news from the Middle East. As MME anchor, John Defterios talks to the people in the know, finding out their opinions on the big business moves in the region, he provides his views via this weekly blog. We hope you will join the discussion around the issues raised.
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