Marketplace Middle East - Blog
Defining Contagion
The word “contagion” is tossed around a great deal during these periods of intense selling and the word conjures up images of a bad case of the flu which is spreading from time zone to time zone.

It is not far off the mark. The World Bank officially describes contagion as “the transmission of shocks to other countries or the cross-country correlation, beyond any fundamental link among the countries and beyond common shocks”.

Bankers have found out this is no common shock. There was a widespread belief, and one shared by this writer, that the fast-growing developing countries would break out from the shackles of what really is a U.S. banking crisis. The impact of this crisis is directly felt in Europe, especially in London where there is a direct link between the City of London and the health of the British economy. Financial services make up a third of gross domestic product.

That is no surprise and the sluggishness of European and the U.S. economies has been on the cards for months. The Middle East, however, comes into this crisis with a different script altogether. Merrill Lynch’s Turker Hamzaoglu is bullish medium-term, predicting growth of 6.5 percent for the U.A.E. for example, down from the heady days of the last five years of an average 10 percent.

But the real regional concern surrounds the rapid run-up in property prices. Hamzaoglu says it is getting more difficult to manage, “It is certain that there was some kind of a speculation in the prices because I see it as a side effect of this whole macro imbalance in a way, high-inflation, high-liquidity environment, that the government or the central bank has very limited means to control.”

What is emerging is a so-called risk premium factoring in the amount of money borrowed to put more than $300 billion of real estate developments on the books in the U.A.E., a trillion dollars throughout the Middle East. At the same time, regional markets are no longer benefiting from the hot money from the U.S., Europe and Asia which was invested to capture some of the rapid growth.

Former Nomura Securities analyst Anais Faraj who recently relocated to Dubai says the reason for this current contagion is simply down to capital flows, “It is the same liquidity pool. Money invested from the Middle East into Wall Street is taking on big losses.”

Wait and See

Sovereign funds from Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Qatar put the word out this week that there is no reason to jump and put additional money into U.S. or European banks. As Faraj noted, “No one wants to be a hero catching a falling knife.” All three of those funds have seen their investments slip 40-50 percent since they leapt in at the end of 2007 and early this year. Their forays into the British banks have held up much better.

Which leads us back to what one can expect going forward. The investment fund managers I spoke to see promise in the medium to longer term, but they add it is not a straight line up. The $60 fall in energy prices certainly will impact some of the sky high projections for revenues going forward. And everyone is keeping a watchful eye on the dollar.

The recent recovery in the U.S. currency was taking some of the heat off of regional policy makers to change course to counter record inflation. That concern will move right back onto the front burner and rekindle conversations on whether to peg to a basket of currencies before the launch of a single Gulf currency in 2010.

This story has many more chapters that need to be written, and the word contagion will be part of the text despite the rosy growth scenario still expected.

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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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