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Tue 14 Jul 2009 08:49 PM

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West cautious on Gulf, sovereign funds plug gap

Sovereign wealth funds look to add stimulus to local markets rather than invest overseas.

West cautious on Gulf, sovereign funds plug gap
GULF INVESTMENT: With Wall Street and the West having their own financial worries foreign investors are becoming less inclined to invest in the Gulf. (Getty Images)

Western investors have grown wary about investing in the once-booming Gulf, leaving markets there at risk of further short-term losses and increasingly reliant on the region's own sovereign wealth funds.Collapsing property markets and volatile oil prices have cooled some of the ardour which western investors had shown towards the Gulf in recent years.

But oil-inspired sovereign wealth funds in the region have in some cases grown despite the financial crisis, and are looking to add stimulus to their own markets rather than risk money overseas, analysts say.

"A lot of old (western) capital has effectively been destroyed, a lot of new capital is still there," said Shanat Patel, global strategist at broker Liberum Capital.

"A lot more money is going into the Middle East from their own sovereign wealth funds. A lot of money is staying at home; they are much more happy to look at their own markets."

For international investors, the latest incident to rattle the market has been corporate debt difficulties at two Saudi conglomerates - Saad Group and Ahmad Hamad Algosaibi & Bros.

Saudi banks may have between $4 billion and $7 billion in lending exposure to the conglomerates, HSBC said in a note. At least 5 banks in the UAE have exposure to Saudi firms, according to banking sources or the banks themselves.

"These two instances definitely are sobering and are quite heavy in terms of the magnitude," said Amr Seif, portfolio manager for the Middle East and Africa at Investec Asset Management.

"It has affected a wide range of banks, including developed banks."

Global flows into Gulf equities have been falling in the last year and are now, at best, at the same levels as at the the beginning of 2007, and in some countries such as the UAE are far lower, according to data from funds tracker EPFR Global.

The burst property bubble, erratic oil prices and corporate woes have pushed investors away from the region.

Daily volume in UAE stocks has fallen to around $80 million a day, from around $300 million a few weeks ago, Seif said.

Saudi stocks are trading at 10-week lows and have underperformed this year's dizzying emerging market rally, rising only 12 percent, compared with nearly 30 percent gains in the broader index.

Dubai stocks are trading at 6-week lows and have made no gains at all this year.

"The combination of falling oil and real estate ... has been a major problem for the region," said Allan Conway, global head of emerging equities at Schroder Investment Management. "In the very near term, it's difficult to get too excited."

Investors looking to make returns will need to wait, with regional capital, the main impetus for growth, focusing on longer term projects.

There are $1.4 trillion in planned government investment projects in the Gulf between 2009 and 2015, aimed at diversifying local economies, according to a report from McKinsey Global Institute.

"We are cautious to underweight on financials and real estate; we are more positive on companies which have utilities exposure," said Scott Darling, MENA equity research analyst at Nomura in Dubai.

"We are going to see spending in that (utilities) area, where there was not sufficient spending in the past."

While some sovereign wealth funds have lost value during the financial crisis, and oil is down 60 percent from its record levels a year ago, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency increased its assets to $390 billion in 2008 from $350 billion in 2007, due to fixed income investment, the McKinsey report said.

Investment projects include Saudi Arabia's plans to expand its petrochemical industry.

"We like the fact that petrochemicals are big in Saudi Arabia, that's cyclically exposed to the global recovery," said Michael Wang, emerging equities strategist at Morgan Stanley.

The local capital will help to switch the focus away from previous hotspots for international investors, such as property.

"I would probably stay away from real estate market sectors in the Dubai market, but rather put funds in energy companies and domestic demand," said Fredrik Nerbrand, head of global investment strategy at HSBC Private Bank.

"You need to have a timeframe that's more similar to 10 years than one year. You are buying into structural risk; change is not going to happen soon." (Reuters)

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