The adage is old but it only underscores the importance of the matter: Home acquisition and finance is for most people the largest single personal purchase transaction in their life, whether it is the building of a new house, or buying of a house or an apartment.
In a time where mortgage lending has become the byword for confidence worries in America and Europe, the importance of sound and equitable housing finance in the Middle East cannot be emphasized enough. Until the turn of the century, new supply of residential dwellings was realized at slow rates even in Dubai, the emirate that pioneered the idea of the economic surge in the GCC. Recently, however, the UAE market is changing fast, as more banks have started offering home loans in addition to two housing finance specialist firms, which analysts estimated at various times this year to have up to 70%, but at least 50%, in market share.
Modern mortgage and home loan provision in the entire region is very young, measuring about five years of any significant market presence in the UAE — which, however, is still a longer existence than in other countries of the Middle East, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where legal frameworks for the housing finance sector are being phased in or are, in case of the Saudi mortgage law, expected to come into force in the near future.
Housing finance companies expand abroad
For this reason, the housing finance companies of the UAE have been on the path of expansion into neighboring markets, while their home market is still in a phase of very rapid and uneven development. The two firms that dominate the UAE mortgage market are Amlak, founded in 2000, and Tamweel, which started operations in 2004. Both have initially been capitalized by strong parent companies — Emaar Properties for Amlak, Dubai Islamic Bank and state-owned investment firm Istithmar for Tamweel.
In the years 2004 to 2006, the two companies expanded their business — first Amlak and then Tamweel — by multiples in turnover and profits, as the UAE mortgage market grew exponentially from 2003 to 2006, increasing tenfold according to some experts.
Both firms were looking to expand their capital basis beyond the funding supplied by the parent companies and listed on the Dubai Financial Market, beginning with a $112 million IPO by Amlak in January 2004. Tamweel’s $153 million IPO in March 2006 was, from the company’s perspective, fortuitously timed and met with incredible demand and an epochal oversubscription rate of almost 500 times.
In recent months, the stocks of both firms lagged behind the — largely unexciting — development of the DFM general index. Amlak fared markedly weaker of the two and recorded a share price drop of 57% between end of September 2006 and end of last month. Tamweel’s share scored a drop of 18%, within reasonable range of the DFM index whose loss amounted to 13% over the past 12 months.
Market analysts have been neutral to pessimistic on the stocks Shuaa Capital in August rated them at fair values of AED 3.90 ($1.06) for Tamweel and AED 2.30 for Amlak, representing a “hold” on the former and a “sell” on the latter. In early 2006, EFG-Hermes had issued long-term fair value estimates for the two companies that were between AED 4.50 and AED 4.75. After their share prices went lower from last October through spring of this year, EFG-Hermes said in May that both stocks could be rated “buys” if the firms achieve financial gearing levels similar to that of a commercial bank.
The ‘if’ is important in this matter, because one of the factors weighing on the profitability of the two firms has been the cost of funding. As financial companies, they could provide — shari’a-compliant — mortgage loans and home finance but they have been barred from accepting customer deposits as part of long-term financing schemes, resulting in a need to source financing through more expensive means.
Both firms applied for banking licenses and had hoped to be awarded commercial banking rights in 2007; however, UAE central bank officials told media around mid-year repeatedly that they are not eager to expand the number of banks in the country. Inquiries with the two companies and the central bank said the applications have not been decided upon, leaving the matter hanging in the air in September.
This has great implications for the strategies of the two firms. Although the UAE and other GCC property markets have not been visibly affected by the real estate financing crisis that caused valuations of a number of US mortgage companies to evaporate and led to the first run of UK depositors in ages on a bank, real estate specialist Northern Rock, market watchers cautioned that the global credit crunch could bear repercussions for the home financing industry in the UAE if fundraising through shari’a-compliant asset-backed securities becomes more difficult in the rougher global credit environment.
Forecasts are grim for mortgage
Higher costs of financing in a less vibrant global economy and absence of the freedom to build a deposit base from people who put money into savings under home finance programs would impair the ability of the mortgage companies to fill demand for their products, some fear.
The market where these companies operate is complicated by the lack of historic benchmarks and absence of property price tables on the one hand and by a fair amount of speculative building and buying during the past five years on the other hand. The common base for prediction of UAE real estate trends by analysts in the past three years has been the growth of population in general and the forecasted influx of foreign labor in specific. Yet the root assumption of these forecasts was ambiguous, as some analysts said they preferred to rely for their population estimates on older government projections from 2004 and not the result of the official census from 2006.
The high share of people in the age group of 20 to 45 years in the total population was interpreted as driver for real estate demand. Business development and the trend of high-end financial companies to obtain licenses for operating in the DIFC have been cited as demand factors, while the high costs of property and the uneven distribution of income with a heavy overweight of laborers and low-income earners are cited as factors likely to slow demand.
The high growth of the UAE economy is a massive driver of labor demand and there can be no dispute that housing needs in the emirates are immense; but the real estate demand forecasts are weakened by generalizations and analyst statements that are far from compelling, such one investment house’s assertion that migration of foreigners to the Dubai housing market is supported by selling points such as “moderate weather conditions” in the emirate.
The threadbareness of market information lets secondary sources and guesstimates play a role that is stronger than the methodologies warrant. In one example, media recently reported on a survey by an exhibition company which polled persons with household income above $55,000 per year as prospective home buyers. The survey found that 16% of 332 respondents (representing 77% non-property owners of 431 persons polled) said they were interested in considering a home purchase for the coming year. Of the 332 sample, four out of five said they would not want to spend above $550,000 on their home — or ten years of the threshold income in the survey — and about half said they were not looking into a home purchase at all because it is too expensive. What such market impressions could mean as accents that would further elucidate the going housing demand forecasts of around 50,000 units per year may be a matter of interpretation.
Spiraling rents help the buyer’s market
The creation of new ownership options has made home purchases interesting for real estate buyers without investment angle — the large group of people who want to develop their careers in the UAE over a considerable period of time. The lure of ownership under a mortgage financing model is supported by the UAE’s spiraling rents and uncertainties over lawful compliance of landlords with the new rent caps. Real estate sales agents also bait prospective customers by painting value increase scenarios of new properties of up to 40% after little more than a year from signing the purchase contract.
International market comparisons depict homes in Dubai and other UAE locations as still low-priced, but that does not negate risks for individual home buyers if they run into changing economic conditions. Financing with banks and mortgage companies in the UAE is not particularly cheap as buyers may discover when looking at annual “profit” rates, which the mortgage companies charge for a variety of Islamic financing methods in lieu of interest income, achieving of which would violate the rules of shari’a.
These profit rates range, according to Amlak, from 8.5% to 15% annually, depending on the type of Islamic finance product, the duration of the contract, and the status (resident or non-resident) of the borrower. For financing a $140,000 home on a 15-year timeframe with 20% down payment, a buyer can look at total expenditure of $220,000 or more, on an 8.5% contract. Some banks have offered promotional rates below 7% and the market share of bank mortgages is expected to increase in the UAE but overall, projections see the country reaching only a modest ratio of average mortgages to GDP by 2011.
Although the UAE mortgage firms describe their shari’a products as simple, the underlying financial engineering is a demanding task and can involve several transaction steps that will be confusing to mortgage customers unfamiliar with the techniques. They function well in the legal context of an Islamic country but require adjusting of legal frameworks in countries like the UK where Islamic real estate finance has still to find a real market. Cost of financial structuring and novelty of Islamic real estate finance products — of which Amlak and Tamweel each have more than half a dozen in their portfolio — could also act as hurdles against the interaction of these providers with conventional financial markets.
With its dependence on a bubble economy driven to a large extent by outside factors, such as economic growth in markets that the UAE wants to serve, high oil and gas prices stemming from high consumption in other world regions, and shifting of business activities because of tax and other investment incentives, the real estate boom in the GCC has something artificial to begin with, and this is not mitigated by the fact that the main real estate players are government-affiliated and were initially capitalized through state funds. The sector of real estate finance is pinned down between demand projections and state-driven property supplies that rely on ambitious targets such as establishing a new global tourism destination where before only a very small niche tourism market existed.
Other unknown factors in the equation are the enormous increases in construction costs, the high needs of financing for upcoming large public infrastructure and industrial projects, and the slow rate of home deliveries by UAE developers. Demand overhangs for residential units are now expected to persist into 2009 but it is a question how all that will affect the further evolution of the country’s property price spiral, the confidence of property buyers in the residential segment, and the business of mortgage firms. Under delivery bottlenecks, home financing would increase at a slower speed. This could bring relief to the mortgage companies but the scenario introduces uncertainty factors into the sector’s performance outlook. Regulation and oversight of the UAE mortgage sector, with enhancement of consumer education and protection, will be vital under all circumstances.
Still, the ruling question about the mortgage market in the UAE is not if it will grow in the near future but only how much it will expand, and how it will source the expertise to meet the expectations of its home market and regional markets. Recent estimates for the Saudi mortgage market alone have speculated on an increase from an expected $1 billion this year to $12 billion after just three or four years.