Equities in times of upheaval

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When the Egyptian Stock Exchange (EGX) finally resumed trading on March 23, six weeks after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, officials were pragmatic about the day’s 8.9 percent drop in the EGX 30 index. The gain of freedom far outweighed the economic cost of the revolution, interim EGX Chairman Mohammed Abdel-Salam told reporters.

It did not come as much of a surprise that Egypt’s benchmark index nosedived in the first 30 minutes of trading after the market’s revolutionary hiatus since January 24. A great deal has happened in those two months, during which the EGX lost just short of 40 sessions.

During the period of market closure in Cairo, the only evidentiary indications of how investors felt about Egyptian equities came from the trade of Global Depository Receipts (GDRs) of Egyptian stocks on the London Stock Exchange (LSE), where the handful of actively traded Egyptian GDRs dropped mightily.

Of 10 Egyptian GDRs on the LSE, six were active during the EGX closure, and four of those six are the country’s strongest companies by market capitalization. All six dropped between January 9 and March 21 — one telecom GDR and two financial stocks fell more than 30 percent apiece, Orascom Construction Industries and Orascom Telecom Holding lost 26 percent and 15 percent, respectively, but a cement scrip closed the period only 2 percent weaker.

Commercial International Bank (Egypt)

At the same time, five other LSE-listed Arab GDRs with trading activity during this revolutionary period fell on both their home markets and, pronouncedly, on the LSE. Only one Arab GDR, of Lebanon-based Byblos Bank, gained on the LSE over the period.   

In short, the Arab stocks with the guts to venture into international markets have not fared well  during the revolutions. The benchmark indices of the Egyptian bourse and the Tunisian Stock Exchange (TSE), the countries hailed most for their roles in the “Arab Spring,” on March 29 closed 24 percent and 15 percent down when compared with the start of 2011, placing them at the tail end of global stock market performances in the year to date. Moreover (and partly explaining the incomparably poor performance of EGX and TSE), the exchanges of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain combined lost out on more than 90 trading sessions in the first quarter of 2011, with the young Libyan Exchange likely to be in limbo for many more weeks.

Investor behavior on Kuwait Stock Exchange
(January 1 to February 28, 2011)

Investor behavior on Kuwait Stock Exchange

 

Investor behavior on Saudi Stock Exchange
(February 2011)Investor behavior on Saudi Stock Exchange

Gulf Cooperation Council exchanges at the turn of February to March appeared bound for forbidding territory. Selling pressure drove the Saudi Stock Exchange (SSE) and Dubai Financial Market (DFM) benchmark indices to multi-year lows in the first few days of March, almost as though wealthy corporations and individuals had been spooked en masse by the prospect of radical change in power structures across the region.

Then, the whole mystifying decline went into reverse. The SSE’s Tadawul All-Share Index clawed back almost 10 percent in March to close the March 29 session within 2 percent of its index recording at the beginning of 2011. The DFM index gained 15 percent from March 3 to March 29. 

When viewing performance of the most active Egyptian GDR on the London Stock Exchange, Commercial International Bank (CIB), in step with the popular unrest and political changes in the Middle East and North Africa this past quarter, it seems likely enough that the developments of politics and stocks were linked in obvious interactions. The ouster of Tunisian president Ben Ali, the day of rage on Tahrir Square, and the intensification of protests in the GCC at the end of February all meshed with periods of drops in the CIB price on the LSE, whereas Mubarak’s resignation was followed by a gain in the stock’s price.

Flight impulses are instinctual survival tools of a vulnerable being, and this quarter reminds us that the investor is as susceptible as any other. The intuitive response to first quarter disasters in 2011 was to sell. As the prime example of panic reaction, the Nikkei 225 descended 20 percent in the week of March 13, although the impact of the March 11 earthquake on Japanese gross domestic product was quickly estimated to be closer to 2 percent, not 20. By market opening on March 30, the Nikkei was still down over 9 percent when compared with the close on March 10, the evening before the triple catastrophe struck Japan.

Market analysts and investment advisors responded to the panic selling on the Tokyo bourse with reminders that the Kobe earthquake in 1995 caused a similar downside pressure on the Nikkei but that the market was back up to pre-disaster levels within less than a year.

This illuminates the challenge, and perhaps the importance, of Arab markets in these times of social change. Arab markets, for one thing, have been growing at an impressive rate but they have not commanded all that much global attention. This is evident in the fact that global stocks barely fluttered when the Egyptian market dropped on March 24. Index fluctuations of Arab exchanges have not visibly impacted global equity markets in the past, or present, whereas such impacts were easily generated by crises and even one-day hiccups of American, European, Japanese and also Chinese stock markets in recent years.  

Secondly, the experience of Arab stock markets in the epoch of revolution is something incommensurable. There have been many revolutions of many different colors (from orange to jasmine) in the modern era, however, the larger and more significant revolutions have taken place in countries before they had active stock markets.

The biggest sea change of our age, the end of the Soviet era in 1989 (to which many have compared the Arab Spring of 2011), was the bankruptcy of a centrally planned economy. The Soviet Empire had weapons and many resources, but no stock markets. Every revolution and democratization of that period between 1989 and 1991 thus was a point of departure from grey markets into the regulated freedoms of a financial economy with stock markets.

Political cycles and confrontations are of course known to impact bourses. The global wars of the 20th century, World War I and World War II, and other military conflicts before them, have paralyzed stock markets for their duration of armed confrontation. Singular events, from terrorist attacks to tsunamis, are also noted for the influences they have exerted upon equity markets.

But officials at the World Federation of Exchanges —  which represents the majority of the world’s stock market operators — could not recall examples or studies regarding the interplay of stock markets and revolutions. There seems to be no paradigm of stock market behaviors in past revolutions that one could use to reference and compare the trends of Arab markets against as this region is undergoing its grassroots uprising. 

Disconnected from reality

It may not write a big chapter in world equity markets history, but Arab bourse trends in the past quarter have not so far exhibited behaviors that journalism’s simple tools of logic and analytics could correlate with the storms of revolutionary change. Careful analysis of the index flows and the events of the Arab Spring might yet provide insights into the role of equity markets in times of revolt; its connects and the disconnects. 

Countries in the GCC with protests reported in February and March were of course Bahrain and Oman, along with one shorter period of mostly aborted demonstrations in Saudi Arabia. However, the GCC equity market with the biggest drop in the first quarter of 2011 was the Kuwait Stock Exchange, down 9.1 percent year-to-date by March 29 market close.

The Bahrain Bourse (BB), freshly renamed from Bahrain Stock Exchange, was closed for minimal periods even as protesters were targeting the financial district of the capital Manama, where the exchange has its base. After the forceful breakup of demonstrations on March 18, the bourse’s benchmark index approached the end of the first quarter in 2011 with a number of gaining sessions and its March 29 close was minimally down versus the start of the year.

While daily average turnover was 49.8 percent down in first quarter 2011 when compared with the same quarter in 2010, there were no immediate compelling correlations between the expansion and suppression of protests and the BB index movements throughout February and March. 

 

All the while, international analysts have diagnosed from the upheavals significant detriments to the kingdom’s business aspirations to attract or even retain foreign companies; the Economist Intelligence Unit forecasted last month that political unrest in Bahrain would persist over the coming four years.

In Oman, a country with a surprise peak of discontent at the end of February, the Muscat Securities Market (MSM) close on March 29 was 6.2 percent down from the start of 2011. Curiously, while the relatively isolated first eruptions of fiery protests in Oman were reported in the media in the last few days of February, the MSM index’s most pronounced drop in the period began earlier, on February 14.

The MSM general index’s two-week slide by more than 12 percent ended on February 28 and the market, apparently oversold, rebounded 4.2 percent on March 1 and ended the month with a positive balance even as protests, while not quite escalating, did not abate either. During the period, the MSM average daily trading volume was actually higher than in the first quarter of 2010.

It might be easier to link MENA equity movements during this period to the perceptions — dominated by international media — of the Arab upheavals if the role of international investors in Arab markets were more mature. But while statistics by the Kuwaiti and Saudi bourses show that most investor categories — retail, funds and corporate — acted as net sellers in recent months, the actual dominance of Saudi retail investors in the SSE trading volume, for example, is more than 80 percent and the engagement of non-Arab investors is less than 2 percent, according to the exchange.

Jordan’s Amman Stock Exchange has a high share of foreign stock ownership but this reflects mainly the participation of Gulf-based investors in the Jordanian market, which slumped almost 10 percent in the first quarter, with a rather consistent downtrend. Only the EGX foreign ownership ratio of stocks is sizeable at just less than 24 percent of active shares, according to Reuters.

Arab stock exchanges mirror the political economy of the time, and the role of regional equity markets in supporting the needs and dynamics of the region’s economic restructuring will be interesting to follow in coming years. Yet in times when the economic fundamentals are quivering, with no surety as to their direction, it seems advisable to inquire about the trends within the numbers and ratios – known as technical analysis.

Whereas EGX trading records in the second week of the market’s reopening showed gains, prompting officials to ooze confidence, Paris-based technical analyst Julien Nebenzahl, chief executive officer of Day by Day, a trading firm and consultancy, said shortly after the market’s reopening that the Cairo bourse held further downside potential, because the index had broken an important support level. 

Also in the SSE, the region’s largest market, Nebenzahl told Executive by phone “there is no real opportunity, technically speaking,” but added that the TASI also was not poised to drop.

But good news is expected from the UAE markets, where some bearish targets have been met, and the second half of 2011 could see a positive trend to the upside. The best market to invest in across the Middle East in this period, according to Nebenzahl, is the Casablanca Stock Exchange in Morocco. “It is still bullish at any time,” said Nebenzahl, who emphasized that in his field of technical analysis the only thing that matters are numbers and proven behavior patterns. In other words, personal opinions about political events are not relevant.

The fascinating question about cycles and trends, both economic and political, is why they are so consistent, and which have not been discovered yet. According to Nebenzahl, a known political and consequential power cycle with the rather long amplitude of 100 years is coming to bear in the recent developments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region. 

According to this cycle, America’s power as the world’s leading entity should have started to diminish beginning around the year 2000. Because the global leadership of the United States is weakening, Nebenzahl said, “in conclusion of this period, we’ll see troubles in many countries,” and pressure changes, such as are emerging in the Arab world, are “typical results.”

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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