The only way is up

UAE markets look forward to fresh growth as the clouds clear

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The term ‘stock market’ has quite a ring to it, particularly in the mouths of emotionally-invested stock market officials. Listening to them explaining the appeal and importance of securities trading is more like reading poetry: “the stock exchange has made our hearts beat faster” and the securities market is “the main mirror of the economy.”

Others have recognized the thrill factor in bourse trading, but have been reluctant to chase big profits based on the tenuous idea of ‘reading the market right’.

The skepticism long predates 2008’s financial crash and even the Great Depression and the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929. Don’t gamble on share movements in October, the once-bankrupt American novelist Mark Twain warned famously a century and a half ago. “This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February.”

Investors willing to take a risk or, heaven forbid, gamble in United Arab Emirates stock markets, however, have one clear advantage heading into 2011. There is little downside risk when buying stocks, as markets have already been “punished too much.” Analysts have confirmed that equity investors can expect to face at the very least not a negative and, more probably, a positive year.

“I think it is going to be a positive year in terms of overall index performance and that is primarily because of the significantly low base that we are in right now,” said Walid Shihabi, head of equities at UAE-based investment firm Shuaa Capital. A realistic approach is called for, he added, but whereas the market “can go lower, it is certainly unlikely to go any lower simply because of the deep, deep discounts we are getting right now.”

Bullishness in abundance

“My opinion on the region on the equity side is quite bullish,” said Tareck Farah, chief executive officer of FFA Dubai, a financial services unit of Lebanon’s FFA Private Bank. The ground has been prepared for positive movement in UAE equity markets in 2011, he added, by a cleanup that has taken place in a number of sectors, especially banking and, to some extent, among development and construction companies.

“A lot of provisions have been taken,” he said. “Restructuring has happened in many companies, and any good news and new contracts that any company or bank [can announce] will automatically have positive impact.”

Entering 2011, the bedrock supporting UAE equity markets are the company valuations in terms of asset and book multiples, Shihabi said. “The other positive element I anticipate to happen in 2011 is that the international pool of money might be enticed to become more active in UAE markets.”

Foreign institutional investors have had a great impact on the Emirati stock markets for the past four years, acting as the markets’ “determinant of direction,” Shihabi said. “Local investors have, over the past few years, taken their cues from international investors in the local market. If in 2011 international money arrives as anticipated, it might cause a broader activity cycle and as the liquidity of the market improves, the performance of the underlying stocks will also improve.”

Foreign banks and fund managers are also high on Farah’s watch list for positive market stimulants. “Institutional investors are watching us and bankers are coming to the region on a weekly basis, meeting companies and studying their balance sheets. Perhaps one big [local] bank needs more time to be clean but, overall, things are improving and we notice this on the ground,” Farah said, citing renowned fund manager Mark Mobius’ positive views about the UAE.

Mobius, director of Singapore-based Templeton Asset Management and aficionado of emerging markets, voiced his optimism on UAE stock markets when visiting the country and in recent media interviews.

He is bullish on the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) markets and keen on frontier markets such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai, along with Nigeria, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, according to an article in Singapore’s Business Times in December.

Another international nod of encouragement came in December from HSBC asset managers at the bank’s New Frontiers Fund; they were quoted by Reuters as saying that they saw investment opportunities in Abu Dhabi banks for 2011 but were still cautious about Dubai banks.

Beyond the stimulus role of international investors, positive transformations of behavior by participants in UAE markets may also produce some impetus to support growth. According to Shihabi, retail investors have become more alert to the impact of significant research findings on the market behavior of institutional money.

The economic environment has also matured in other ways, he said. The system, having developed a thicker skin, is less likely to over-react to any sudden event, and stakeholders in the UAE economy have demonstrated their resourcefulness in working around shortages in liquidity and funding sources.

Traders working in Wall Street, in New York at the beginning of the 1929 Stock Market Crash. Within the first few hours the stock market was open, prices fell so far as to wipe out all the gains that had been made in the previous year

A key expectation for the future of UAE stock markets is consolidation. For FFA’s Farah, a merger of the UAE exchanges could be announced at any moment. “We cannot predict a date, but logically this will happen and it will boost liquidity in the market,” he said.

Shuaa Capital’s Shihabi agrees that a merger is a good idea, which indeed appears to be a widespread sentiment in the financial industry, both locally and regionally. The consolidation of securities exchanges, he said, “seems to have become a priority with the powers-that-be and there is a rational driver in that the UAE needs one exchange and the unification of the exchange.”

He cautioned, however, that the process could prove more difficult than some people anticipate, adding: “I would be somewhat surprised though, if the actual final product arrives in 2011.”

Consolidation is more likely to occur in the realm of financial intermediaries in 2011, Shihabi told Executive. For brokers, 2010 was a “horrible year,” mainly because of the effect very low trade volumes had on their earnings, “but the flip side is that the market has cleaned up — the year will drive a lot of consolidation,” he said. “The cleaning up is actually positive for the companies that have the staying power and can survive the lean period. I think you will see more consolidation in 2011 as a lot of [exit or merger] decisions have been made and you will see the implementation of those decisions and a reduction in the number of brokerages,” he said.

It can’t be worse…

Trading in new classes of financial instruments, such as Exchange Traded Funds, is expected to contribute to expansion of trading activity in the UAE, particularly in the longer term. Also, the activity of primary markets should increase in 2011. There is zero probability that initial public offerings on the Abu Dhabi or Dubai stock exchanges will be less in value or number in 2011 versus 2010: you can’t go below nil with IPOs. To the contrary, there is almost an optimism dawning with the new year that a resurgence of the region’s primary market activity will follow from fundamental economics.

Salim Chahine, professor of finance at the American University of Beirut, told Executive that the downturn in primary markets after the equity boom-years has been within economic cyclicality, pointing out that, “The bubble in IPO markets has taught investors the price of risk. IPOs will come back as economies are cyclical by definition.” 

There is a positive outlook for IPOs in the UAE in 2011 in the view of Shuaa Capital, which has a strong interest in the growth of primary markets. “I am optimistic and we have expectations of IPOs coming in,” said Shuaa’s Shihabi, adding, however, that current regulations such as a requirement to list a minimum of 55 percent in an IPO in the UAE are slowing the prospects for faster growth.

How many IPOs does he expect to see realized in 2011? “Realistically? – Two.” For investors who would like a stock pick at the start of 2011, FFA’s Farah recommended Emaar as his top favorite, saying that the developer “completed most of their projects and delivered them. They are getting rent and fees; their convertible bond issue [in Q4, 2010] was oversubscribed within a few hours; Emaar is a very good buy.”

“I am also bullish on logistics,” he added. 

Saying he viewed Emaar as a good name but did not feel particularly enthused about them at the moment, Shihabi still offered a positive view on the battered real estate and construction sector. “The market overall has been punished a little too much, including the names in the real estate space and in the construction space. From my perspective, names such as Arabtec and Drake & Skull are actually quite attractive. At the current time, these are among my favorite stocks in the market,” he said. Other interesting themes for 2011 could include telecoms, with a slant to the domestic UAE market, and insurance, he added.

However, investors may do well to temper their enthusiasm and remember the risks associated with greeting the new year with a phalanx of predictions and positive assumptions. While limited like all forecasts, research-driven predictions by experienced and knowledgeable market participants that do not promise omniscience are as good as it gets in anticipating the future.

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