After months of burying their heads in the sand, markets and policy makers are waking up to the reality of a double dip in many mature economies. The logic of the recovery was quite simple: the massive bank bailouts, the fiscal stimulus and the monetary injections were supposed to provide temporary support to avoid depression while the deeper underlying causes of the crisis were addressed and resolved.
The reality has been utterly disappointing. As soon as a timid recovery materialized in mid-2009, world leaders, financers and central bankers patted each other on the back, hailing the “green shoots of growth” in a self-congratulatory ritual. Hence difficult but unavoidable decisions were postponed day after day while the stock market was inflated by the liquidity injected by the United States Federal Reserve and, to a lesser extent, the European Central Bank.
Once the ‘quantitative easing’ programs expired, stock markets lost steam, and by the second quarter of 2011 all major economies were close to stagnation.
Faced with evidence of declining economic activity, most media and analysts started to drum up the “soft patch” rhetoric, suggesting the slowdown was a mere pause in the global recovery. Yet by the summer, with the intensification of the fiscal crisis in Spain and Italy, the smoke and mirrors were wiped away, revealing a chronic lack of leadership and policy direction, laid bare by the squabbles over the debt ceiling in the US. Investors were forced to realize there was no long-term plan to tackle the crisis.
Belatedly, the reality of an impending double-dip recession has sunk in, although the extent and the duration are still being debated. But it will not be a matter of a few months given that there is no catalyst for growth in sight. Nor are current policies going to rectify the situation in the short-term. It is unlikely that the structural reforms that are key to boosting long-term growth prospects — including revamping fiscal systems, European Union governance, financial regulations and welfare programs — will be enacted before the end of the year. In the meantime risks of a large sovereign default or other disruptions loom.
Buoyed by barrels
So far the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has emerged relatively unscathed from the global economic crisis, not withstanding the effects of the Arab uprisings this year. But how long can this last? The resilience results from healthy growth in the emerging markets — above all in China — which has maintained high oil prices and international trade. If the recession deepens, we could experience a situation similar to that in early 2009 when the oil price plunged below $50 a barrel.
GCC states remain obviously reliant on oil revenues, which account for close to 78 percent of total exports. Saudi Arabia in particular has embarked on a program of increased social spending to defuse political tensions. Standard Chartered estimates that Saudi Arabia will incur budget deficits if the oil price falls below $106 per barrel.
Break-even oil prices have increased in the rest of the GCC, although they are still below current market prices. The UAE and Kuwait need oil prices at $80 per barrel to balance their budgets, while Qatar based its $6.1 billion surplus budget projections for 2011 on an oil price assumption of $55 per barrel. Oman’s 2011 budget was drafted with a slightly higher figure, at $58, and while higher spending has been incurred the high average oil prices of $106 so far in 2011 gives them a fairly comfortable cushion.
Even the International Monetary Fund in its latest World Economic Outlook, issued in late September, underscores that growth in the MENA oil exporters will be almost 5 percent in 2011, gliding to almost 4 percent in 2012. The IMF mentions downside risks from political unrest and a deeper fall in commodity prices (in the baseline scenario oil prices are expected to fall by only 3 percent on average in 2012), but overall the picture is rather positive, especially if compared to mature economies.
If the global picture were to deteriorate, there are two elements to keep in mind. The lessons from 2009 have been internalized: commitment to public spending kept the economies going then and will again act as an anchor of stability in 2011/12.
Actually, governments would be wise to reiterate their commitment to expenditure on infrastructure now, without waiting for the situation to worsen. This will reinforce confidence, thereby sustaining credit, private investment, consumption and the job market.
There is an even more important factor compared to 2009: financial markets have improved markedly. High-grade credit from the GCC has been buoyant, with Abu Dhabi and Qatar outperforming most sovereign benchmarks from emerging markets. International portfolio managers have developed a more insightful knowledge of the region, whereas in 2008 there was hardly any significant fixed income market.
During 2011 regional bonds withstood the bouts of global volatility, in contrast to 2009 after the Nakheel default. Traders for example recall that Qatar sold $7 billion in bonds in November 2009, subscribed mainly by investors in the United States and the United Kingdom, and as a result of the turmoil ensuing the Dubai World debt moratorium, some portfolio managers sold them on the belief that the Emirate was part of the UAE.
The notable progress made in the past two years in creating a fixed income market and some central banking facilities has paid off: liquidity is improving dramatically, with several benchmark issues now gettingt he attention of large funds with the analytical resources to assess the economic situation professionally and not hysterically. Crucially, GCC paper finds better acceptance in the repurchase (repo) market with low haircuts. This is of the utmost importance because in crises heightened risk aversion affects dramatically those securities that do not provide liquidity and that cannot be used as collateral in repo operations.
The Lehman bankruptcy was essentially a run on the international repo market and hit the GCC banking system because short-term financing became difficult. If such an extreme event were to take place again the lines of defense are stronger. Additionally, commercial banks have painstakingly cleaned their balance sheet of non-performing loans, while name lending after the Algosaibi-Saad affair is being replaced, albeit sluggishly, by careful assessment of balance sheets and business plans.
Not everything is rosy: corporate governance remains patchy, macroeconomic statistics in some areas are far below emerging market standards (in the UAE especially) and stock markets remain extremely fragmented and illiquid. Sovereign bonds from the region are not included in emerging market indices; hence the GCC bonds are an off-index choice for most international funds. This means they are the first to be dumped by investors whose portfolios track broader indices.
In conclusion, thanks to solid fundamentals and an improved financial landscape, the GCC can reasonably withstand another mild recession lasting two or even three quarters, but the ripple effects of a deeper downturn or a traumatic sovereign default would be felt on Gulf shores. Accumulated wealth is a strong bulwark, not total protection.