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Archive for November 30th, 2009

By John Mauldin

John Mauldin, Best-Selling author and recognized financial expert, is also editor of the free Thoughts From the Frontline that goes to over 1 million readers each week. For more information on John or his FREE weekly economic letter go to: http://www.frontlinethoughts.com/learnmore

I admit that of late my writings have had a rather dark tone. There are certainly a number of severe long-term problems that we must deal with, and they’re going to serve up a lot of economic pain. But the Thanksgiving weekend with the kids has me in a reflective mood, and one that has only served to underscore my long-term optimism. This week we look at why 2007 will not be the good old days we will yearn for in 20 years, after we briefly visit Dubai and the latest unemployment numbers.

Subprime Dubai

While we in the US spent our Thursday eating turkey and watching football, the rest of the world’s markets went into a downward spiral as Dubai announced it wanted its lenders to give the country a six-month moratorium on some $80-90 billion in debt. This has the potential to be the largest sovereign debt default since Argentina. Somehow this was a shocking development. (How can too much debt and real estate be a problem?) And by markets I mean gold, commodities, oil, stocks, and risk assets everywhere. They all went down. Today the US markets experienced their own sell-off, though not as deeply as the rest of the world.

As I wrote last Friday, the world is now negatively correlated with the dollar, and as money went into the dollar and US treasuries, everything else went down. Vietnam devalues, Greece is looking increasingly risky, Russia wants to devalue some more, the world is still deleveraging, etc. Is this another repeat of 1998, when Russia and the Asian debt crisis tanked the markets?

To get an answer, let’s look at some facts about Dubai. It is one of the Arab Emirates; but unlike its neighbor Abu Dhabi, oil is only about 6% of the economy. While the foundations of the country were built with oil, the country has diversified into finance, real estate, tourism, trading, and manufacturing. It is a small country, with a little under 1.5 million residents, but with less than 20% being natural citizens – the rest are expatriates.

The gross domestic product is around US $50 billion.
(Note: http://www.ameinfo.com/67802.html and then converting the currency. I found the numbers on various websites and services strangely at wide discrepancies. This seems close to a median number. I think the discrepancy is mostly people confusing the GDP for the United Arab Emirates as a whole, which includes Abu Dhabi, rather than just Dubai.)

Dubai has become a byword for thinking large. The world’s tallest building, underwater hotels, the largest manmade islands (plural), indoor snow skiing in the desert… For links to more information try this from Wikipedia: “The large-scale real estate development projects have led to the construction of some of the tallest skyscrapers and largest projects in the world, such as the Emirates Towers, the Burj Dubai, the Palm Islands and the world’s second tallest, and most expensive hotel, the Burj Al Arab.” The list goes on and on.

UBS suggests that the $80-90 billion in debt may not include rather large off- balance-sheet debt (where have we seen that one?). So, a country with a GDP of $50 billion borrows $100 billion. They build massive projects, which are now among the most expensive real estate in the world. The latest manmade island plans for one million people to buy property there. Seriously. Talk about Field of Dreams.

Then came the credit crunch. Property values dropped by as much as 50%. Sales, say the developers in understatements, have slowed. Seems there was a lot of debt used to speculate on real estate, not to mention buying Barney’s, Las Vegas casinos, banks, etc. And while US banks have little exposure, it seems England has about 50% or so of the debt, with the rest of Europe having the lion’s share of the remainder. Admittedly, the estimates seem to confuse the debt of Dubai with that of Abu Dhabi, so it is hard to know a reliable number, other than that European banks are the most exposed.

Now, here’s the deal. Abu Dhabi has the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, at over $650 billion. Dubai has a “mere” $15 billion. If they cared to, Abu Dhabi could write a small check and make all the problems disappear. It just seems that they are not ready to do that, at least not yet. Abu Dhabi already got the world’s tallest building on past debt problems.

Construction and real estate were as much as 25% of the economy. Let’s see. Large leverage with maybe $5 billion in interest in a $50 billion economy that is 25% construction? A construction and real estate-driven economy. A real estate bubble. Sound like California, Florida, Spain? How can this be a surprise, except that everyone expected big brother Abu Dhabi to pick up the check?

While Abu Dhabi did advance $5 billion earlier, Dubai is not letting that money out of the country. There are projects to be finished, you understand. From where I sit, this is just rather hard-headed negotiations, a restructuring of who owns what and who will get what assets. It will all settle out. Given the massive losses that world banks have already taken, this is rather small potatoes.

So why the reaction by the markets? Because I think many participants know that the potential for there to be a serious correction is quite real. When anything as relatively small as Dubai spooks the market, it should serve as a warning sign. The world has priced in 5% GDP growth for the US and much of the developed world in the equity and commodity markets. Either we have to get that or the markets are going to have to come back to the reality of what I think is going to be a much lower growth figure.

But in any event, one of the lessons to be learned is that investors should pay attention to where the leverage is. Unsustainable debt trends end in tears. They always do. Spain, Greece, Italy, the UK, and Japan will all have to face major restructuring in the next decade due to leverage. And we in the US will also find that we cannot grow debt at our current levels. Will we pare our debt willingly or be forced to by the market? Either way, it will make for a less than optimal economy over the coming years. Muddle Through, indeed.

 

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