Dubai Jitters Infect Debt of Sovereign Spendthrifts

by Neil Shah and Chip Cummins (WSJ)

Dubai’s debt debacle is stoking a new fear for investors across the globe: potential government default by heavily indebted nations.

The Dubai government roiled markets this week with its move to delay debt payments owed by its flagship holding company, Dubai World. The company is stressed by tens of billions in debt that funded spending on glitzy real-estate projects from the Middle East to Las Vegas.

On Friday, investors feared Dubai’s move would plunge global financial markets into the kind of chaos seen earlier this year. But while Asia suffered heavy losses, markets regained their poise as the European and U.S. trading day progressed. By late Friday, European stocks finished 1.2% higher, while in the U.S., the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 154.48 points, or 1.5%, at 10309.92.

Deeper stress lines were felt in the sovereign-bond market, where the cost of insuring against defaults in places like Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria, Brazil, Mexico and Russia rose, fueled by concerns that emerging-market nations may have trouble honoring their debts even as the economy heals. The worry is that sovereign debt may now represent another aftershock of the global financial crisis.

Dubai’s debt debacle is stoking a new fear for investors across the globe: potential government default by heavily indebted nations.

The Dubai government roiled markets this week with its move to delay debt payments owed by its flagship holding company, Dubai World. The company is stressed by tens of billions in debt that funded spending on glitzy real-estate projects from the Middle East to Las Vegas.

On Friday, investors feared Dubai’s move would plunge global financial markets into the kind of chaos seen earlier this year. But while Asia suffered heavy losses, markets regained their poise as the European and U.S. trading day progressed. By late Friday, European stocks finished 1.2% higher, while in the U.S., the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 154.48 points, or 1.5%, at 10309.92.

Deeper stress lines were felt in the sovereign-bond market, where the cost of insuring against defaults in places like Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria, Brazil, Mexico and Russia rose, fueled by concerns that emerging-market nations may have trouble honoring their debts even as the economy heals. The worry is that sovereign debt may now represent another aftershock of the global financial crisis.

“First, people were worried about mortgage debtors. Then, highly leveraged banks. Now the ball has rolled all the way to Dubai,” says Mattias Westman, chief executive of Prosperity Capital Management, which has about $3.5 billion under management, almost all of it in Russia. “It’s just a lack of confidence in debtors.”

The price of a $3.5 billion sukuk, or Islamic bond, issued by a subsidiary of Dubai World, plunged to 57 cents on the dollar Friday from 110 cents on Wednesday, according to two investors.

Dubai’s troubles resonate far beyond the desert fantasyland that its borrowing created, fueling concerns that financially stretched nations like Greece and Hungary may struggle to pay off debts.

Investors and analysts say they’re worried about the health of Greece’s heavily indebted economy and banks, which could suffer as the European Central Bank moves to pull away some of its financial-support measures. These measures have included ultra-cheap bank funding.

The gap between the yield on a Greek government bond and relatively-safe German debt — a key gauge of market fear — jumped to a peak of 2.2% Friday, before falling slightly. When the pan-European Stoxx 600 index fell 3.3% on Thursday, Greece’s market fell twice that amount, over 6%.

Another window into the growing concern about government creditworthiness is the credit-derivatives market. Investors are now paying much higher prices to insure themselves against bond defaults in countries like Turkey and Bulgaria.

When Dubai announced its debt standstill on Wednesday, the cost of insuring against a Dubai debt default more than doubled. The cost of debt-default insurance also rose for a range of countries, including Hungary, Brazil, Mexico and Russia.

While the cost of debt insurance for stressed countries hasn’t hit levels seen at the height of the financial crisis, “the recent rises are altogether more sinister in our view, as they reflect genuine concerns about default within the euro-zone,” said Steven Barrow, a currency analyst at Standard Bank in London, in a note Friday.

Dubai itself demonstrates how quickly countries can veer off the road to recovery and into trouble.

Dubai’s surprise move to delay the debt payments of its corporate crown jewel, Dubai World, came just as many economic indicators, and anecdotal evidence, were pointing in a positive direction. Among the optimistic signs for the region: Oil prices have rebounded strongly this year after falling sharply during the global financial crisis. On Friday, oil sank 2.5% to $76.05 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange as investors fretted over the impact of the Dubai debacle on the economic recovery, but that’s still up significantly from its lows earlier this year.

At the same time, though, years of lavish, debt-fueled empire building is now coming home to roost. For years, the city-state was the epicenter of a dizzying boom in the Persian Gulf. Its ambitions also extended abroad: to golf courses in Scotland and South Africa; the Barneys department store chain in New York; and real estate in Las Vegas, where in 2007 it joined up with casino company MGM Mirage to develop an $8.5 billion condo, hotel and retail colossus called CityCenter — just as the Vegas real-estate market reached its peak.

The oil-fired investment and spending binge culminated in 2008 when crude hit more than $140 a barrel. But by the time of Dubai’s biggest bash later that year — a $20-million hotel opening on a man-made palm-shaped island developed by Dubai World’s property subsidiary — the global financial crisis was already washing ashore.

Since then, it has been a steady slide toward Wednesday’s debt standstill. Squeezed by frozen credit, international property speculators bowed out of Dubai’s market. Prices started a year-long, steep descent. Government-controlled and private developers postponed or cancelled projects, shed workers and stopped paying bills.

According to the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, a trade group of British builders, Dubai entities owe as much as £200 million to British contractors alone.

Analysts expect Dubai’s core property market to take years to claw back to 2008 levels.

Even after hundreds of projects were cancelled or postponed this year, new construction is expected to double Dubai’s supply of office space by 2011, according to property consultancy Colliers International. In a sample study, the consultancy found office-occupancy rates in recently finished buildings at just 41%. At the end of the third quarter, prices of office space were down by 58% from a year ago.

Still, international bankers and executives had started pointing to anecdotal evidence of recovery before the standstill announcement. “You see ‘for rent’ signs on every building,” says Ziad Makhzoumi, chief financial officer of Arabtec Holding PJSC, one of the Mideast’s biggest construction companies. “But you don’t see them on every floor.”

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