Gulf’s rate reprieve may end as US spreads stop narrowing

Gulf’s rate reprieve may end as US spreads stop narrowing. (File Photo: AFP)
Updated 13 February 2018
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Gulf’s rate reprieve may end as US spreads stop narrowing

DUBAI: A dramatic narrowing of spreads between interest rates in the United States and the Gulf cushioned the region’s economies last year, but the trend may be close to ending as demand for loans picks up and monetary policy tightens further.
Any move toward significantly higher regional rates — those in Saudi Arabia have actually fallen in the past year, against the US tide — could weigh on a modest acceleration of economic growth expected in 2018.
In theory, short-term money rates in the United States and the Gulf should move in similar ways as the region’s currencies are closely linked to the US dollar, leaving central banks little room to conduct independent monetary policies.
But in the last couple of years, theory has gone out the window and spreads have fluctuated wildly as Gulf economies struggle under the impact of low oil prices.
On Monday, the three-month Saudi interbank offered rate was just 8 basis points above its US dollar equivalent — the smallest gap since mid-2009, when rates were distorted by the global financial crisis — compared with 104 bps at the end of 2016.
Meanwhile, the spread of three-month money in the United Arab Emirates has shrunk on occasions to zero in the last several weeks, the lowest since late 2008. It stood at 6 bps on Monday.
Narrowing spreads have been good news for businessmen and consumers in the Gulf, shielding them from some of the pain of the Federal Reserve’s five increases in US rates since late 2015. In particular, slumping real estate markets in Dubai and elsewhere in the region, deflated by low oil prices, have been spared a significant rise in loan costs.
While the three-month US dollar London interbank offered rate has surged 82 bps in absolute terms since the end of 2016, the three-month Saudi rate is down slightly and the UAE rate has edged up only gradually.
That pattern may change in the coming months as the US central bank continues to raise rates. Markets expect between two and four more Fed hikes of 25 bps each in 2018, and this time, the conditions that insulated the Gulf from US policy may change.
“Spreads have narrowed so much that it’s difficult for them to narrow more. The feed-through from higher US rates might be more this year, more of a headwind for the economy,” said Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, said of the outlook in the UAE.
Economic growth in the Gulf oil exporters is expected to pick up a little this year; analysts predicted in a Reuters poll last month that Saudi gross domestic product would expand 1.5 percent, after contracting 0.5 percent in 2017.
But growth looks likely to stay far below the pace of around 5 percent early this decade, and real estate markets are in poor shape to cope with higher interest rates. Dubai property prices are estimated to be down as much as 16 to 19 percent from peaks hit several years ago.
LOAN GROWTH
Olivier Panis, senior regional credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service in Dubai, said Saudi spreads narrowed for two main reasons last year: less demand for loans due to the weak economy, and lower domestic borrowing by the government.
Bank lending to the Saudi private sector shrank 0.8 percent from a year earlier in December. However, Panis expects overall loan growth to pick up this year because of greater government spending and a slightly stronger economy.
Loan growth could reach 4-5 percent in 2018 and 8-10 percent in 2019. That would not be enough to tighten the money market significantly, Panis said, but it could prevent a further loosening and start to change the outlook for rates.
Similarly, annual bank lending growth in the UAE sank to 0.4 percent in December, the lowest in at least three years. Panis said growth could rebound to around 5 percent in 2018.
Another factor pushing down Gulf spreads, bankers say, is increased confidence about the stability of the region’s financial system after last year’s recovery in oil prices.
Governments now have more money to support banks if needed, so banks demand less of a risk premium in lending to each other. But that trend may have run its course; Brent crude has dropped back to around $63 a barrel from above $70 last month.
In Saudi Arabia the central bank, keen to protect the economy, kept money rates low last year by adjusting the way in which it responded to each US rate rise. It increased its reverse repo rate, at which commercial banks deposit money with the central bank, by 25 bps each time but did not move its repo rate, used to lend money to banks.
That strategy cannot continue much longer, however, because the corridor between the rates has narrowed to just 50 bps. Too narrow a corridor would remove the incentive among banks to lend among themselves, damaging the money market.
A Saudi commercial banker predicted the central bank would have to raise the repo rate after the next US rise, expected in March; Malik said the corridor might conceivably narrow to 25 bps. Either way, the repo rate looks set to begin climbing sometime in 2018, pulling the money market with it.
History shows it is not impossible for Gulf spreads to continue tightening into negative territory; the Saudi-US spread reached almost minus 100 bps in 2008.
But that was during the global crisis, when emergency measures by central banks and a freezing up of money markets influenced rates. In more normal times, banks are unlikely to lend more cheaply in the Gulf than in the United States.
“Spreads have sometimes been negative in the past but this has been very rare and unsustainable,” said a Gulf banker. “Markets will tend to demand some kind of premium for the risk of lending in the Gulf versus the US“


Uber narrows loss but is a long way from finding profit, targets India and Middle East

Updated 16 August 2018
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Uber narrows loss but is a long way from finding profit, targets India and Middle East

  • Uber’s net loss narrowed to $891 million in its second quarter ending June 30 from $1.1 billion a year earlier
  • While Uber has retreated from China, Southeast Asia and Russia, it says it is sticking with India and the Middle East

SAN FRANCISCO: Uber said on Wednesday it narrowed its quarterly losses from a year earlier, although the ride-hailing company is still a long way from proving it can be profitable as it gears up to go public in 2019.
Under the leadership of Dara Khosrowshahi, who became chief executive in September, Uber has juggled investing in new markets while retreating from others where it was losing millions of dollars. It is building up services like food delivery and freight hauling as it seeks new revenue, and possibly a path to profitability, outside its core business.
Uber’s net loss narrowed to $891 million in its second quarter ending June 30 from $1.1 billion a year earlier. Its adjusted loss before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization was $614 million, down from $773 million a year earlier.
Net revenue rose more quickly than gross bookings in the second quarter from the prior period as the company dialed back on promotional subsidies of rides.
But its growth faces risks from decisions like that by New York City this month to cap licenses for ride-hailing services for one year. Uber has also had to grapple with corporate scandals and has lingering and costly legal battles, including over its classification of drivers as independent contractors, and federal probes to resolve.
“I remain unimpressed,” said Brent Goldfarb, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland. Improving losses by cutting “the lowest hanging fruit doesn’t mean the underlying model is profitable.”
The company’s most recent valuation was pegged earlier this year at $72 billion. But that was based on Uber becoming the global winner in ride-hailing and logistics, a vision it has retrenched from, and public investors may see a smaller company worth less.
Uber can expect a valuation haircut in an IPO if it does not show more progress toward becoming profitable, said David Brophy, professor of finance at the University of Michigan.
Adjusted losses in the first quarter were $312 million, excluding gains from Uber selling some overseas businesses to local competitors. The sale of its Russia and Southeast Asia operations resulted in a one-time $2.5 billion gain in the first quarter and lowered second-quarter costs.
Under pressure from its board, Uber has endeavored to find more savings after years of a growth-at-all-cost mentality under prior CEO Travis Kalanick, enabled by billions of dollars in private investment.
The company had $12 billion in quarterly gross bookings, which includes rides and Uber Eats, up 6 percent from the previous quarter and about 40 percent from a year before.
Net revenue, which strips out what gets paid to drivers as well as promotions and refunds, was $2.8 billion, up 8 percent over the first quarter and more than 60 percent from last year.
“We had another great quarter, continuing to grow at an impressive rate for a business of our scale,” Khosrowshahi said in a statement.

STICKING WITH INDIA, MIDDLE EAST
Uber is a private company and not required to publicly disclose financials, but recently boosted transparency by starting to release selected figures as it eyes an initial public offering.
Faced with criticism about flooding cities with cars, Uber is spending on bike and scooter rentals, including its acquisition of JUMP electric bikes in April.
While Uber has retreated from China, Southeast Asia and Russia, it says it is sticking with India and the Middle East, tough markets with strong local competitors.
“We are cementing our leadership position in India and the Middle East,” Khosrowshahi said.
Several Uber investors have told Reuters they want Uber to leave these costly markets too and focus on North America, where US-based Lyft continues to pose a threat, and pull back on ancillary businesses like Uber Freight.
Uber has $7.3 billion in cash on hand, up a billion dollars from the end of the first quarter. The company listed an inflow of $1.5 billion from term loan issuance, net of costs.
(Reporting by Heather Somerville; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)