State Street banker sees pace of reforms in Arabian Gulf accelerating

Illustration by Luis Grañena
Updated 12 August 2018

State Street banker sees pace of reforms in Arabian Gulf accelerating

  • Laurina began his career in banking at the Bank of New York’s Brussels and London offices
  • He believes that the pace of economic growth in the region will continue to accelerate

The rapid economic changes taking place in the Arabian Gulf economies require a cadre of top global financial institutions to help see them through, and State Street Corporation fits the bill completely.

The 226-year-old American financial group, ranked among the biggest banking businesses in the world, recently joined the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) through its investment banking and asset management unit State Street Global Advisers (SSGA), cementing a presence in the region it has held for 26 years.

Emmanuel Laurina, the 43-year-old Belgian who heads up the Middle East business for State Street, told Arab News that the UAE was a good place to be based to exploit the new economic environment in the region, and especially the business opportunities in Saudi Arabia, undergoing rapid change as a result of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify away from oil dependency.

“The DIFC is a well-regulated global financial center through which we can accommodate those clients for whom it is most appropriate. SSGA has had a presence in the Middle East since 1992, and opening a DIFC presence is a natural complement to that business.

“We currently serve the needs of all our Middle East and Africa clients from our Dubai and Abu Dhabi offices. Saudi Arabia has always been a key contributor to our business in the region and we look forward to further deepening our presence and business in the Kingdom,” he added.

Laurina began his career in banking at the Bank of New York’s Brussels and London offices, before moving to State Street in 2005, transferring to Dubai eight years later to head up the Middle East and Africa business. 

He believes that the pace of economic growth in the region will continue to accelerate. The bank’s analysts see UAE growth at 2.5 percent this year, up from 0.5 percent in 2017, and have marked in 1.6 percent for Saudi Arabia, a jump from last year’s 0.9 percent, while the region as a whole is looking at 2.6 percent (up from 1.8 percent).

The recent stability in the oil market is the main reason for the forecast improvement in gross domestic product, and SSGA believes the current good run in oil is likely to continue. “Governments and central banks should be able to escape the tough economic decisions they have faced over the past few years,” he said.

That will be especially good for Saudi Arabia as it seeks foreign investment to help fund the economic changes under way in the Kingdom, boosted by recent upgrades to its financial markets to emerging market status.

“SSGA is very positive about the reform agenda in Saudi Arabia and the entire Vision 2030 plan. While the economic environment remains challenging, we feel that the reforms to companies, markets, and investment regulations are wholly positive.

“Of all the countries in the Gulf, Saudi represents one of the best opportunities for investors, and we are ready to support clients not only in equities, as the Tadawul opens up, but also in the debt markets, an important factor in the modernization plans of the Kingdom,” Laurina said.

Those modernization plans include the privatization of large chunks of the Kingdom’s state-dominated economy, including Saudi Aramco, the biggest oil company in the world. The partial sale of some of Aramco’s shares via an initial public offering (IPO) has been delayed, but most financial experts believe some form of sell-off will eventually take place.

“We made the point recently that the non-Aramco privatization plans were equally — if not more — important to the success of the Saudi reform agenda. These include many state assets whose valuation is relatively easy to assess and where there are clear templates for private-sector participation.

“In short, there is some lower-hanging fruit in the area of privatization and we believe this will be forthcoming. Above all, for Saudi Arabia, it is more important to see this program through correctly, rather than urgently, as the reform impetus is more valuable than the actual proceeds,” he said.

On Aramco, other options have recently emerged as an alternative to full-blown privatization, including raising debt in international markets and the multibillion-dollar acquisition of Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC). Laurina sees sense in considering these possibilities.

“The potential Aramco IPO is huge, complex, and far from straightforward. We are not surprised, and indeed we applaud, the pause for reflection that appears to be taking place. 

“While the delay of IPO may have disappointed some, it may be a welcome move,” he said.

Illustration by Luis Grañena

Emerging market equity investors have had a short time to adjust their portfolios for the inclusion of Saudi Arabia in the three main indices, Laurina explained. “Aramco’s IPO would likely lead to a larger weight to Saudi Arabia and lead to further turnover to fund that increase. A delay of the IPO to a later date would give investors time to adjust and accommodate the new IPO when this is issued,” he said.

“For an institution of Aramco’s size, any debt fundraising brings complexities: If Aramco was to buy the full stake Public Investment Fund holds in SABIC, for example, and fund it entirely out of debt issuance, it would be one of the biggest debt issuances ever from any corporate, and would catapult Aramco into a top-three spot in the EM debt indices. This alone brings new issues, and so again we would counsel a cautious approach,” he said.

The global investor view of the Gulf region wavers between enthusiasm for the economic opportunities presented by reform and privatization, and concern about the effects on investment prospects from geopolitical tensions, such as the current stand-off with Qatar and the increasing possibility that confrontation between Iran and the US will lead to trade dislocation in the region. 

Laurina is alert to the risks, but sanguine on the overall investment climate. “Having been in the region for 26 years, through two Gulf wars and the Arab Spring, SSGA is acutely aware of the geopolitical drivers and risks in this region. 

“But we remain positive on the investment prospects in the Gulf: Emerging market status is going to be a major driver of equity investment; Saudi reform, China’s Belt and Road initiative, and a stable oil price should combine to maintain our upbeat outlook on the region, in spite of regional tensions,” he said.

The Middle East, of course, is an increasingly important part of the international financial and economic system, and is subject to the swings and roundabouts of global forces. Some experts have forecast challenging times ahead, as the US economy tries to maintain the impressive growth of recent years amid the threat of all-out trade war with the second biggest global economy, China, as well as strains within European economies. 

“We predict that global economic performance is likely to become less uniform in the next few years. It is expected that the US will outperform if meaningful trade sanctions are imposed on China, the European Union, Japan and Mexico. Also, a ‘No Deal Brexit’ is likely to have a negative impact on the EU,” he said. 

On the US investment scene, some analysts have wondered whether soaring stock market indices — the “Trump boom” — will eventually have to give way.

“The US economy is increasingly driven by investment and technology-related growth, and this should drive productivity improvement. This, in turn, will help make the Trump boom sustainable,” Laurina said.

What does this mean for the economic prospects of the Arabian Gulf, still dominated by energy revenues? 

“The global oil trade should be relatively unaffected by trade wars. However, oil exporters may see some fallout in demand if there is economic slowdown in trade-impacted countries and regions. It is also worth noting that the US is no longer a significant source of demand — it has scaled back on oil imports over the years, for example — and currently generates a surplus in its balance of trade and services with Saudi Arabia,”
he added.

SSGA’s 12-strong team in the Middle East — now based in Dubai but with a branch office also in Abu Dhabi — looks set to grow as the asset management business expands. “The Middle East and Africa market is extremely dynamic and demanding, and we believe that only those firms that are nimble and agile enough will be successful in the long run,” Laurina said.


EU split over budget as Germans push for curbs

Updated 17 September 2019

EU split over budget as Germans push for curbs

  • Divisions over the next 2021-2027 financial framework run deeper than usual

BERLIN: The EU may need to scale back its plans to boost growth and counter climate change if it fails to quickly agree on a long-term budget, European officials said on Monday, as Germany and other northern states push to restrict spending.

The EU administration is funded with a seven-year budget. The size and targets are often subject to prolonged haggling among its member states.

But divisions over the next 2021-2027 financial framework run deeper than usual at a time when the bloc faces risks of a new economic recession and uncertainty over the outcome of the Brexit process — which is expected to lead Britain, one of the largest contributors to the EU coffers, out of the union.

“My big concern is that Europe will be in a difficult economic and geopolitical situation if there is no budget by the first of January,” the EU commissioner in charge of the talks, Guenther Oettinger, told an EU ministers’ meeting in Brussels.

He said the urgency to strike a deal was heightened by the bloc’s weakening economy, with Germany and other EU states stagnating. He said it would take years to find a compromise at the current pace of negotiation.

The long-term financial framework needs to be adopted well in advance of its starting date because it has to be translated into yearly spending programs which also usually require long negotiations.

The EU’s executive commission proposed last year a seven-year budget of roughly €1.1 trillion ($1.22 trillion) which would represent 1.11 percent of the bloc’s Gross National Income (GNI), a measure of domestic output. The estimate does not include funding from Britain, which is planning to leave the EU at the end of October.

But Germany, the EU’s largest economy and the main contributor to the budget, has made it known that it wants to limit spending to 1 percent of economic output, according to a document seen by Reuters. Sweden and the Netherlands openly support Berlin’s more cautious spending plans.

The budget for the current seven-year period also amounts to 1 percent of GNI, but Brussels said it has to go up because of planned higher spending on research, digital economy, border control and defense.

Berlin said the proposed cap would represent a net increase in spending by EU states, as the bloc would have to do without contributions from Britain. It also urged more spending to counter climate change.

The European Parliament, backed by southern and eastern European states who are net receivers of EU funds, wants a bigger budget, set at 1.3 percent of the bloc’s GNI.

Lawmakers also urged further funding for new projects on climate change and for unemployment benefits as mentioned by the commission’s president-designate Ursula von der Leynen in her inaugural speech after appointment in July. Spain’s state secretary for EU affairs, Marco Aguiriano Nalda, said differences between the proposals made it almost impossible to find a compromise before the end of the year.

“I have to express strong worries and reservations on the state of play of the financial framework,” he told his counterparts at a televised session of the ministerial meeting.

Poland’s State Secretary for European Affairs, Konrad Szymanski, told the same meeting that reduced spending caps would inevitably translate into lower ambitions.

A compromise is made more difficult also by plans to make EU funding conditional on upholding the bloc’s values, including the rule of law. Germany called for this “conditionality” in its confidential document reviewed by Reuters.