Technology-based pension reforms needed in Middle East, expert says

Technology-based pension reforms needed in Middle East, expert says
Governments and public pension funds across the region are starting to think about how they need to adapt and modernize to provide better systems for workers, and are looking to learn from successful savings reforms. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 22 January 2023

Technology-based pension reforms needed in Middle East, expert says

Technology-based pension reforms needed in Middle East, expert says
  • A large percentage of the workforce in the Middle East has no social insurance umbrella

LONDON: Reforms are needed to rapidly modernize pension schemes in the Middle East to reflect the region’s demographics using technology pension products that are modern, contemporary, engaging and efficient to run, according to a UK-based expert.

There are a number of “themes” that flow through pensions within the region, according to Tim Phillips, managing director of Middle East and Asia affairs at Smart — a UK-based finTech company specialized in building technology for pension schemes around the world.

“When you have a number of dynamics — such as people living considerably longer — (they combine) to cause what is referred to as a ‘pensions crisis,’” he told Arab News in an exclusive interview.

Phillips said life expectancy has increased significantly over the last 20 years and continues to do so, with people having fewer children than they used to in previous generations, which results in an aging population.

A large percentage of the workforce in the Middle East has no social insurance umbrella and the size of the working-age population in Arab countries has decreased significantly in the last decade, according to the World Bank, with projections it will fall by more than one-quarter by 2060.

“The percentage of people who are in retirement versus in employment is increasing quite significantly, so that naturally causes quite an issue, because the amount of funding that you need to support the people in retirement has to get drastically higher,” Phillips said.

There are two types of pension provision in the region, he explained; public pension funds, which provide pensions for locals, and are “incredibly generous” and well run in some countries. Expatriate workers tend to receive a “gratuity” or “lump sum” when they leave employment.

“Both of those models are areas where there’s been discussion about reform happening (and) both of those models need to be looked at to reform in some way, and it’s happening around the world, it’s not just in the Middle East,” Phillips said. 

FASTFACT

The Middle East is particularly exposed because of its relative lack of occupational pensions provided by employers, or social security provision provided by the state, so people therefore rely on the third pillar, which is personal savings.

Governments and public pension funds across the region are starting to think about how they need to adapt and modernize to provide better systems for workers, and are looking to learn from successful savings reforms implemented in the UK, Australia and Hong Kong.

Phillips, who is also the vice president of the British Pensions Management Institute, stressed that the region is diverse, not just demographically, and that each country needs to be looked at separately.

“In Egypt, I think something like 60 percent of the population is unbanked, so that becomes a completely different challenge to somewhere like the UAE, where everyone’s a lot more familiar with using their mobile apps to do banking,” he said.

Lebanon has a number of issues, not least of which is the significant depreciation of the currency, which is going to cause difficulties across all financial assets that are held in that currency, he added.

Kuwait has one of the largest public pension funds in the world, and in Saudi Arabia and the UAE there is a growing interest in moving toward the defined-contribution model — a pot based on how much is paid in, which is the trend throughout the West, as well as countries like Hong Kong and Singapore, as opposed to the defined benefit model that is based on your salary and period of employment.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is a good example, Phillips said, as it has set specific targets to achieve in the next few years, including to increase household savings from 6 percent to 10 percent of total household income, which would exceed the target set in the UK. 

People need to have an adequate income for their retirement, because if they don’t, in the long run, the state will face a high level of poverty.

Tim Phillips, Managing director of Middle East and Asia affairs at Smart

“I think targets like that are fantastic and that’s where I see the journey going for somewhere like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over that period and, hopefully, in advance to 2030. And I know a lot of companies will want to support that.

“But ultimately, if you have any large program in which you want to be funding a significant retirement income for a large population of people, you’re not going to be able to do that without some sort of technology being at the center of that, it’s not going to be something you can do manually, which may have been (the case) in the past,” Phillips said.

“So the underlying issue, irrespective of demographic changes or differences, is that people need to have an adequate income for their retirement, because if they don’t, in the long run, the state will face a high level of poverty.”

The pension market is very large, he added, but it has been underserved by technology disruptors as it’s “seen as a not very attractive place to go and innovate,” as opposed to creating another challenger bank.

There’s been quite a lot of competition in the banking industry, with complaints that it is “tired and needs disruption,” but “there hasn’t been as much in the pension space, and that’s where Smart has specialized,” Phillips said.

The Middle East is particularly exposed because of its relative lack of occupational pensions provided by employers, or social security provision provided by the state, so people therefore rely on the third pillar, which is personal savings.

“That’s traditionally not been hugely successful, because as people we’re hardwired to not be able to see dangers and risks that are far in the future, so it becomes a bit challenging to solve the pensions crisis by addressing that third pillar, and this is where we see interest in our technology coming.”


World food prices decline for 10th month running in January, says UN Food Agency

World food prices decline for 10th month running in January, says UN Food Agency
Updated 55 min 7 sec ago

World food prices decline for 10th month running in January, says UN Food Agency

World food prices decline for 10th month running in January, says UN Food Agency

ROME: World food prices fell in January for a 10th consecutive month, and are now down some 18 percent from a record high hit last March following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UN's food agency said on Friday.

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s price index, which tracks the most globally traded food commodities, averaged 131.2 points last month against 132.2 for December, the agency said on Friday. It was the lowest reading since September 2021.

The December figure was revised down from an original estimate of 132.4.

Falls in the prices of vegetable oils, dairy and sugar helped pull down the index, while cereals and meat remained largely stable, the FAO said.

In separate cereal supply and demand estimates on Friday, the FAO raised its forecast for global cereal production in 2022 to 2.77 billion tons from a previous estimate of 2.76 billion tons.

The FAO cereal price index rose just 0.1 percent month-on-month in January to give a 4.8 percent increase on the year.

International wheat prices declined 2.5 percent as production in Australia and Russia outpaced expectations. Rice, by contrast, jumped 6.2 percent, driven in part by strong local demand in some Asian exporting countries.

Vegetable oil prices fell 2.9 percent in January, the dairy index dipped 1.4 percent and sugar declined 1.1 percent. Meat slipped a mere 0.1 percent.

Looking at supply and demand for cereals, FAO said it expected a record global output of wheat in 2022 thanks to revised crop forecasts from Australia and Russia.

The forecast for world rice production was revised down on the back of lower-than-expected output in China, and is now predicted to decline 2.6 percent from its all-time high in 2021.

Looking ahead to 2023, FAO said early indications pointed to a likely expansion of winter wheat cropping in the northern hemisphere. However, it warned that high fertilizer costs may impact yields.

World cereal utilization in 2022/23 was forecast to dip 0.7 percent from the previous year to 2.78 billion tons. The estimate for world cereal stocks was pegged at 844 million tons, pushing down the world stock-to-use ratio for 2022/23 to 29.5 percent from 30.8 percent in 2021/22


Oil stable as market awaits signs of China demand recovery

Oil stable as market awaits signs of China demand recovery
Updated 03 February 2023

Oil stable as market awaits signs of China demand recovery

Oil stable as market awaits signs of China demand recovery

SINGAPORE: Oil prices were little changed on Friday, with major benchmarks headed for their second straight week of losses, as the market awaited further signs of fuel demand recovery in China to offset looming slumps in other major economies.

Brent crude futures dipped 16 cents, or 0.2 percent, to $82.01 a barrel by 0445 GMT, while US West Texas Intermediate crude futures slid 17 cents, or 0.2 percent, to $75.71.

So far this week, Brent has dropped more than 5 percent, extending a 1 percent loss from the previous week. WTI has also fallen by nearly 5 percent, after sliding 2 percent in the prior week.

Mixed signals on fuel demand recovery in China, the world’s top oil importer, have kept a lid prices.

ANZ analysts pointed to a sharp jump in traffic in China’s 15 largest cities following the Lunar New Year holiday, but also noted that Chinese traders had been “relatively absent.”

The prospect of an economic rebound in China after COVID-19 curbs eased has buoyed the oil market so far this year, along with a weaker dollar that makes the commodity cheaper for those holding other currencies.

The dollar has fallen because aggressive interest rate hikes by the US Federal Reserve are no longer expected. Central banks for other major economies, though, are continuing with bigger rate increases even as inflation has eased.

While supported by a weaker greenback, oil’s gains have been limited by the prospect of slow growth in the US, the world’s biggest oil consumer, and recessions in places including Britain, Europe, Japan and Canada.

“The crude demand outlook needs a clear sign that China’s reopening will be smooth, and that the US economic growth momentum does not deteriorate quickly,” OANDA analyst Edward Moya said in a note.

The US central bank scaled back to a milder rate increase after a year of larger hikes, but policymakers also projected that “ongoing increases” in borrowing costs would be needed.

Upcoming interest rate hikes in 2023 are likely to weigh on the US and European economies, boosting fears of an economic slowdown highly likely to dent global crude oil demand, said Priyanka Sachdeva, market analyst at Phillip Nova.

Investors are also eyeing developments on the Feb. 5 European Union ban on Russian refined products as the EU countries will seek a deal on Friday to set price caps for Russian oil products. 


Who is Hindenburg, the firm targeting India’s Adani?

Who is Hindenburg, the firm targeting India’s Adani?
Updated 03 February 2023

Who is Hindenburg, the firm targeting India’s Adani?

Who is Hindenburg, the firm targeting India’s Adani?
  • Hindenburg is an investment research firm with a focus on activist short-selling. It looks for corruption or fraud in the business world, such as accounting irregularities and bad actors in management, and It can make money out of its work

NEW YORK: Hindenburg Research, the financial research firm with an explosive name and a track record of sending the stock prices of its targets tumbling, is taking on one of the world’s richest men.
Hindenburg is back in the headlines after last week accusing Indian conglomerate Adani Group of “a brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme.” It cited two years of research, including talks with former Adani senior executives and reviews of thousands of documents.
The Adani Group has blasted the accusations, calling them “a malicious combination of selective misinformation and stale, baseless and discredited allegations that have been tested and rejected by India’s highest courts.”
Nevertheless, Hindenburg’s scorching allegations have caused the fortune of Adani Group’s founder, Gautam Adani, to slide by nearly $47 billion in just over a week, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires index. Here’s a look at the firm behind all the movement:
What is it?
Hindenburg says it specializes in “forensic financial research.” In layman’s terms, it looks for corruption or fraud in the business world, such as accounting irregularities and bad actors in management.
Hindenburg has even come to be known as Ponzi hunters in some circles, according to the Washington Post, which detailed how it helped bring down an alleged $500 million scheme that targeted Mormons.
Where did its name come from?
The firm says it sees the Hindenburg, the airship that famously caught fire in the 1930s to the cry of “Oh, the humanity,” as the “epitome of a totally man-made, totally avoidable disaster.” It says it looks for similar disasters in financial markets “before they lure in more unsuspecting victims.”
Who else has Hindenburg gone after?
It’s perhaps most famous for a 2020 report on Nikola, a company in the electric-vehicle industry whose founder Hindenburg said made misleading claims to ink partnerships with top auto companies hungry to catch up to Tesla.
Among its allegations, Hindenburg accused Nikola of staging a video to calm skepticism about its truck, one that showed the vehicle cruising on a road. Hindenburg said the video was actually just showing the truck rolling down a hill after getting towed to the top.
What has come of such accusations?
For Nikola, quick scrutiny from the government and investors.
The company and its founder, Trevor Milton, received grand jury subpoenas from the US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York and the N.Y. County District Attorney’s Office shortly after Hindenburg released its report.
The Securities and Exchange Commission also soon issued subpoenas to Nikola’s directors.
Milton was convicted this past October of charges he deceived investors with exaggerated claims about his company’s progress in producing zero-emission 18-wheel trucks fueled by electricity or hydrogen.
And Nikola in late 2021 agreed to pay $125 million to settle SEC charges that it defrauded investors by misleading them about its products, technical advancements, and commercial prospects.
What does Hindenburg get out of this?
It can make money. In its Adani report, it said that it had taken a “short position in Adani Group Companies” through bonds that trade in the US and other investments that trade outside India.
It has made similar “short” bets against other companies it published unflattering reports on. A “short” trade is a way for someone to make money if an investment’s price falls. Afterward, if the price of a company’s stock or bonds falls because of the negative attention from the report, Hindenburg can profit.
Such short sellers have been criticized for unfairly pushing down prices of stocks with potentially unfounded allegations. But proponents also call them a healthy part of a stock market, keeping stock prices in check and preventing them from running too high.


Adani’s market losses top $100 billion as crisis shockwaves spread

Adani’s market losses top $100 billion as crisis shockwaves spread
Updated 03 February 2023

Adani’s market losses top $100 billion as crisis shockwaves spread

Adani’s market losses top $100 billion as crisis shockwaves spread
  • Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries is now Asia’s richest person as Adani Group chairman's net worth plunges
  • S&P Dow Jones Indices said it would remove Adani Enterprises from widely used sustainability indices

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI: Adani’s market losses swelled above $100 billion on Thursday, sparking worries about a potential systemic impact a day after the Indian group’s flagship firm abandoned its $2.5 billion stock offering.
Another challenge for Adani on Thursday came when S&P Dow Jones Indices said it would remove Adani Enterprises from widely used sustainability indices, effective Feb. 7, which would make the shares less appealing to sustainability-minded funds.
In addition, India’s National Stock Exchange said it has placed on additional surveillance shares of Adani Enterprises , Adani Ports and Ambuja Cements .
However, Adani Group Chairman Gautam Adani is in talks with lenders to prepay and release pledged shares as he seeks to restore confidence in the financial health of his conglomerate, Bloomberg News reported on Thursday.
The shock withdrawal of Adani Enterprises’ share sale marks a dramatic setback for founder Adani, the school dropout-turned-billionaire whose fortunes rose rapidly in recent years but have plunged in just a week after a critical research report by US-based short-seller Hindenburg Research.


ALSO READ: Who is Hindenburg, the firm targeting India’s Adani?


Aborting the share sale sent shockwaves across markets, politics and business. Adani stocks plunged, opposition lawmakers called for a wider probe and India’s central bank sprang into action to check on the exposure of banks to the group. Meanwhile, Citigroup’s wealth unit stopped making margin loans to clients against Adani Group securities.

The crisis marks an dramatic turn of fortune for Adani, who has in recent years forged partnerships with foreign giants such as France’s TotalEnergies and attracted investors such as Abu Dhabi’s International Holding Company as he pursues a global expansion stretching from ports to the power sector.
In a shock move late on Wednesday, Adani called off the share sale as a stocks rout sparked by Hindenburg’s criticisms intensified, despite it being fully subscribed a day earlier.
“Adani may have started a confidence crisis in Indian shares and that could have broader market implications,” said Ipek Ozkardeskaya, senior market analyst at Swissquote Bank.
Adani Enterprises shares tumbled 27 percent on Thursday, closing at their lowest level since March 2022.

Other group companies also lost further ground, with 10 percent losses at Adani Total Gas, Adani Green Energy and Adani Transmission, while Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone shed nearly 7 percent.
Since Hindenburg’s report on Jan. 24, group companies have lost nearly half their combined market value. Adani Enterprises — described as an incubator of Adani’s businesses — has lost $26 billion in market capitalization.
Adani is also no longer Asia’s richest person, having slid to 16th in the Forbes rankings of the world’s wealthiest people, with his net worth almost halved to $64.6 billion in a week.
The 60-year-old had been third on the list, behind billionaires Elon Musk and Bernard Arnault.
His rival Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries is now Asia’s richest person.

Mukesh Ambani, chairman oil-to-telecom conglomerate Reliance Industries, is now Asia''s richest person. (AFP) file)


Broader concerns
Adani’s plummeting stock and bond prices have raised concerns about the likelihood of a wider impact on India’s financial system.
India’s central bank has asked local banks for details of their exposure to the Adani Group, government and banking sources told Reuters on Thursday.
CLSA estimates that Indian banks were exposed to about 40 percent of the $24.5 billion of Adani Group debt in the fiscal year to March 2022.
Dollar bonds issued by entities of Adani Group extended losses on Thursday, with notes of Adani Green Energy crashing to a record low. Adani Group entities made scheduled coupon payments on outstanding US dollar-denominated bonds on Thursday, Reuters reported citing sources.
“We see the market is losing confidence on how to gauge where the bottom can be and although there will be short-covering rebounds, we expect more fundamental downside risks given more private banks (are) likely to cut or reduce margin,” said Monica Hsiao, chief investment officer of Hong Kong-based credit fund Triada Capital.
In New Delhi, opposition lawmakers submitted notices in parliament demanding discussion of the short-seller’s report.
The Congress Party called for a Joint Parliamentary Committee be set up or a Supreme Court monitored investigation, while some lawmakers shouted anti-Adani slogans inside parliament, which was adjourned for the day.
Adani vs Hindenburg
Adani made acquisitions worth $13.8 billion in 2022, Dealogic data showed, its highest ever and more than double the previous year.
The canceled fundraising was critical for Adani, which had said it would use $1.33 billion to fund green hydrogen projects, airports facilities and greenfield expressways, and $508 million to repay debt at some units.
Hindenburg’s report alleged an improper use of offshore tax havens and stock manipulation by the Adani Group. It also raised concerns about high debt and the valuations of seven listed Adani companies.
The Adani Group has denied the accusations, saying the allegation of stock manipulation had “no basis” and stemmed from an ignorance of Indian law. It said it has always made the necessary regulatory disclosures.
Adani had managed to secure share sale subscriptions on Tuesday even though the stock’s market price was below the issue’s offer price. Maybank Securities and Abu Dhabi Investment Authority had bid for the anchor portion of the issue, investments which will now be reimbursed by Adani.
Late on Wednesday, the group’s founder said he was withdrawing the sale given the share price fall, adding his board felt going ahead with it “will not be morally correct.”


Oil steady as Russian crude products ban looms

Oil steady as Russian crude products ban looms
Updated 02 February 2023

Oil steady as Russian crude products ban looms

Oil steady as Russian crude products ban looms
  • A EU ban on Russian refined products is set to take effect on Feb. 5, potentially dealing a blow to global supply

LONDON: Oil prices were steady on Thursday as looming sanctions on Russian oil products added uncertainty over supply but the dollar lost value in a boost to the oil trade.

Brent crude futures fell 18 cents, or 0.2 percent, to $82.66 a barrel by 1415 GMT while West Texas Intermediate US crude futures lost 3 cents to $76.38.

Both benchmarks plunged more than 3 percent overnight after US government data showed a large build in oil stocks. A EU ban on Russian refined products is set to take effect on Feb. 5, potentially dealing a blow to global supply.

EU countries will seek a deal on Friday on a European Commission proposal to set price caps on Russian oil products after postponing a decision on Wednesday because of divisions among member states, diplomats said. The European Commission proposed last week that from Feb. 5 the EU apply a price cap of $100 a barrel on premium Russian oil products such as diesel and a $45 per barrel cap on discounted products such as fuel oil.

Meanwhile an OPEC+ panel endorsed the producer group’s current output policy at a meeting on Wednesday, leaving production cuts agreed last year unchanged amid hopes of higher Chinese demand and uncertain prospects for Russian supply.

OPEC+ agreed to cut its production target by 2 million barrels per day — about 2 percent of global demand — from November last year until the end of 2023 to support the market.