MIDDLE EAST stocks slumped to multi-year lows yesterday as speculation intensified that a five-year Gulf property boom was over and developers could be forced to merge as financing conditions deteriorate.
Ambitious Gulf developers have unveiled US$100 billion in new projects in the past two days and officials have tried to restore confidence in the market, but investors focused instead on Europe's spreading banking crisis and falling global markets.
Shares in Saudi Arabia, the biggest Arab equity market, fell 7.7 per cent to their lowest level since the index was reformulated in 2007, while Egypt's main index fell 16 per cent to erase all gains since mid-2006.
"The selling today is ridiculous. It's a panic. People have been following the markets in Europe and the States," said Hashem Ghoneim, chief executive of Cairo-based brokerage El Nour Securities.
The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA), the kingdom's central bank, admitted it faced problems supplying liquidity to the dried-out financial sector while managing rampant inflation.
"People are worried about the potential repercussions," said Fadi Alajaji, economist at SAMA. "We are greatly affected by the changes affecting the global economy. This raises fears among investors."
In the energy-exporting Gulf, the source of investment for much of the Middle East, speculation intensified that the government would force Dubai developers Deyaar and Union Properties to merge as financing conditions worsened, analysts and traders said.
Investors ignored company statements that downplayed the tie-up talk and focused instead on the need for builders in general to bulk up in the face of a looming downturn.
"The reasoning behind the mergers we're seeing these days is because the economic circumstances and obstacles that companies are facing these days are increasing," Chahir Hosni, sales manager at investment bank EFG-Hermes.
Mortgage lenders Tamweel and Amlak Finance fuelled speculation that banks, builders and finance firms in the Gulf would join forces after they revealed on Saturday that they were in talks over a US$2.4 billion merger.
"This is a way of raising funds, basically. This is why you are seeing companies selling out, because the bigger the entities are, the stronger they will be," Hosni said.
Middle Eastern markets were briefly spared from the widening financial crisis due to the heavy influx of petrodollars, but faith in the financial system has weakened dramatically due to concerns about exposure to the property sector.
Gulf Arab builders, above all, have revelled in the superlatives surrounding their construction plans, such as the world's tallest building, largest shopping mall, biggest airport or most extensive man-made island.
But as speculative cash has left the real estate market, particularly from the financial centre Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, the property boom has run out of steam. Officials from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman moved to reassure investors that the decline in regional markets was temporary and touted their countries' strong economies, but to little effect.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
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