Global Investing

A scar on Bahrain’s financial marketplace

Bahrain’s civil unrest — which had a one-year anniversary this week — has taken a toll on the local economy and left a deep scar on the Gulf state’s aspiration to become an international financial hub.

A new paper from the Sovereign Wealth Fund Initiative, a research programme at Center for Emerging Market Enterprises (CEME) at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, examines how the political instability of 2011 is threatening Bahrain’s efforts in the past 30 years to diversify its economy and develop the financial centre.

Asim Ali from University of Western Ontario and Shatha Al-Aswad, assistant vice president at State Street, argue in the paper that even before the revolt, Bahrain lagged in building the foundations of a truly international hub in the face of competition from Dubai and Qatar.

Unlike DIFC (Dubai International Financial  Centre) and QFC (Qatar Financial Centre), Bahrain insists upon local labor; currently 70% of employees in its banking and financial services industry are Bahrainis.  Bahrain’s reluctance to hire non-resident  talent  has made  Dubai…an alternative for those investors looking for a centre with more flexible labor practices such as DIFC provide…  The constraints  – a lack of formalized institutional and regulatory structure, along with an ad hoc business environment, underdeveloped infrastructure, and under-supplied skilled workforce – have negatively affected its growth and  potential to become the financial gateway in the Middle East.

Then came the crackdown of protesters.

Its ruling Al-Khalifa family unleashed  a ferocious extra-judicial crackdown against the opposition. It appeared the standard axiom of Gulf ruling families – securing legitimacy and counter-acting political opposition through redistribution of oil wealth – was sorely insufficient to address  citizens’ grievances.  These led not only to international opprobrium of  the  Bahrain government but also made foreign businesses reconsider Bahrain as a financial center – with many foreign business shifting  workers and operations to Dubai… Indeed, confidence in Bahrain as a financial hub took a major blow along with its image as a stable, tolerant and liberal state.

from MacroScope:

Are CDS markets the euro zone’s iceberg?

icebergIn an unfortunate turn of phrase at the height of his country's current debt crisis, Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou on Monday compared his government's Herculean task in slashing deficits and debts as akin to changing the course of the Titanic. Sadly, we all know where the great "unsinkable" ended up almost a century ago and I'm sure,  given the chance, Mr Papaconstantinou would have chosen another metaphor. But if the Greek economy (or perhaps the euro zone at large?) is to be cast as the Titanic, then what is its potential iceberg?

For some euro politicians, look no further than the sovereign Credit Default Swaps market. France's finance chief Christine Lagarde said as much last week when she questioned "the validity, solidity of CDSs on sovereign risk" and warned speculators to be careful as regulators took a "second look" at the market and European governments closed ranks. Lagarde, of course, is not alone.  You can be sure CDS are being examined long and hard by Spanish intelligence services investigating the "murky manoeuvres" in the debt markets.  But what is the exact charge against CDS?

CDS are ways to buy or sell insurance on the risk of debt defaults without needing to own the underlying bonds in the first place. It's a way of hedging your debts, if you like, without having to go through the often more complicated game of selling securities short (or selling borrowed paper). In essence, it allows you to take a bet on default without having to go to the trouble of owning the bonds you're insuring against.  Some critics, not unreasonably, would view this as the epitome of the casino capitalism that has elicited so much public outrage over the past three years . The fear is this market has become the tail wagging the dog.

Act now or forever hold your (b)-piece, Obama

It appears the penny has finally dropped in Washington. Bank bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, has unveiled a report that outlines the shocking state of the U.S. commercial mortgage sector, which left unaided could spark “economic damage that could touch the lives of nearly every American”. The Havard Law School Professor and her panel colleagues are talking the kind of apocalyptic language that may just shake the White House and its star policy advisers into facing problems we have now rather simply obsess about those we may or may not encounter in the future. The global banking system may well need some kind of Volcker-esque guidelines to curb the next generation of excessive risk-takers but Obama is putting the cart before the horse in his efforts to haul the economy back on track. Certainly, his and the previous administration has toiled long and hard to stabilise the U.S. housing market, propping up Fannie and Freddie and their dysfunctional offspring, but the subprime mess has distracted attentions from the toxic commercial market, where the clean-up task is no less important. Warren reckons there is about $1.4 trillion worth of outstanding commercial real estate loans in the U.S that will need to be refinanced before 2014, and about half of them are already “underwater,” an industry term that refers to loans larger than the property’s current value. But bank brains are wasting too much time figuring out how the so-called “Volcker rule” might affect their operations and future profitability, instead of getting their arms around underwater real estate loans that could break their institutions in two long before the anti-risk measures even take hold. Obama’s premature challenge to their investment autonomy, which he says cultivated the collapse of banks like Lehmans, is like suturing a papercut while your jugular gapes wide open. Maybe now, as Warren’s report hammers home the threat posed by unperforming commercial real estate debt, Obama will give Wall Street a chance to refocus on the “now” and worry about “tomorrow”, tomorrow.

It appears the penny has finally dropped in Washington.

Bank bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, has unveiled a report that outlines the perilous state of the U.S. commercial mortgage sector, which left unaided could spark “economic damage that could touch the lives of nearly every American”.

The Havard Law School Professor and her panel colleagues are talking the kind of apocalyptic language that may just shock the White House and its star policy advisers into facing problems banks have now rather simply obsess about those they may or may not encounter in the future.

Bosch Boss Bashes Bloated Bank Bonuses

Bosch CEO Franz Fehrenbach

Bosch CEO Franz Fehrenbach

Everyone complains about fat banker bonuses, but Bosch Chief Executive Franz Fehrenbach is taking the debate to a new level. The head of the world’s biggest car parts maker is going to review ties with its financiers and may break off business with those that pay excessive bonuses, he told reporters. “We find it irresponsible if some big banks more or less go back to business as usual before the crisis despite what we have gone through,” he said.  He cited HSBC and JP Morgan as positive examples of good corporate behaviour. Of course it’s easier to be picky when you are unlisted and generate huge cash flow.

Austrian subprime woes turn into political hot potato

The Austrian government debt agency’s two-year old foray into subprime investments has turned into a political hot potato and sparked an increasingly heated debate between the Social Democrats and conservatives, caught in an uneasy but coalition government without viable alternative.

Austria’s audit court last week revealed that the agency, which in its staid day job issues government bonds and makes sure state coffers are full when they need to be, started to moonlight on money markets in 2002 to earn a little extra money on the side.

Its cash position ballooned from an average 4.5 billion euros in 2002 to a peak of 26.8 billion euros in October 2007. This level “was not only determined by economic necessities, but was also meant to generate additional revenues,” the audit court said in its report.

from UK News:

Walking the risk-reward tightrope in Iraq

It's fair to say that investing in Iraq is not for the faint-hearted.

Just last week more than 200 people were killed in suicide bombings across the country, while kidnapping and armed assault remain commonplace.

That said, more than 600 delegates still turned up to the Invest Iraq 2009 conference held in London this week, eager to find out what opportunities there might be in the oil, construction, petrochemicals, engineering, agriculture, transport and tourism industries, to name a few.

From City of London bankers to executives from Shell and Chevron, bosses from energy service companies and airport construction firms, management training specialists and security advisers, they were all there, milling around a west London hotel in their smartest suits, seeing what business they might be able to do.

from Davos Notebook:

Hank Paulson is not Gavrilo Princip, Lehman is not the Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Was letting Lehman go down the biggest mistake of the crisis? Many, including George Soros in the Financial Times, have argued that letting Lehman go down sowed panic to markets, consumers and businesses.

Not so fast, says Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, in an interview in Davos:

"My position is this is a typical error of historical understanding in which a single event is blamed for much more than it can possibly have caused. You can say ‘Hank Paulson is to blame for my troubles' and if you can change one thing in the story it would have a happy ending.

It's like saying if only Princip had not shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 there wouldn't have been a First World War.

from James Saft:

Balance of power upended at Davos

So, back we go next week to Davos for the World Economic Forum 2009, titled this year "Shaping the post-crisis world."

Except the crisis ain't over yet and shaping the world while it is happening is proving to be about as easy as tying your shoes while riding a bicycle.

Let's dial back briefly to those more innocent days in 2008 and remember what was being discussed at Davos then.