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Averting default only delays our future debt

The collapse of Lehman Brothers was supposed to herald an era of de-leveraging. But what we got in the Gulf was re-leveraging, writes Sean Cronin.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers three years ago was supposed to herald a great new era of de-leveraging.

But what we got in the Gulf was re-leveraging.

From Dubai World to The Investment Dar, billions of dollars in corporate debt was reshuffled, repackaged and regurgitated. It didn't go away.

Such was the relief of the markets that costly defaults or bankruptcies had been averted that scant attention was paid to the future revenues that would pay for the future debt repayments - beyond often vague references to "asset sales".

The problem in this region is that "assets" often mean property or off-plan property, better known as sand. Nobody's buying it just now - not even the builders.

Writ large, the same processes have been in play at the government level in Europe. For sand, read Greek bonds.

Kuwait's Global Investment House this month said it wanted to renegotiate a US$1.7 billion (Dh6.25bn) debt restructuring, just two years after striking a deal with banks. Global could be the first of many Gulf corporate borrowers to have to sit down with creditors sooner than expected.

In the two years following Lehman, stimulus kept us hopped up and happy.

"Phew", we said. "Good thing we sorted out the old biggest financial crisis in 80 years so quickly." The Great Depression lasted a decade and took a world war to end. Our elation looks increasingly premature.

When bills need to be paid, pride has to be swallowed. Corporate borrowers in this region who in the boom years bit off more than they can now chew may soon have to swallow hard - just like their sovereign counterparts in Europe and the US are about to.

scronin@thenational.ae

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