If the financial community was stunned and shocked by the events that unfolded in Dubai during the last quarter of 2009, clearly the private individual was equally, if not more, confused by the troubles surrounding Dubai World's billions in debt. However, as I write this, most of the sting has subsided; the bonds in question have been paid, a debt restructuring is under way and support from Abu Dhabi, both announced and implied, remains in place. The main concern now is understanding where there the problem lies. I believe that this is a matter of time, analysis and perception.
So where should the private investor find himself positioned for the year ahead? Some analysts would suggest keeping away from property is a good idea, though I would examine that a little more closely. Emaar Properties, Aldar Properties and Surouh are all good names with sound backing, and seem to have the worst of the negative sentiment behind them. Yes, property may not outperform other financial assets, but buying into the shares of these companies could be a small play on the recovery, selective as it may be, in the property side of the economy. Banks have also been in the limelight, and a recent report from EFG Hermes is quite enlightening on the subject. I do believe that financial institutions were not sufficiently prudent in their lending practices for the past several years, but the truth of the matter is that we do not have a banking crisis on our hands in the UAE.
The Central Bank's support for the banking system has been very welcomed, and it was indeed timely. However, analysts, especially rating agencies, have been hard on the banks. I believe that there are some good stories to unfold in the sector, and feel that owning banks stocks during the next 12 to 18 months is not a bad idea. Yes, the fourth-quarter results will be especially hard on some banks on account of their Saudi and Dubai World exposure, but these institutions are well provisioned in both cases, and while prudence may effect Q4 earning, I am bullish on UAE banks for the next year, at least. Pay attention to NBAD, EmiratesNBD and Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank.
ADCB may not be the darling of the analysts, but its management team ensures it's a good long-term play. I would also pay attention to Union National Bank, which has carved out its own medium-market niche and could well be a good long-term purchase. The services sector is another one I am looking at, and seeking companies with good cash flows and broad consumer demand is a wise move. I do include the telecom companies in this sector.
For the more internationally inclined clients, the bet will be the pace of the global recovery. There is evidence that the detrimental effects of the past two years are wearing off, and I feel that it would be wise to keep to the household names in terms of global stocks while reassessing your portfolio - perhaps Walmart and Procter & Gamble, to name two well-known companies. I would also be a bit brave and seek out some banking stocks in the US and Europe, and while I am hesitant to list specific names, the large financial institutions that survived the recession are stronger than they were two years ago.
On a closing note, those of us who have been here for years know that the financial system and the economy is well supported by the Government, and it is this backing that we must consider at all times. While the current crisis has brought home some truths, it has also shown that there is a resolve to overcome them and, more importantly, to implement a financial regime that is robust and does not let such things as Dubai World happen again.
Anwer Sher, head of Union National Bank for 10 years until 1999, lives in Dubai and writes for Newsweek and The Washington Post.