x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Dubai launches $5 billion international bond programme

The time is right for the emirate as interest rates hit year low and risk concerns ease markedly.

Borrowers are also being helped by very low interest rates and weakening perceptions of risk in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Borrowers are also being helped by very low interest rates and weakening perceptions of risk in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

The Dubai Government is preparing to raise billions of dollars on international bond markets as interest rates hit their lowest levels in more than a year and perceptions of risk continue to ease.

Dubai has launched a US$5 billion (Dh18.36bn) bond programme as it gears up for a possible debt sale to increasingly receptive international investors.

That follows a widening window of opportunity for borrowers in the UAE, observers say. With bond sales in other parts of the region taking a hit in the wake of unrest in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, UAE debt is seen as increasingly attractive.

Borrowers are also being helped by very low interest rates and weakening perceptions of risk in Dubai. "Markets have tightened materially since the beginning of the political crisis in [parts of] the Middle East," said Ziad Shaaban, the director of fixed income at EFG-Hermes in Dubai.

"It's a very good window for [Dubai], and they will make use of such a window any time they can. It's definitely a good time for them to come out and issue some debt."

Dubai's credit default swap prices, which measure the cost of insuring debt against default, have recently fallen to 18-month lows, a further indication worry is easing over the emirate's ability to service its borrowings.

At yesterday's market close, it would cost an investor 3.3 per cent a year of his holdings in Dubai Government bonds to insure them for five years.

The reference six-month London interbank offered rate (Libor), meanwhile, has dipped by about 13 per cent since the end of March, reflecting improving conditions for prospective borrowers worldwide.

"The benchmark rates are very low, and credit spreads, particularly for the Dubai complex and the region in general, have tightened and have pretty much recovered from the widening they experienced with the political unrest," said Abdul Kadir Hussain, the chief executive of Mashreq Capital in Dubai.

"There isn't a lot of new debt coming out from this region and in terms of the political aspect, the UAE is seen as a bit of a safe haven," he said.

Total bond sales in the Middle East and North Africa amount to about $12.5bn so far this year, Mr Shaaban said. A little less than half of that amount was sold last month, demonstrating a renewed appetite for fund-raising at the beginning of the summer.

While the prospects for borrowers in the UAE are strong, questions linger about how long the good times will last amid a string of bad economic data from the US and continuing issues with sovereign debt in Europe.

In addition, any potential issuance would have to come soon because the UAE's credit markets are likely to take a breather in the coming months, said Mark Watts, the head of fixed income at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi.

"The window of opportunity to come out and take advantage of these tightened spreads … is open only for another four weeks," he said.

"Because of the [summer] heat of the region, people will be going on holiday. July is going to be a dead period, and in Ramadan people don't bring issuances to the market around that period.

"If you don't make that window, you'll have to wait until September," he said.

Dubai and its government-controlled companies are also expected to borrow billions of dollars more in the coming months, with about $12bn in additional debt repayments coming up this year, according to EFG-Hermes' estimates.

Dubai's potential bond issuance would be its first since revolutions toppled regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. Its last sale was in September, when it raised $1.25bn.

But, following recent bond sales by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority and Emirates Airline, most other companies were not in an ideal position to access credit markets, said one banker at a UAE investment bank who asked not to be named.

"Very few government-related entities are qualified to tap debt capital markets now at acceptable rates," he said.