x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Markets lift but Gulf investors risk-averse

An anticipated bounce in regional investor confidence in the global stock market has failed to materialise

Investors from the Arabian Gulf remain wary of plunging back into western markets in spite of recent stock market rallies, several bankers say.

The Nasdaq Composite index is in a bull market - defined as a 20 per cent increase during a given period - and the S&P 500 index is within 50 points of joining it.

The Stoxx 600 index of European equities, battered during last year's euro-zone turmoil, has risen during all but five weeks since the start of June.

But from middle-class savers to ultra-high net worth Saudi investors, the Gulf seems reluctant to put risk back on the table.

An anticipated bounce in regional investor confidence in the global stock market has not materialised, according to a study from Invesco released last week.

"A fall in risk appetite and the search for income is driving investment behaviour across all retail investor segments in the Gulf Cooperation Council," the company said.

"2012 has not been the inflection point where appetite for risk increased, as was expected in 2011 due to the prolonged Arab Spring."

Many savers were increasing their exposures to bonds - typically a sign of caution - instead of stocking up on riskier equities, the study said.

The strong performance of "defensive" equities in industries such as consumer staples and power generation since the global financial crisis is likely to have reflected a structural change in investor thinking, analysts from Goldman Sachs wrote in a research report also published last week.

"It may reflect in part the scar tissue of the crisis and in particular the desire of investors to avoid renewed risk of economic disaster or continued sluggish growth," the report said.

"A good measure of their outperformance may stem from defensive stocks being the most 'bond-like' of equities … they may be unusually strong because [US Federal Reserve Bank] policy is compressing bond yields and pushing investors further out along the risk asset spectrum."

Actions by central banks last month, including pledges of almost unlimited financial support by the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Fed, had decisively changed the face of the capital markets, said Ulrich Kater, the chief economist at DekaBank, the central asset manager for Germany's network of regional savings banks, the Sparkassen-Finanzgruppe.

"Now the European Central Bank is doing what the other central banks have been doing for quite a while to fill the fiscal gap," he said. "But nobody knows what the collateral damage will be."

DekaBank's biggest concern was that Spain and Italy might abandon their austerity measures, rather than runaway inflation, Mr Kater added.

Even among investors with large sums of capital to spend, moves into risky assets were also rare.

Relatively few Gulf investors were looking at recent ECB moves as an opportunity to invest in distressed assets in the eurozone, said Gabriel Aractingi, the managing director and regional head of private wealth management for Morgan Stanley.

"We have not witnessed signs of regional investors bottom-fishing in Europe," he said. Gulf investors "are still uneasy in saying there's deep value here or there".

Risk may be growing in other ways. Private bankers and asset managers have said that Gulf investors are increasingly comfortable with higher levels of leverage in an effort to boost their returns to the rates witnessed pre-crisis. By taking on debt to buy so-called "safe assets", currently yielding very little as a result of ECB and Fed stimulus measures, they can make these investments more rewarding - and also more risky.



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