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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Bargain hunters venture out after autumn’s market carnage 

Being too pessimistic when prices are low can be an expensive error, says Peter Cooper

Almost no asset class has been unaffected by the season's market chaos. Photo: AP
Almost no asset class has been unaffected by the season's market chaos. Photo: AP

After two months of pain across global financial markets - with almost no asset class left untouched - it is probably time to sift through the wreckage and see if the next group of winners is going cheap.

Of course, the risk is that we are now in a long-term bear market with a normalisation of interest rates bringing about a lengthy period of stagnant to falling economic growth and declining asset values.

But let’s not forget that President Donald Trump will want to get re-elected in a couple of years, and that China’s President Xi is also an astute businessman as much as a powerful politician with a job-for-life.

Interest rates are not about to shoot through the roof and while trade tariffs make for big headlines, they still have a marginal impact on overall trade flows.

Consider, for example, how Chinese trade with the US has reached new highs this year despite new tariffs and the threat of more.

Even in the global financial crisis of 2008-09 the autumnal US equity shock eventually hit rock bottom the following March, and hardly looked back for the next decade.

Being too pessimistic when prices are low can be an expensive error. That’s when the best bargains occur.

For example, Dubai billionaire Khalaf Al Habtoor adeptly snapped up what is now the Ritz-Carlton in Budapest during a property crash for an estimated $80 million in 2012, a bargain indeed.

Warren Buffett is always the loadstar for US markets. He’s been buying up US bank stocks over the past year and increased his purchases during the market downswing this autumn.

Forty per cent of his $200bn portfolio is now held in seven of the top 10 US banks: Wells Fargo, US Bancorp, Goldman Sachs, Bank of New York Mellon, PNC Financial, JPMorgan and Bank of America.

He makes no comment on why. But analysts note that bank stocks are less risky due to regulatory changes after the financial crisis and will benefit from rising interest rates.

They also sell on an average forward price-to-earnings ratio of 10 compared with the market average of around 16, so arguably they are a rare bargain in a still highly priced US stock exchange.

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Other analysts have been recommending the fallen tech stars of FAANG fame (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google), although the general consensus is that at least the first three still look expensive.

Sitting in the UAE looking out to sea in the storm last week I could not help but think nature was a bit of a parody on local markets.

It all appeared pretty violent for a time with lightening flashing and the rain pouring down. But really what was the chance of the sun failing to shine the next day?

Sure the oil price took a 30 per cent thrashing in the autumn sell-off. Was this anything more than a dip after the tripling of the oil price from the lows of four years ago?

Did this actually undo the huge bonus this has meant for the Gulf oil states this year?

Well, it certainly failed to stop the total value of Dubai real estate transactions surging 56 per cent year-on-year in the third quarter to Dh15.7bn, with residential property driving the increase.

Price rises are elusive. But a higher sales volume is the usual frontrunner for higher prices.

Then there was the announcement on long-term visas for high net worth investors in UAE property, another shot in the arm for real estate, this time in the Dh5m upwards bracket that has been struggling since the mortgage cap in December 2013.

Last week, I argued that the four-year UAE real estate downcycle was close to or actually at the bottom. Was this the turning point?

Look too at Emaar Properties selling five hotels to finance new development, or Canadian giant Brookfield’s talks with Dubai’s Meraas about buying a stake in this developer.

UAE equities have also been trading at multi-year lows, another anomaly if oil prices rebound.

Even the most pessimistic of asset price forecasters tip certain emerging market equities alongside cash as the best thing to own for 2019. Try Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Peru, Hungary or Poland.

Tumbling London house prices and the pound sterling might also tempt you.

A two-bedroom, two-bath, sub penthouse in Chelsea caught my eye this week; the price slashed from £1.38m (Dh6.46) to £1m.

‘Motivated sellers’ are the poor guys to watch out for. They have usually over borrowed at the top of the market and are now forced into a liquidation situation at precisely the worst time.

Finally, note that gold strongly outperformed stocks in the autumn asset sell-off, and that could be a flag for higher prices next year. Bitcoin, on the other hand, proved to be the ‘rat poison’ that Warren Buffett derided earlier in the year and plunged to new lows.

Peter Cooper has been writing about Gulf finance for 20 years