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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Will unlimited real estate loans kickstart the UAE property market?

Peter Cooper assesses how changes to property lending could affect the real estate sector

The market is facing other strong headwinds from rising US interest rates that may partially offset any increase in UAE real estate bank loans. Photo: Bloomberg
The market is facing other strong headwinds from rising US interest rates that may partially offset any increase in UAE real estate bank loans. Photo: Bloomberg

Earlier this month the Central Bank of the UAE removed a 20 per cent top limit on real estate lending as a percentage of bank deposits.

This is exactly the sort of regulatory action that is often later seen as the catalyst, or spark, for the recovery of a property market.

Central banks often call the shots in real estate markets. After all, it was the raising of mortgage deposits in December 2013 that brought the last Dubai mini-boom to an end, along with a doubling of transaction costs and a slump in the oil price.

Liquidity, or the flow of money, is the life blood of house prices. Anything that improves liquidity - and expanding lending limits above the previous cap does that - will benefit the sector.

However, the market is facing other strong headwinds that will at least partially offset any increase in UAE real estate bank loans.

The US Federal Reserve is currently committed to raising interest rates next month and forecasters expect two or three more small increase in 2019.

The UAE dirham is pegged to the dollar so interest rates move in unison. US fixed mortgage rates have jumped from a low of 3.6 to 5.2 per cent and local rates have followed.

That said, any more serious turbulence in global financial markets like what we saw in October could bring a sharp reversal of this monetary policy.

It is also just not fair to compare the US and UAE housing markets; they are in different cycles.

In the US, housing markets are just beginning to slow from a long bull market while the UAE has seen a 20 per cent fall in prices over the past five years. One market is just off the top, the other is far closer to the bottom, and that’s obviously the best time to buy.

However, what the UAE Central Bank does appear to be signalling is that it will now be supportive of real estate if global markets get any rougher.

That continues the more interventionist approach seen since late 2013 with action to prevent the market overheating.

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There has been no repeat of the huge boom of 2006-2008 since. This is because the Central Bank stopped house prices from going too high. Logically it will therefore now intervene to halt a bigger plunge in prices by keeping the liquidity spigot open and preventing a credit squeeze.

Those who have been sitting on the fence waiting for the right moment to buy local villas and apartments should perhaps consider this a loud ping in their inbox.

True in October oil prices fell by 20 per cent. But Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al Falih was quick to cut December supply by 500,000 barrels per day to boost prices back up again, claiming that the market reaction to US waivers for Iranian imports was overdone.

Indeed in the third quarter the region's oil states saw their cash flow improve by 26 per cent by comparison with the same period a year ago, thanks to a doubling of oil prices, cancelling planned bond issues.

That is something of a contrast to the weakening economic situation in China - where auto sales are now forecast as stagnate for the first time ever this year, and Europe is facing the black cloud of the Brexit next March.

In short, the business cycle is now bottoming out in the oil states, usually the best time to invest in real estate because prices will be at their lowest.

Yes, prices could still go a little lower, but the biggest falls are done.

This month’s removal of the cap on bank lending could be seen as an acknowledgment by the Central Bank that it was premature in acting to cool real estate down a few years ago.

For sure, local property prices in early 2014 never even reached the heights of the previous boom before the impact of the oil price slowdown accelerated the induced decline in the sector.

There's also nothing like the same oversupply situation in the market as the slump of 2009-11, nor anything like the dramatic slowdown in local business witnessed in the global financial crisis.

Regional crises have weighed on the UAE economy over the past couple of years. If these are resolved in the future, the UAE’s status as a regional trading hub will boost business and demand for real estate. More jobs will mean higher demand for housing. Perhaps not enough is being built.

Often the night is darkest before the dawn.

In 2009 Dubai property looked a disaster zone yet by 2013 a combination of Arab Spring safe haven demand and $100 oil had worked wonders.

We should see a similar turnaround very soon now, if the oil price rally continues.

Peter Cooper has been writing about Gulf finance for two decades