x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Qatar could struggle to capitalise in Europe

Qatar's economy is growing at a rapid clip, and its government is one of the wealthiest in the world. So why are banks worried about a sudden liquidity crunch?

The Shard is the high point of the London skyline. Britain's capital city is dotted with projects that are backed by Qatari funding. Jason Alden / Bloomberg News
The Shard is the high point of the London skyline. Britain's capital city is dotted with projects that are backed by Qatari funding. Jason Alden / Bloomberg News

If Qatar needed to top up funding for its ambitious infrastructure building programme, it may need to dispose of some its non-core assets. But analysts say it might not be so easy to free up value in some of these investments.

Qatar Investment Authority and its subsidiary Qatar Holding swam against the tide in 2007 when they switched away from emerging markets and instead turned to high-profile investments in Europe to put the country's name on the map.

Qatar targeted stakes in the British supermarket chain Sainsbury's, the London Stock Exchange and Chelsea Barracks, once considered the most expensive residential property plot in the United Kingdom.

Qatar has also taken stakes in Harrods, the luxury London department store, as well as Songbird Estates, the owner of Canary Wharf, one of Europe's major financial hubs and home to some of the British capital's priciest commercial property.

Other investments are known to include Credit Suisse, the luxury goods maker LVMH, Paris Saint-Germain football club and the Italian fashion house Valentino.

With minimal disclosure of the fund's assets, it remains difficult for international investors to judge how easily the Qatari government could free up resources in the event of a sudden seizure on the international credit markets, said Nick Stadtmiller, the head of fixed income research at Emirates NBD.

"Whatever the quality of those investments are, they're not liquid investments. If global markets were to tighten up and liquidity were not available, they can't borrow against Harrods or a football club," he said.

Many of Qatar's investments are long-term strategic stakes with strong prospects. Qatar is the biggest shareholder in Sainsbury's, for example.

During much of its investment the supermarket chain has been a strong performer, although recently profits have stagnated.

Qatar is a big backer of financial services, having invested in Credit Suisse and Barclays. However, offloading many of Qatar's most high-profile investments quickly will not prove easy at a time when the European economy is being hit by a slowdown and Chinese economic growth is looking unsteady.

The London skyline is dotted with projects that are backed, one way or another, by Qatari funding.

Visible from all over London is The Shard, which is 95 per cent owned by the Qatari government.

The Shard cost £1.5 billion (Dh8.87bn) to build and will be worth £2.5bn when fully leased, Bloomberg News reported in July, citing Sellar Property Group, one of the tower's developers.

The Shard may be the tallest building in western Europe, but it is also the biggest source of empty office space in central London.

With the financial services sector shrinking worldwide, demand for office space is considered likely to fall. UBS and Credit Suisse were both reported this week to be planning billions of Swiss francs in cost savings.

But Qatar's investments in financial services has left it well supplied with savvy advisers, who had almost certainly encouraged a liquidity buffer, said Victoria Barbary, a senior researcher on sovereign investment funds at Italy's Bocconi University.

"I suspect that if Qatar needed to tap the Qatar Investment Authority for any reason they could find the capital," she said. "It's a lot bigger than people think."

A securitisation of some of its flashier assets - such as a bond backed by Harrods revenues - was also possible, she added.

This year, Qatar Holding has turned to other ventures, quietly building up a 11.6 per cent stake in Xstrata, the mining giant and investing in French urban regeneration.