x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The global crisis offers opportunity to grow

Deep and liquid capital markets can provide the funds needed to create jobs. The Middle East should look to Asia's response to its 1990s woes as a model for today.

It has been more than four years since the onset of the global financial crisis and yet many analysts are predicting a further slowdown in the global economy next year.

Concerns over the impending fiscal cliff in the United States, Europe's ability to navigate its debt crisis and a potential hard-landing for China's economy continue to weigh heavily on global investor confidence.

In this weak environment, two issues stand out as vital for sustainable economic growth, particularly in the Middle East: access to finance and sustainable job creation.

As banks look to rebuild their balance sheets, their appetite and ability to lend has been severely curtailed. This has resulted in a credit squeeze, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which are widely seen as the engines of economic growth.

Across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) only 8 per cent of bank lending is directed to SMEs and this percentage drops to just 2 per cent in the GCC.

This is despite the huge amount of work done by governments, especially in the GCC, to foster a benign environment for the growth of business and to diversify their economies.

Equally, although many financial institutions have set up specialised lending units and credit guarantee schemes, the fundamental issue remains in accessing finance.

A failure to access finance also negatively affects job creation. It is estimated that SMEs, being primarily labour intensive businesses, employ 75 per cent of the global workforce, so any reduction in the number, size or scale of SMEs will have a direct correlation to unemployment levels.

Tackling unemployment, particularly among youth, is one of the most pressing issues facing governments worldwide. The risk of a "lost generation" remains very real and this has economic, social and political ramifications.

It is possible, though, that capital markets -with the continual development of strong standards of corporate governance, transparency and financial disclosure - hold the key to solving the twin issues of access to finance and job creation, especially in the Mena region where bond markets remain relatively undeveloped. Many believe that capital markets can create a virtuous circle of sustainable economic growth.

Deeper and more liquid capital markets with regular bond issuances and benchmark sovereign yield curves not only facilitate capital market access for corporate borrowers, they also facilitate monetary policymaking, supporting the control of inflationary pressures.

Such capital markets also enable corporates to confidently access the bond and sukuk markets, diversifying their funding sources and attracting foreign direct investment, all of which supports local job creation.

The added benefit is that as sukuks and the bond markets increasingly satisfy the funding needs of institutions and corporates, banks target new business opportunities in the underserved SME segment. With conventional funding channels reopened to SMEs, they are freed to invest in their businesses, which equals jobs creation.

An important source of funding for these domestic bond markets could be government-linked pension funds, which may consider some reallocation away from equities.

More importantly, the development of mandatory-funded pension schemes for expatriate workers across the GCC has the potential to bring additional liquidity to the markets.

The importance of deep, liquid capital markets to sustainable economic growth has a precedent. Following the Asian financial crisis in 1997 - caused in part by systemic banking problems - Asian governments took deliberate steps to strengthen their bond markets.

Even sovereigns with a structural fiscal surplus, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, strongly expanded their sovereign issuance.

These actions bolstered Singapore's position and profile as a global financial centre by providing a "risk-free" benchmark and investment alternative.

The development of the fixed-income markets has subsequently led to more resilient and stable financial sectors across South-east Asia.

And as funding structures have become more diversified, the region has also become more efficient in channelling resources into productive investments, which drives private-sector jobs creation.

The twin challenges of access to finance and job creation remain the most fundamental impediments to economic growth.

The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s provided the opportunity for the region to deepen its capital markets and drive economic growth.

The current financial crisis provides the Middle East with an opportunity to do the same and build a sustainable recovery.

Stuart Anderson is the managing director and the regional head of the Middle East at Standard & Poor's