Is the U.S. headed for a recession?

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This posts features two video clips on the topic of a looming U.S. recession. (Also see John Mauldin’s latest article, “The Recesion of 2011?” and David Rosenberg’s “12 Bullet Points Confirming the Double Dip is Here“)

Clip 1:

Kelly Evans of The Wall Street Journal and Joseph LaVorgna of Deutsche Bank assess whether the US is really heading for another recession. “We are still dealing with many of the same problems as in 2008,” says Evans.

Source: CNBC, August 20, 2011.

Clip 2:

Bruce Kasman, chief economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York, discusses the outlook for the U.S. economy and Federal Reserve policy.

Source: Bloomberg, August 19, 2011.

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Dubai – floating on an island of debt

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This post is a guest contribution by Dian Chu*, market analyst, trader and author of the Economic Forecasts and Opinions blog.

Stock markets around the world cracked on Friday with the Dow Jones industrial average down more than 150 points (Fig. 1), and commodities plunging as Dubai debt woes unnerved investors, and sent tremors of uncertainty throughout all markets.

The crisis flared after Dubai, a part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) federation, asked to delay interest payment for six months on $60 billion of debt issued by the state-run conglomerate Dubai World and its main property unit Nakheel.

Concerns that a government-backed investment company risked default ripped through world markets. Investors read it as a sign of yet another sovereign implosion after Iceland and Ireland, and recoiled from risk and piled into dollars.

dubai1

Las Vegas on Steroids

Dubai World has served as Dubai’s main driver of growth, operating ports, transportation groups, spearheading real-estate & infrastructure projects both at home and abroad. Its real-estate subsidiary Nakheel built Dubai’s iconic palm-tree-shaped island, packed with luxury villas and hotels, many still under construction. Real estate and construction accounts for about 23% of Dubai’s GDP.

dubai2

With little oil, Dubai financed much of this rapid real estate development with debt. After incurring its estimated $80-$90 billion of debt in a four-year construction boom to transform its economy into a regional financial and tourism hub, Dubai suffered the world’s steepest property slump in the first global recession since World War II.

Deutsche Bank estimates that Dubai’s property prices, both commercial and residential, have halved since August last year, and could fall a further 15-20% this year.

U.S. Banks Less Exposed

Most analysts believe U.S. banks are probably less exposed than European rivals to a potential debt default by Dubai World, but a lack of transparency and the interconnection of the modern financial system make it difficult to know which institutions are ultimately exposed.

Dubai World’s largest creditors are reportedly domestic banks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. MarketWatch noted data from the Bank for International Settlements which put cross-border banking exposure for the UAE as a whole at $123 billion at the end of June. Of that total, European banks hold 72%, with the United States and Japan only holding 9% and 7% of the exposure, respectively. The United Kingdom is by far the biggest creditor with a share of 41%.

Reminder of Other Risks

On a global scale, Dubai World’s debt problem seems relatively minor, but it illustrates the impact from one tiny country in an increasingly interconnected world. The Dubai news also cast doubt over the strength of the U.S. economic recovery, and the prospects for a bottoming of property prices.

Commercial Real Estate

dubai3

As pointed out in my previous article that the commercial real estate sector posed a much greater threat than the over-hyped “mother of all carry trades.”  The Dubai debt crisis further reinforces this viewpoint.

The potential for contagion from Dubai’s debt woes could further unhinge an already fragile U.S. commercial real estate sector, whose values have already fallen 42.9% from their 2007 peak, close to the lowest since 2002, according to Moody’s. (Fig. 2) The latest Moody’s projection is for prices to bottom at 45-55% below their peak, but could drop as mush as 65% from their peak in a “stress case”.

As commercial property values fall, debt defaults rise. The $3.4 trillion outstanding in debt backed by commercial real estate poses a real threat to the recovery. Trepp LLC reported that last month, delinquencies on U.S. commercial real estate loans that were packaged into commercial mortgage-backed securities reached 4.8%, more than six times the year earlier level. Hotel loans, at 8.7% distressed, have begun falling into delinquency faster than any other kind of commercial real estate debt.

Write-downs and losses at banks around the world have risen to more than $1.7 trillion since 2007 as the credit crisis undermined the value of assets owned by financial institutions, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Any further deleveraging and the resulting credit tightening from commercial real estate would impede the financial sector and probably derail the U.S. economy sending it into another recession.

Housing Market Mortgage Crisis

So far, the appearance of recovery in the housing sector is being driven primarily by reduced prices combined with federal programs to lower mortgage rates with the goal of bringing more buyers into the market.

dubai4

Based on a study released by Zillow.com, the foreclosure crisis has moved beyond subprime mortgages and into the prime mortgage market. (Fig. 3) While subprime borrowers are still a factor in the current foreclosure epidemic, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the weak labor market is the driving force behind the mortgage crisis we face today.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, one in seven U.S. home loans was past due or in foreclosure as of Sept. 30, putting that quarterly delinquency measure at its highest level since the report’s inception, 1972, and up from one in ten at the beginning of the year.

The continued surge in delinquencies suggests that a recovery in the housing market could be hindered by the weak job market as well as by further fallout from the easy money and loose lending practices of the past. The foreclosures and delinquencies are expected to keep rising well into 2010, not leveling off until the unemployment rate starts to moderate.

In a study by First American CoreLogic found that one in four of all U.S. mortgage-borrowers owe more than the value of their properties in the 3rd quarter. And many experts didn’t expect U.S. home prices to hit bottom until early 2011, perhaps falling another 5-10%, as more foreclosures get pushed onto the market.

Negative equity is another outstanding risk hanging over the mortgage market.

Dubai Is No Lehman

The circumstances behind Dubai’s moves are murky, making it hard to gauge the exact risk to the pertaining bonds and Dubai’s own general creditworthiness. UBS cautioned that Dubai’s overall debt “might be higher than the generally assumed $80 billion to $90 billion, due to potential off-balance sheet liabilities. These could include unlimited and unquantifiable amount of credit default swaps (CDS) and other derivatives against the underlying assets, and once unraveled, could potentially erupt into a subprime-like crisis.

The current expectation; however, is that there’s a good chance that Dubai’s problems will probably prove a local issue. Most likely, Dubai, or its neighboring emirate, Abu Dhabi, won’t risk tarnishing their images and reputation further, and will come up with a reasonable resolution.

Even if Dubai goes into sovereign default, the amount is probably not enough on its own to threaten the financial system since any actual losses would be a fraction of the total. So, the problems in Dubai are unlikely to be as serious as last year’s Lehman Brothers collapse, nor is it a reflection on the ability of emerging markets to lead a global economic recovery.

Rational Expectations?

But Dubai could well spur a broader crisis of investor confidence in overly leveraged economies as market confidence world-wide is still fragile from the severity of the financial crisis.  The debts of many emerging markets have risen even further as the countries governments have fought the ravages of the global recession by issuing more stimulus debt to fill the gap voided by private investment.

The spread of credit-default swaps on developing-nation’s bonds jumped 14 basis points after the Dubai news broke, the most in a month, to 3.24 percentage points, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI+ Index. There is also a clear sign of potential contagion effects of global risk aversion on basically all risky assets, with the dollar and yen being the prime beneficiaries.

Rational expectations or not, for now, the Dubai crisis is simply a reminder that the severe global recession has relegated much debt to near junk status, and there still remains a high degree of uncertainty as to the percentage recoverable on all outstanding debt which is going to be coming due over the next 5 years.

Despite some seminal signs of green shoots in the news headlines during this 9 month liquidity driven rally in many asset classes around the globe, we should be reminded that all that glitters is not gold, and that the global economic recovery is still on shaky ground.

*Dian Chu, Market analyst, trader and financial writer for Seeking Alpha, Zero Hedge, Daily Marksts, iStockAnalyst & StraightStocks. My articles also appear in Reuters, USA Today and BusinessWeek, etc. Professional credentials include M.B.A., C.P.M. and Chartered Economist with extensive professional experience in market segment forecasting and strategies. Previous employers include Enron, Time Warner & Clear Channel. I’m currently working in the U.S. for the energy sector.

Source: Dian Chu, Economic Forecasts & Opinions, November 28, 2009.

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Max Keiser: “Tsunami alert” – Dubai debt crisis awakes storm

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Fresh fears about the size of Dubai’s debt have sent shock waves through international markets, with major stocks and oil prices falling sharply. Dubai World, the country’s largest conglomerate, wants to suspend payment on its sixty billion dollar debts until next May at the earliest. Interviewed by Russia Today, Max Keiser says the world is entering Phase Two of the global economic crisis.

Source: Russia Today (via YouTube), November 27, 2009.

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Dubai’s latest mega-project – a massive default?

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This post is a guest contribution by James Pressler* of The Northern Trust Company.

Over the past few years, Dubai has built a reputation not just locally but worldwide. As the fastest growing of the seven emirates making up the United Arab Emirates, it has become known for its astonishing creations – the largest manmade islands (three at latest count), one of the world’s largest ports, and the Burj Dubai – the tallest manmade structure in the world. Unfortunately, its latest creation is not receiving the same kind of oohs and ahhs. The announcement on Wednesday requesting a six-month payment freeze on the $59 billion in debt issued by Dubai World, a state-run conglomerate behind all this grand development, made markets shudder at another prospect – the largest sovereign default since Argentina in 2001.

While technically this week’s announcement does not yet constitute a formal default, international markets are treating it like one. Credit default spreads have broadened to what one analyst called “Icelandic” levels, investors have cut back positions and headed for the safety of the US$(?), and everyone is reconsidering just how safe some safe bets are. If a shamelessly-wealthy Gulf country could potentially default, what about countries with rising debts, huge deficits and shaky recoveries?

The complexities of the UAE’s governmental structure make the situation difficult to grasp at first glance, but the problem can be captured by a few basic points. First, Dubai is the second-largest emirate in the UAE next to Abu Dhabi, but Abu Dhabi is also the power of the national government and has been challenged by Dubai’s meteoric rise. Next, the UAE has a sovereign wealth fund estimated at one half-trillion dollars in case of emergency, so money is clearly available at the national level to bail out Dubai if that route is chosen. Lastly, the national government wants to emerge from this situation with international markets assured that a state-run entity has the backing of the government and will be subsequently subject to reform and accountability. Taken together, these points plus an appreciation of the politicial undercurrents suggest a scenario that avoids outright default.

In our base case, Abu Dhabi offers support from a national level so Dubai World can meet its financial obligations and implement some debt restructuring, all in exchange for ownership of significant Dubai-owned assets – Emirates airlines has been suggested in recent reports. In addition, Abu Dhabi forces Dubai World to restructure its business model from the dysfunctional “build it and they will come” ideal. These conditions would satisfy Abu Dhabi’s emirate-level interest in retaining dominance while also securing the national interest of retaining some international market confidence, all while avoiding a formal default. We will be monitoring events for key markers suggesting this scenario is playing out – replacement of Dubai World board members by more technocratic people favored by Abu Dhabi, the transfer of Dubai’s assets, and a general humbling of the indebted emirate in a way that places Abu Dhabi firmly in charge.

However, it would be irresponsible to not also mention what worries us looking forward. Aside from the off-chance that Dubai and Abu Dhabi are unable to converge on a cohesive recovery, what are the chances that Dubai World is just the first of more possible defaults to come? Since the UAE does not release public debt figures and estimates are sketchy at best, there is a chance that another public company could announce an excessive financial burden and a need for bailing out. This applies not just for the UAE but for any of the fast-developing Gulf countries experiencing an asset bubble collapse. With widening credit default spreads throughout the region and even into emerging Asia, any entity dependent on the recent flood of cheap money to roll over its debts could easily find itself out of options. Few would be as singularly vulnerable as Dubai World, but a significant default could set forth a vicious cycle of contraction and collapse that could take a number of victims.

The first sign of things to come could be as early as the first week in December, when Gulf markets re-open from the Eid al-Adha holiday (Dubai World announcing its debt postponement plans just before Eid celebrations was in all likelihood not a coincidence). This will mark the first chance for officials to state positions and make confidence-building claims, with the further interest of calming international markets. Between that time and the December 14 due date for Dubai World’s next debt payment, we expect to see a concrete plan laid out for bailing out the conglomerate and some pressure taken off the credit markets. However, if no settlement can be reached, it would not surprise us if another major entity started talking about restructuring or a debt freeze before year-end – and not necessarily a company in the UAE.

* James Pressler is an associate international economist at The Northern Trust Company, Chicago.

Source: Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, November 27, 2009.

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