By Martin Hutchinson
Dubai has plenty of qualities that catch an investor's eye.
- The emirate has the world's only (self-proclaimed) 7-star hotel.
- Dubai also is home to the biggest financial market in the Middle East, which is itself publicly quoted and trades at 25 times forecast 2008 earnings.
- It has been enjoying one of the greatest construction booms the world has ever seen.
- And Dubai is planning a huge tourist expansion, aiming to boost that sector to more than the 18% of the economy it already accounts for.
So, why aren't Dubai investments a screaming buy, where we should all be investing our money? After all, plenty of brokers think it's just that.
From a short-term perspective, Dubai investments haven't done too badly. The Dubai Financial Market General Index is down about 13% this year, far less than the much-hyped emerging markets of India and China, or even the United States.
But there's a possible catch.
Whereas 2006 and 2007 were good years for investors in India and superb ones for investors in China, they were lousy for investors in Dubai. The DFM General Index hit its all time high in November 2005, declined pretty steadily over the next two years, and is currently sitting about 40% below that high. Even at that depressed level, the DFM General Index is still trading at about 17 times projected earnings for this year and 3.3 times book value, so it's not cheap.
That immediately raises questions. While Dubai has little in the way of its own oil reserves, its economy rests fundamentally on its position as entrepôt for the immense oil-exporting region of the Middle East, and for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the oil-rich federation of which Dubai is a member. Oil prices were around $60 per barrel in November 2005 when the DFM General Index was at its peak; oil is now trading in the neighborhood of $130 per barrel, even after last week's big sell-off – so why is Dubai's stock market down 40%?
It's entirely possible that Dubai isn't as solid as some of its proponents believe.
Two years ago – before the real estate crash – it might have seemed impressive that Dubai, with 0.02% of the world's population, was employing more than 10% of the world's tower construction cranes; today we know better. Dubai's rate of inflation is around 20%, and it's on the upswing, while home mortgage interest rates sit below 7%. That means that the cost of making a home mortgage – in real terms – is negative 13%. The UAE government is considering allowing its currency, the dirham, to float upward against the dollar, but hasn't done so yet.
Dubai received more than 7 million tourists last year, with 1 million of those coming in from Great Britain (who presumably prefer the climate) – but the British government currently rates Dubai's terrorism threat at its highest level. It's not hard to imagine what a terrorist attack could do to Dubai's impressive tourist rates.
Dubai is also planning to spend $82 billion on aerospace projects to include the world's largest airport – but with a population of only 1.5 million, it will need a lot of foreign traffic to fill up such a behemoth.
The potential for that to come to pass is there, given the growing levels of investment that China and others are making in the Middle East, and because the Dubai project isn't solely focused on tourism: The airport and aerospace hub is viewed as an economic-development project. But success is far from guaranteed, and an economic downturn could make the objectives tough – if not impossible – to achieve. Indeed, should the ongoing global financial crisis eviscerate worldwide growth, Dubai's development strategy could be exposed as a bubble, not a boom.
To be sure, other small nations have engineered economic miracles. Consider, for example, the economic success of Singapore, which has a smaller land area but three times the population.
Like Dubai, Singapore has no core advantage, such as a wealth of natural resources. Nor does it have a bevy of natural tourist hot spots. And much like Dubai, Singapore's only advantage is one of geographic position. However, Singapore has an income per capita at purchasing power parity of $49,700 (eighth highest in the world) compared to the UAE's $37,300.
Singapore's growth has been built on two factors:
- The extremely high education level of its population (relative to income at first, in the 1960s, but in absolute terms now).
- And an obsessive focus on moving up the value chain in everything it does.
Dubai has neither advantage; it supplements its small local population with a huge underclass of immigrants (more than 80% of the population in the UAE as a whole), rather than upgrading the capabilities of its own people, and it relies on building artificial tourism in an area where (because of the unpleasant climate and relative lack of natural or historic attractions) it's possible that no natural flow of tourists would have otherwise occurred.
An economy built on construction, tourism, and a boundless flow of cash, without any special knowledge base, is one that could end up being derailed in the long run. And that long run could be more painful if it turns out that Dubai has been feeding a major construction bubble through deeply negative interest rates.
The other potential black cloud looming over the Dubai economy is that of oil prices, should $130 – $140 per barrel oil turn out to be a short-term speculative price spike.
With the Bush Administration pushing for offshore drilling and the world automobile industry devastated by consumer tastes that quickly shifted to small cars and trucks, increased supplies and decreased consumption could push oil prices down to a more reasonable level.
Assuming OPEC doesn't intercede and act to keep prices high, the right confluence of factors could potentially push oil prices back down under the Century Mark. And in a perfect world, with the right confluence of factors, oil could end up below $100 per barrel, or even as low as the $60-$80 range. And while that price level would still be well above the $10-$15 per barrel prevalent before 2002, it is far below oil's current levels.
The Middle East in general has predicated their future plans on the oil bonanza continuing in full flow for the indefinite future. Even though $60-80 oil would provide ample revenue for their citizens to enjoy an excellent living standard, their economies are not properly set up to adjust to such a lower revenue flow. If oil prices were to fall, the inevitable effect would be tighter money as interest rates return to normal levels, exacerbated by an acute cash shortage.
Dubai is looking to diversify itself away from the petro-gusher, which is one reason it is trying to position itself as a global boom intermediary, benefiting from tourism and establishing itself as a new residential destination for the world's uber-rich. It also aims to utilize its airport and aerospace ventures to fuel its real estate and global commerce aspirations.
But a key question remains: Is it still tied in so tightly to the Middle East "black gold" bonanza that it will suffer in kind should energy prices hit a deflationary downdraft?
The next few years will be telling. If its global growth aspirations get a needed lift, the tiny Gulf nation could become more than just a well-recognized name on a map; it could end up as a key stopping-off point for business executives traveling from one side of the world to the other, might one day even evolve into a commercial spaceport, and will stand as an example of a country that was able to engineer an economic makeover of massive proportions.
But should oil prices crater, Dubai's aerospace venture fail to attain take-off speed, and its vision as a tourism and residential mecca of the future turn out to be ill-conceived as I fear, the opposite extreme is possible: With a construction bubble more inflated than the 2006 Florida condo market and a monetary policy looser than the one being operated by U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, Dubai could shortly resemble a jungle of half-completed skyscrapers, with 10% occupancy rates and bankrupt landlords. Its landing would be painful, and, potentially, not long delayed. It's not an investment for the risk averse.
News and Related Story Links:
- Money Morning:
Three Ways to Profit From the Biggest Airport on Earth.
- Money Morning:
A View From the Burj: Dubai's Economy Fueled by High-Powered Government Investing.
United Arab Emirates.