This post shares a few takeaways from my discussions last week in London with policymakers, investors and analysts on MENA and energy. Overall, sentiment was upbeat.There were two big elephants in the room: Saudi Arabia economic and foreign policy activism and the Iran nuclear deal. There remains significant uncertainty around the implementation around those issues, which offsets what is generally a more upbeat outlook in the face of $65-70/barrel crude.
One broader question pervaded my discussions. How much do higher oil prices help? Brent around $70 (or even in the mid 60s) gives significant more room for maneuver and likely will reinforce government driven growth across the GCC as it likely implies less fiscal austerity. It clearly buys time and room for maneuver and spread compression. However, we see only Kuwait and possibly the UAE having scope to resume saving, meaning that regional sovereign funds are likely to receive little new capital as more of the funds are used to support domestic spending. These trends will reinforce the ongoing acceleration of local growth from the 2016-17 pace, much private sector is likely to drag behind as the desire for quick growth brings government actors more into play.
Institutional investors remain constructive on GCC bonds on valuation grounds especially vs Asian alternates and even some of the more liquid CEEMEA names in the USD space. Oman and Egypt seemed to be top picks given that macro environment seemed to be better than feared, allowing some yield compression. $70 brent provides a lot of space for regional external balances and pegs, even if it won’t help fiscal balances much. Expect the GCC to continue to dominate global USD issuance among EM and Frontiers again in 2018, with Qatar joining peers. Going forward, concern may rise about Bahrain, and whether any regional support may not help bond investors.
Oil price and fundamentals: there’s a general consensus that the market is rebalancing and the OPEC + (Vienna agreement) has “worked” and the excess inventories in the U.S. will continue to be drawn down this year, but there is less consensus about the price forecast, which has a wide band around 55-80 this year. This reflects a difference of opinion about the growth in global demand (between 1.1 and 1.7mbd) and the persistence of the production freeze if prices remain high and incentive to cheat rises. On the demand side a key question is whether rising costs will dampen consumption growth (MENA oil producers are one place to watch, as is U.S. and Asian consumers) while shale production is a key place to watch on the supply side.
Global oil majors and many in GCC seem to be looking for $65 Brent this year, seeing some increase in shale output, some drawdown in inventories and the risk of a speculative correction. Others especially on the sellside seem to be sharply scaling up their forecasts, with Goldman Sachs pointing to the possibility of $85 by mid-year. In this price environment, expect oil companies revenues to move up but new investment is unlikely to outstrip plans.
Saudi Policy consternation: The Saudi anti-corruption detentions seem to be coming to an end, with reports that $100 billion in assets have been raised, likely a combination of stakes in companies and cash. This turns attention to the many key questions about the new anti-corruption regime, new institutions and the broader economic reform. Will Saudi authorities continue to hike public wages, even if that places a greater burden on the public sector? What will the new legal process be for corruption cases? Where will the new funds be managed? Will these funds be incorporated into the Public Investment Fund (PIF) which is already managing much domestic investment funds and waiting for new foreign issuance. Interest in the Aramco IPO seemed to have died down despite the improved oil valuation with many investors waiting to believe when they see terms. Meanwhile, the general view was that economic growth would accelerate and
The PIF itself is a matter of much interest, with many investors and regional watchers wondering how its asset allocation will evolve, how it will balance the foreign versus domestic investments and how it will balance competing mandates. It is rapidly staffing up and cares about a professional structure, but like many areas of Saudi policy, it is being asked to do a lot at once, with mixed goals.
Iran deal and economic policy: Coming only a few weeks after President Trump’s ultimatum on the nuclear deal and demand that European allies improve the deal, there was a lot of uncertainty on investment outlook. The view from Europe (especially France and Italy) is that the deal is working, and the burden high for changes, and the Iranians seem to be woking had to make sure that they are not blamed for the deal falling apart. This suggests major changes might be a hard task. Some European countries have already chosen to backstop local companies doing business in Iran, though oil companies concede that Iranian domestic policy uncertainty and term preferences pose as much concern as U.S. sanctions. Banks remain very concerned about sanctions and regulatory risk, which may explain the direct support of European firms. Meanwhile local macro issues including the vulnerabilities of the non-bank credit and the battle between government and IRGC suggest that Iran may struggle to benefit from some of the higher energy prices. The recent protests have triggered a less restrictive fiscal policy, with more subsidies remaining in place, and greater domestic leverage from the government.
Qatar: The general view is that the blockade is here to stay for some time and I've written extensively about Qatari resilience to the blockade due to its deployment of past savings. The economy has bounced back, the continued energy trade has provided solace to investors, and support from the U.S. and EU has limited the approach to secondary sanctions by the Saudis/Emiratis. Indeed, the new supply chains with Iran and Turkey look likely to stay. The recent U.S.-Qatar meeting likely increases Qatari leverage. Still, there are losers at home and the public sector is driving economic activity and absorbing more of the loans. These trends are likely to continue, as local rates remain high. The broader costs to GCC coordination and institutional strength are significant. Regional competition is likely to outstrip coordination resulting in lower domestic liquidity.
Finally, natural gas: If anything there was an even wider divide on natural gas fundamentals and price, with energy market representatives differing on whether there is an LNG supply glut, whether new entrants are taking advantage of cheap supplies sufficiently, and whether new supplies will offset. Policy mandates from China and other growing demand suggest that supply may be absorbed, and the market is gradually becoming less regional. I did field a lot of questions about U.S. energy policy and in particular support/demand for coal, which had some gas producers concerned. The pressure on higher cost natural gas producers is likely to remain.
Saudi Arabia released its 2018 budget with great fanfare today, including a meaningful increase in spending directly and via off-balance sheet funds such the public investment fund (PIF). With the oil sector no longer a drag and the non-oil sector benefiting from government pump-priming, economic growth should accelerate, from near-recessionary levels, part of a broader trend among oil producing nations. Still, private sector contribution is likely to lag as credit demand struggles, government funds dominate and questions remain about the rules of the game after the anti-corruption crackdown. Changes to energy policy are unlikely.
The budget included the largest planned spending (figure 1) of any budget, 978 billion riyal ($260 billion) and an additional 150 billion riyal in spending from various development funds. It comes close to the actual spending peaks of the early 2010s boom years. Given the spending increase in Q4, and a tendency to overspend budgets, actual spending in 2018 may again outstretch plans and in the longer 5 year plan. Adding in the spending from the PIF, there's likely to top that. This will reinforce the bounceback in growth after several years of moderate recession and austerity. It may be less effective in generating private sector activity, which is likely to lag consumption and government investment.
Figure 1: Actual and Government Spending (USD billion)
Source: Saudi Arabian Ministry of finance, Author's Calculations
The more expansive stance is not unique to Saudi Arabia. Most of its GCC and energy producing peers will also have more expansive or at least less austere budgets in 2018, helped by stronger oil and gas prices and still relatively easy global credit conditions that make it easier to issue debt. In Nigeria and Russia as well as Bahrain and Oman, less austerity is likely rather than stimulus. Still these decisions reinforce several trends for 2018 including a belated recovery for many commodity producing nations (catching up to the broader expansion seen in 2017), a bottoming out/improvement in EM investment and some pickup in inflation. All of these generally support EM and local equity over bonds.
I wrote earlier about some elements of the consensus macro view and some risks to those views (and my own). A key part of tracking consensus (and identifying out of the consensus views), is keeping track of the questions investors and others are asking each other. I'll plan to gather some of these on an ongoing basis through the year to track the evolution of concerns and identify what consensus might be missing.
Key dilemmas remain mostly focused on policy choices and whether any policies might upend the macro resilience and market performance. Could this resilience fade? What would be the trigger? As typical queries are most prevalent on U.S. and Chinese policy, geostrategic issues, especially in the Middle East and North East Asia.
Global growth: is this the best we can get? What does that mean for asset returns? Will this pace of global growth be sufficient to create enough jobs in populous EM/Frontier countries o will it exacerbate political stresses and reinforce price pressures?
Impact of US fiscal policy: questions include the impact of the policies on U.S. and global demand, including the relative performance across sectors, across regions (especially in areas like New York, New Jersey and California) most vulnerable to the non-deductability of state tax, the impact on external balance and U.S. capital account? When would we worry about US debt finance ability?
Monetary policy transition (in terms of leaders and policy stance): Will the Fed/others overtighten to compensate? What credits are most vulnerable? Will the new board members shift policy? Many countries want to lag the Fed and would appreciate the weaker currency that may result, will they be able to do or will limitations of macro prudential measures call for a different trend?
Trade trends: Will any of the many trade agreements set in motion changes in supply chains? Are countries like Brazil finally opening up? Will measures increase the costs of compliance with different regulations (digital trade, localization , cybersecurity). Other policies (fiscal and monetary) are likely to have more effect but could the questions on the rules defer/front-load investment? Is there a new round of investment protection coming?
Valuation: Are US equities really expensive or are there drivers/buyback trends that justify valuations ? What about knock-on effects? is the credit downgrade cycle over in commodity producers?
China's policy space: Chinese authorities have plenty of tools to use but will doing so cap growth and undermine asset performance? Will Chinese corporate, government and quasi government bonds find buyers at a reasonable price? What will be the drivers of growth beyond 2018? Will Chinese export growth further undermine transpacific trade?
Europe risks? is Brexit irrelevant aside from the UK? Are the European banking systems and sovereigns solid enough? Has there been enough deleveraging? How concerning are signs of overheating in Eastern/Central Europe? Is the convergence story back on? Will Europe shift over to more domestic demand?
What’s going on in Saudi Arabia/the Middle East? Lots of questions about the Aramco IPO, the divergence between economic reforms and political approach. What is the strategy from the Saudi/Abu Dhabi nexus? What is the U.S. strategy in the region? Will the market absorb the planned bond and equity issuance (the latter is likely to increase significantly in 2018)? Will any pegs break in the next two years (watch Oman). Is the GCC completely irrelevant as a body? Will regional SWFs continue to turn inward? What are the new investment rules in the wake of the Saudi anti-corruption measures? Will the Qatar blockade just fade away as the country adjusts (and recent data suggests its a vey slow bleed) and other countries continue to trade with the country (see UK and French economic and military coordination).
Rachel's musings on macroeconomic issues, policy and more.