Saudi Arabia’s stock market prepares for take-off


Saudi-Arabia-stock-exchangeIf Saudi Arabia’s intention to open up its stock market to foreign institutions has been well flagged in recent months, the only outstanding issues needing confirmation have been when and to what degree the doors would be opened up to them. With newly-published rules and a start date of June 15, both of those questions have now been answered.

While the Tadawul – looming large over the rest of the region, given its market cap north of $570m (making it bigger than Russia) – is one of the last major bourses to liberalise, the doors are not yet fully ajar as regulators continue to exercise a degree of caution.

A measure of this can be seen in the requirement that Qualified Foreign Investors must have assets under management of at least $5bn in order to be even considered in the first instance. And while the Kingdom’s Capital Market Authority has the discretion to lower this to $3bn AUM, the $5bn rule will remain in force for now – ostensibly to pre-empt the possibility of a sudden rush of foreign money flooding the market, in turn leading to instability.

Unsurprisingly, smaller niche players who have previously shown strong interest in investing in the Kingdom have cried foul – especially those investment houses geared towards emerging markets. They have been left disappointed; not least because the final rules are very similar to draft measures published by the CMA in 2014. The new rules mean that foreign investors will no longer be restricted to indirect investments through Exchange Traded Funds and swaps – both of which come with associated higher costs.

Other rules include a 5 per cent tax on dividend income paid by listed companies. Meanwhile, no single investor will be allowed to own more than 5 per cent of a company by stock market value, while overall foreign ownership of listed shares in a company will be set at a maximum of 49 per cent.

Likely to be less enforceable – at least over the longer term – is the rule that QFIs will only be allowed to comprise a maximum 10 per cent of the Tadawul by market value – especially in view of the fact that foreign participation in other emerging markets can often be double this.

Though criticism of the 10 per cent rule has come from a number of quarters, regulators have been quick to point out that long-standing indirect investment channels, such as ETFs, remain available and aren’t subject to such a limit. Therefore foreigners may still use these avenues to increase their ownership.

Despite budget strains caused by lower oil prices in recent months, the Kingdom is not opening up its market to foreigners because it necessarily needs the cash. Indeed, GCC citizens and resident foreigners can already buy stocks directly. However, the new rules are part of a long-term strategy to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from oil, promote improved corporate governance, create additional jobs and lessen the influence of retail investors who historically have taken a short term market view when it comes to trading – often leading to price volatility.

Self-evidently, oil and gas remains the elephant in the room, given that roughly 87 per cent of government revenues came from these sources in 2014.Yet this is not fully reflected on the Tadawul where not only large-cap petrochemical companies feature but also those in the retail as well as the banking and financial services sectors. Other prominent sectors represented include insurance, telecoms, construction and building materials as well as real estate. Indeed, major listed companies (by market cap) that are not energy related include the likes of National Commercial Bank, Saudi Telecom, Kingdom Holding, Al Rajhi Bank and Saudi Electricity among others.

Current best guesstimates from the investment funds industry suggest the liberalisation of the Saudi market could attract upwards of $50bn from foreign institutional investors over the next few years.

Tadawul-stock-marketThis in turn should help Saudi companies become stronger players in their respective markets, given the fresh sources of capital set to be made available.

Another benefit of market liberalisation is the likelihood it will improve domestic corporate governance practices since foreign shareholders will be taking a keen interest in how companies, in which they have invested, are being run.

In addition, investment will be attracted to the Kingdom if, as expected, Saudi Arabia is eventually re-classified as an emerging market by global stock index compiler MSCI. This is a long term prospect, however, as any re-classification – for logistical reasons – would be unlikely before 2017. Addressing a recent investment conference Adel Al-Ghamdi, CEO of the Tadawul, noted that Saudi Arabia’s debt market needed to become more efficient by allowing easier structuring of bonds that comply with Islam’s prohibition on interest.

Old habits die hard. It remains to be seen whether more companies (beyond the existing players) will be issuing sukuk or will continue taking out Shariah-compliant loans available at competitive lending rates from local banks.

Ironically, it is the Saudi banks themselves that have been issuing bonds and bonus shares over the last couple of years; ostensibly to bolster their capital reserves after strong lending to companies. Riyad Bank, for example, confirmed in early May plans to issue a SAR4bn bond to boost its capital base. The bond is set to a 10-year term with the option to be repaid after five years. Also rumoured to be coming to the market (at the time of writing) is Saudi British Bank, which had previously raised SAR1.5bn in December 2013 – its latest bond reportedly set to have a term of seven years, but with the option to redeem after five.

Developing the domestic sukuk market further will also, in theory, provide an alternative source of capital for companies in the private sector; many of whom were caught out during the financial crisis when banks curbed their lending and boosted margins as they sought to bolster their capital reserves. A number of companies seeking long-term project finance consequently saw this source of capital drying up, forcing them in some instances to reschedule or even abandon investment plans.

Against this backdrop, the establishment in January of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs could lead to an accelerated programme of state-owned companies being privatised.

2757842In an April note, ratings agency Moody’s said the government’s very low level of debt, at 1.6 per cent of GDP as of end-2014, gave it the needed flexibility to issue domestic debt to finance its deficits over the next one to two years. Yet, following a deficit of approximately 0.6 per cent of GDP in 2014, the agency forecasts the government’s budget deficit to increase to 12 per cent or more during 2015 – mainly the result of the steep fall in oil prices that occurred during the last six months.

While financing this deficit should be manageable over the short to medium term – because the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency has forex reserves equivalent to roughly 100 per cent of GDP as well as substantial domestic financial assets – the need to promote additional liquidity in domestic markets has arguably never been greater.

In a separate report: Saudi Arabian Insurance Market Update, the agency noted the Kingdom’s insurance market had premiums worth $8.1bn in 2014, the second largest in the GCC.

It was also the GCC’s second-fastest growing insurance market in 2014, with an eight-year Compound Annual Growth Rate of 20.3 per cent; insurance premiums growing by more than 20 per cent in 2014; helped by premium rate increases in the medical and motor sectors. Yet, Saudi Arabia’s insurance penetration levels (1.1 per cent) are still significantly below those of most advanced economies.

“Despite this significant growth, Saudi Arabia has the lowest insurance density in the GCC and one of the region’s lowest penetration levels,” according to Mohammed Ali Londe, analyst and author of the report. “This suggests that there is a high degree of untapped potential in the market,” he added.

In many ways the Kingdom’s insurance industry provides the subtext to a much bigger narrative of increasingly competitive markets having to satiate the growing needs of a young and prosperous population of middle class consumers. Liberalisation also provides companies with fresh sources of capital either in terms of returning for additional funding or looking to raise capital via the initial public offering route.

National Commercial Bank’s $6bn IPO last year, for example, which saw the bank offer 25 per cent of its shares at SAR45 per share (15 per cent earmarked for Saudi investors, 10 per cent for the Kingdom’s Public Pension Agency) and ended up being 23 times oversubscribed, confirmed strong domestic retail interest.

Yet with short-termist retail investors often accounting for 80 per cent of daily turnover on the Tadawul, the need for rebalancing, by lessening their influence has long been apparent. Allowing for the entry of foreign institutional investors will address this issue, although how quickly remains to be seen. Being reclassified by the MSCI as an emerging market – and by implication confirming the market’s depth and stability – will certainly help. But that too will take time.

This article by Martin Morris originally appeared in Gulf Business


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