Middle East Markets Retreat as Investors Steer Clear of Most-at-Risk Region

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(Bloomberg) –Middle Eastern markets can hardly be accused of complacency over the latest surge in regional tensions, even if global investors are taking a more relaxed view of events.

The region accounts for three of the world’s 10 worst-performing equity indexes since the U.S. drone attack that killed Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani last week, while the dollar-denominated bonds of Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Egypt and Oman are among the 10 biggest losers in emerging markets.

Though the declines may not be surprising for a part of the world routinely roiled by political spats and conflicts, the current selloff may contain a new element. More foreign money is invested in the region than ever before. According to EPFR Global data cited by ING Groep NV this month, the Middle East and North Africa accounted for about 13% of emerging-market funds at the end of last year, compared with less than 4% five years earlier.

“The investors to whom I speak, long-term trends notwithstanding, are steering clear of equity markets in the region at present,” said Julian Rimmer, a trader with Investec Bank Plc in London. “There is too much uncertainty. Without an all-out, widespread military conflict we may be at peak volatility now but that doesn’t mean volatility won’t remain elevated for an extended period of time.”

Most Middle East markets extended their declines on Wednesday and oil rallied after Iran attacked two U.S. bases in Iraq with more than a dozen missiles. Dubai’s DFM General Index fell the most, losing 1.2%. Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul slipped 0.9%, with oil giant Saudi Aramco dropping a fourth straight day.

Market Snapshot:

  • Saudi Arabia’s equities benchmark has lost more than 3% since Soleimani’s killing, the worst performer in the region
  • Egypt’s main stock index rebounded on Wednesday, paring declines since Jan. 2 to 2.9%; the North African nation’s been a favorite among global investors when it began a series of reforms backed by the International Monetary Fund in 2016
  • Turkey’s benchmark has dropped about 2%
  • In comparison, MSCI Inc.’s emerging-market stock index has declined about 1.5%, while a measure of developed-nation equities has fallen 0.7%
  • Bonds in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council have slipped 0.2%, while emerging-market sovereign debt has been steady, according to Bloomberg Barclays indexes
  • The cost of insuring Saudi Arabia’s debt against default rose Friday by the most since 2015, surpassing the jump in September that followed missile and drone attacks on the kingdom’s oil industry. The five-year credit-default swaps retreated on Tuesday from a one-month high. Saudi Arabia is both a regional rival to Iran and an ally of the U.S.
  • Forwards traders have been increasing speculative bets against currencies in the Gulf Arab region. Dollar-Saudi riyal forward contracts that expire in 12 months surged by 372% in the offshore market on Friday, the most since 2014. They were little changed at 40.5 points on Wednesday, after declining on Tuesday
  • MSCI’s measure of developing-nation currencies has lost 0.1% since Jan. 2
  • Lebanon’s bond due 2021 has dropped about 1.7 cents to an all-time low of 54.2 cents on the dollar
  • “Top risks would be Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon as they are where any proxy wars will be fought out,” said Timothy Ash, an emerging-market strategist at BlueBay Asset Management in London

Global investors are paying more attention to the region following record bond sales and the inclusion of Gulf Arab economies in JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s emerging-market bond indexes last year. Billions of dollars more will flow in when MSCI adds Kuwait to its main emerging-market stock benchmark in June, following Saudi Arabia’s inclusion last year.