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Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Middle East's rising risk

As the saber rattling continues financial ratings come under pressure
Commentary - Executive magazine

BAE, proudly displaying their Eurofighter Typhoon jet at the Dubai  Airshow last November were heavily involved in a corruption scandal

Getting labeled as a high risk country for firms to operate in, or receiving a low financial rating by an agency, is like a movie getting slapped with a XXX rating instead of the General Release investors had hoped for — meaning the mainstream conservatives are going to stay well away. Recently, ratings agency Moody`s downgraded seven state-linked firms in Abu Dhabi by a notch or more due to “no explicit formal” government guarantee to support the companies, and is considering downgrading four United Arab Emirates banks.

This comes as predominantly Western financial analysts are mulling not only higher risk ratings for Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries, but the region at large. The recent situation in Yemen, ongoing insurgency in Iraq and Israel’s sabre-ratting on Lebanon’s border are all causes for concern, as is as the potential for widespread conflict if the situation between Iran and the United States/Israel deteriorates into actual war.

On top of this, US regulatory watchdog, the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen), is widening its offensive on the global financial system, from the now well-established anti-money laundering and counter terrorist financing regulations all banks operating with the US have to comply with, to a heightened focus on corruption – the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). This onslaught by Washington and US-based ratings agencies is making life hard for Middle Eastern financial institutions and foreign firms that work in the region, and in particular for raising capital in an already tight lending environment. But while the UAE is being a touch sensitive about the downgrades — after all, British and American banks received lower ratings following the financial crisis and resultant government bailouts — the regulatory side is decidedly political.

Since the creation of the US Patriot Act in 2001, doing business with the “wrong sort” has been taken increasingly seriously. Early last year, British bank Lloyds TSB was slapped with a $400 million fine by a New York court for illegally transferring funds on behalf of clients in Iran and Sudan, both of which are under US sanctions.

The lesson to be learned is clear: if you do business with the likes of Iran, don’t get caught, and if you do get caught, make sure you are making enough profit to pay the fines. Lloyds TSB was slapped on the wrist financially — eventually agreeing to pay $350 million — but the bank was not blacklisted by the US. It is hard to imagine a Middle Eastern bank, caught playing the same game, would be let off as easily.

As for the FCPA, FinCen going after firms using bribes to get deals in the MENA region would open a Pandora’s Box given the rampant and endemic nature of corruption here, as a cursory glance at Transparency International’s Corruption Index shows. British aerospace firm BAE felt this when it was investigated in London for greasing palms in Saudi Arabia to secure multi-billion dollar contracts. While cracking down on corruption is laudable, the case of BAE, like Lloyds, is a relative exception to the rule; corruption is blatantly practiced by Western firms, domestically and internationally.

In any case, a greater focus on corruption and a higher collective risk level for the MENA would not necessarily dampen business or financial confidence; if that was the case, many firms and multinationals would have given the region the cold shoulder long ago. There is, after all, the maxim that big risks equal big rewards. Then there is the classic of “getting around” the rules and the regulations. On the regulatory level, institutions use tactics such as acquiring stakes — silently or not — in local banks and firms to operate in riskier markets. What such international firms need to watch out for is how far down the money trail US regulators may want to go. But unlike in the movies, financial institutions cannot edit or re-write the script where politics is involved; risks have to be faced head on, and it will no doubt come down to who you know.

PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services and writes for Money Laundering Bulletin