Kuwaiti traders wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, as they stand on the upper floor since the lower main hall is closed to traders at the Kuwait Boursa stock market trading in Kuwait city, Kuwait March 1, 2020. REUTERS/Stephanie McGehee
Kuwait is joining the emerging markets focussed MSCI Index, but investors may not get much cheer from it. Parliamentary gridlock on taking in more debt will dent hopes. Image Credit: Reuters

London: From parliamentary gridlock in Kuwait to paralyzed debt talks in Lebanon and giddy valuations for Saudi Arabian stocks, investors in the Middle East face a raft of risks in the fourth quarter. Ever-present is the fact that current crude prices can't balance the budgets of most of the region's energy exporters.

Here are six risks to watch in the last three months of the year:

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Further oil turmoil

While derivative traders have pared bets that Gulf states will be forced to devalue their currency pegs in the next 12 months, bouts of volatility may return. Countries that have been financing deficits through debt sales "may be in trouble if oil prices persist at current levels," said Peter Kisler, portfolio manager at hedge fund North Asset Management.

"2020 is an exceptional year, and they can get away with it now, but I am not sure they have a viable long-term plan if oil prices don't return to pre-2020 levels."

Debt sales from the region hit a record in the past quarter as governments rushed to place bonds after the coronavirus shock.

Pricey stocks

In equity markets, most Gulf Arab nations have outperformed their emerging peers in the last three months. What's shaping up to be their worst recession on record could leave them exposed.

"Stock market valuations, for example in Saudi Arabia, remain elevated and somewhat detached from the underlying economic prospects," said Tarek Fadlallah, the Dubai-based CEO of the Middle East unit of Nomura Asset Management.

Debt load

Oman is planning its first Eurobond sale in more than a year, despite the threat its credit ratings could slide deeper into junk. "The biggest concern in Oman is that it fails to deliver convincing fiscal reform, which would undermine its debt market access at a time of exceptionally large funding needs," said Jan Friederich, senior director with Fitch.

Oman also lacks a backstop credit line from its regional allies. Spreads on some of the sultanate's securities have stabilized after briefly surpassing 1,000 basis points versus US Treasuries, a threshold for debt to be considered "distressed" in the first-half of the year. (Other countries in the region that have a negative outlook on their ratings include Iraq, Jordan and Morocco.)

Lackluster opening

Kuwait joins the MSCI Emerging Markets Index in November under a cloud of uncertainty. Parliamentary opposition to a law that would allow the government to borrow has prevented it from raising debt, even as it faces the highest budget deficit in its history.

"Kuwait will have to contend with uncertainty around its election, succession concerns, expensive valuations and the inevitable hangover once the index inflows related to the emerging-market upgrade recede," said Hasnain Malik, the Dubai-based head of equity strategy at Tellimer.

Perpetual deadlock

Lebanon's inability to form a new government has pushed back the prospect of a deal to restructure the country's debt after the nation defaulted on about $30 billion of Eurobonds in March. Its debt was the worst-performer in emerging markets in the third quarter.

"Progress with debt restructuring will require greater unity among political and economic elites, the prospects for which remain very uncertain despite the severe deterioration in economic conditions and the conditional help on offer from international institutions," said Friederich at Fitch.

Biden and Iran

Since taking office, US President Donald Trump has sought to build a unified coalition in the region against Iran.  "The outcome of the election will matter with regards to policy towards Iran and a potential weakening of the Trump administration's strong support for the region in light of a Biden victory," said Mohammed Elmi, a London-based emerging-market portfolio manager at Federated Hermes, which manages almost $630 billion.