GCC banks navigate Credit Suisse fallout

31 March 2023


Saudi National Bank chairman Ammar al-Khudairy’s abrupt resignation on 27 March capped a turbulent few weeks for the world’s financial system. This period saw the kingdom’s champion bank dragged into the harsh glare of the global spotlight and serious questions asked about Gulf financial institutions’ readiness to serve as props in an increasingly jumpy financial order.

A short sentence uttered in an interview by a senior Saudi banker precipitated the collapse of a 160-year-old institution. Ruling out extending beyond its 10 per cent stake as it would entail a higher capital cost led to the fellow Swiss bank UBS buying the troubled lender at a steep discount.

Al-Khudairy took the rap for what was deemed an avoidable crisis, in which SNB took a hosing: it bought the Credit Suisse stock at CHF3.82 ($4.2) a share; UBS has paid just CHF0.76 ($0.83) a share.

The pain goes wider than SNB and the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the other Gulf institution directly impacted by Credit Suisse’s troubles, given its 6.9 per cent stake in the lender.

The crisis poses serious questions about the role of wealthy Gulf institutions in a global system that is increasingly reliant on them, but has yet to stress test the relationship.

On the one hand, Gulf investors have been spooked about their exposure to venerable banking institutions that were once seen as copper-bottomed plays. Conversely, Western banks may now legitimately ask whether their Gulf counterparts are reliable partners in a crisis.

Volatile landscape

The backdrop is one of wider concern about the health of global financial markets. The Credit Suisse crisis was prefaced by US regulators shutting Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) on 10 March, following mass withdrawals of customer deposits.

For now, analysts caution against panic. First, SNB’s exposure – and that of other prominent Gulf lenders – appears limited.

“The impact of SNB’s investment in Credit Suisse and the subsequent takeover by UBS on SNB are limited because the initial investment represents less than 2 per cent of SNB’s investment portfolio and 70-80 bps of the bank’s risk-adjusted capital ratio,” says Mohamed Damak, senior director, Financial Institutions Ratings, at ratings agency S&P.

As to problems in the Western markets, again, exposures are manageable. “On average, banks we rate in GCC had exposure to the US of 4.6 per cent of assets and 2.3 per cent of liabilities at year-end 2022,” says Damak.

“Generally, GCC banks would have limited lending activity in the US and most of their assets there would be in high-credit quality instruments or with the Federal Reserve. The exposure to Europe tends to be limited as well, except for banks that have a presence in some European countries like France or the UK. Most of the activity in these jurisdictions tends to be linked to home countries or generally made of high-quality exposures.”

This will not end SNB shareholder anxiety that the bank’s raison d’etre – supporting domestic projects related to Vision 2030 – had been sidelined in the pursuit of equity positions in global blue chips.

Qatari contagion

Similar questions will be asked in Qatar, where the QIA provided ballast for the Swiss bank’s balance sheet in 2021, when it issued $2bn in convertible notes. The Qatari wealth fund will be reviewing its bank holdings and stress-testing its wider portfolio.

Others will do the same. “Gulf sovereign wealth funds will probably review their asset allocations, regardless of this current crisis,” one Gulf-based economist tells MEED. “The reality is that their role is changing. They were, in the past, more opportunistic investors. Today they are becoming strategic vehicles.”

If Gulf funds like QIA will no longer serve as the global financial system’s white knights – as they proved in the 2008 financial crisis – this may prompt a reconfiguration of investment strategies.

There will be a steep learning curve, says one Gulf-based economist – on both sides.

Governance implications

In light of the growing financial strength of the Gulf institutions come new responsibilities and governance requirements, reflecting the dawning reality that Gulf institutions are growing into increasingly globally systemically significant investors or sources of capital.

“They need to act accordingly,” says the economist. “Not just from the global governance perspective, but also from the perspective of protecting their assets.”

Gulf institutions’ transformation into opportunistic investors was well-timed when liquidity was required at short notice.

“The money centres of the world turned to one of the biggest honey pots they could identify. And, of course, some of the old reservations were conveniently parked aside, at least for the time being,” says the economist.

The challenge for the Gulf institutions was the lack of deep experience or institutional frameworks needed to underpin those initial investments.

“Opportunities arose, these countries chose to take them and they got lucky because they helped stabilise the global financial system, and they helped protect the reputation of these institutions. And no major mistakes were made. But that initial opportunistic approach will no longer fly,” says the economist.

Gulf sector outlook

The Credit Suisse saga has also prompted much ruminating in Western media to the extent that Western institutions may cast a more wary eye in future over their Gulf counterparts.

But absent new funding sources, the GCC's appeal may prove irresistible to them. After all, says the economist, beggars can’t be choosers.

“What is the alternative to resorting to institutions such as the Gulf sovereign funds? They’re not going to go to China, that’s for sure. The only real alternative is to get some sort of a backstop from national central banks. And that is pretty much as close as you can get to a moral hazard,” he says.

The broader global picture is evolving. How Gulf institutions related to primarily Western institutions will also be influenced by the change in the GCC states’ foreign policy.

Gulf governments are increasingly cognisant of the need for a balanced, multi-directional foreign policy. And that is something they will also want to reflect in their wealth funds and banks’ investment behaviour.

The next year should provide an insight into how the post-Credit Suisse modus vivendi will play out.

James Gavin
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