MENA Q4 2022 Manager Letter

March 7, 2023

View of Abu Dhabi Skyline at sunset, United Arab Emirates

 Gulf equity markets rolled over in the fourth quarter and materially underperformed emerging markets. This marks a stark but predictable (as we wrote in our last Q3 letter) reversal in fortunes, with tailwinds of the outperformance in the last 18 months turning to headwinds. We summarize the key drivers of the weakness in Gulf equity markets in the fourth quarter below:

  1. Lower oil price and a different transmission mechanism – Gulf economies are highly levered to oil prices. While a Brent oil price of $80 is healthy for most Gulf economies, surpluses will naturally be lower as prices come down and barrels produced and sold remain static. Moreover, and focusing on Saudi Arabia, the share of oil revenue proceeds going into the banking system has come down considerably as the government allocates an increasing proportion of oil revenue to its sovereign wealth fund where the trickle down to economic activity is seemingly less visible (for now).
  1. Higher interest rates – Gulf currencies are effectively pegged to the U.S. dollar and central banks have had to adjust to the Fed’s four rate hikes of 75 basis points in 2022. The relative attraction of owning equities with three months SIBOR rates reported at 5.59% is understandably low. Gulf investors have more alternatives than ever before to invest their money, with the recent Al Rajhi Bank Sukuk proving to be particularly popular among retail investors. Higher rates are also putting pressure on the net interest margins of banks as they compete to attract deposits. This phenomenon is likely to be especially acute in Saudi Arabia, where the liquidity environment has tightened n the fourth quarter of 2022. Saudi banks represent ~23% of most MENA indices and so the aforementioned profit margin compression has a material impact on the market’s aggregate EPS growth expectations for 2023. In other Gulf markets like the UAE and Qatar, state and quasi-state companies have been pre-paying debt at a rapid pace to avoid higher interest rates, leading to anemic corporate loan growth and further pressure on profitability.
  1. Weaker USD – Gulf equities are effectively US dollar-denominated assets and are generally more attractive for global investors when the U.S. dollar is appreciating. This relationship has become stronger since Gulf equity markets became a large component of emerging market indices. Active Global Emerging Market (GEM) investors are not incremental buyers of Gulf equities in a weaker USD environment and their current underweight exposure to the region suggests they prefer to own assets denominated in non-pegged currencies.
  1. Valuations – Gulf equity markets are coming off excessive valuation levels that reflected over-optimism on the degree and timing of the impact of reform program announcements, and robust foreign inflows following the deletion of Russia from the emerging market universe in March 2022, which we discussed in our second quarter letter.
  1. A wall of offerings – 2022 was a record year for capital raised through primary and secondary transactions and the number of deals closed in the region with 47 listings raising a total of $26.5 billion. A large number of deals and the prospect of share sales by government and quasi-government shareholders took the air out of the market. We think it is wise for government funds to reduce or float their stakes in strategically listed companies given the level of ownership is far above what is required to retain control. However, this is likely to weigh on the share prices of many of the large-cap companies in the market where those entities are key shareholders. On a lighter note, overexcited bankers salivating at the prospect of fees from investment banking deals continue to be a reliable indicator of negative future market performance.

 As for the strategy, we managed – to a large extent— to avoid the significant drawdown that the region experienced in the fourth quarter. Three factors helped us achieve this outperformance:

  1. Sticking to high conviction portfolio companies like Saudi Dairy and Food Co. (SADAFCO) where management execution and weaker competition are leading to significant earnings growth that the market has been behind on for a few quarters now. 
  1. Adding to high conviction portfolio conviction companies that we believe are likely to experience an improvement in an operating environment like the National Company for Learning & Education (NCLE). NCLE’s eleven K-12 schools are experiencing a noticeable increase in utilization as students return to in-person learning in Saudi Arabia and management’s various initiatives (which focus primarily on quality of education in existing schools, M&A and greenfield for new schools) bear fruit.
  1. Reducing or exiting portfolio companies we believe have reached valuation levels that are no longer attractive. A good example of this is Saudi Tadawul Group (STG), the country’s stock exchange which we exited at nearly peak average daily traded value. Over 60% of STG’s revenue is linked to traded values on the stock exchange and our exit decision reflected an understanding that traded values cannot just continue to go up, a view that the market is only getting around now as traded values have dropped 50% y-o-y in recent months.

 We continue to see a strong opportunity for the strategy as the market begins to reflect the “bad news” in the price of assets we like, and as investments in companies we’ve made in the last 6-12 months or earlier continue to deliver. 

 While we acknowledge that the environment has been favourable for the strategy, and decisions we made have on the whole been good ones, we are not resting on our laurels and will endeavor to continue delivering differentiated value-added returns for our clients looking to access the growing investable opportunity in the MENA region. 

Vergent Asset Management LLP

Vergent Asset Management LLP
March 7th, 2023