Investors forgiving as Oman’s austerity drive hits bumps in the road

Oman may use government spending to dampen some of the social fallout from its efforts to diversify revenue. (Reuters)
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Updated 02 June 2021

Investors forgiving as Oman’s austerity drive hits bumps in the road

  • Oman’s austerity measures unveiled last year are seen as crucial for maintaining the cash-strapped country’s ability to access international debt markets ahead of debt redemptions worth about $11 billion this year and next

DUBAI: Oman may be rowing back on an austerity plan to fix its shaky finances in the face of protests over unemployment but investors are cutting the Gulf state’s new ruler some slack for now.
Sultan Haitham, who acceded to the throne in January 2020, promised last week on the third day of rare demonstrations in several towns and cities to create 32,000 jobs and subsidise private companies that take on Omanis.
But the move did not trigger any major drop in the price of Oman’s bonds, with investors saying some flexibility in its fiscal adjustment was expected to guarantee social stability in a country also hit by protests over jobs and corruption in 2011.
“The market reaction is reflecting an understanding that significant reform, particularly as it relates to taxation in a region that has limited precedence, will meet obstacles, but has not been materially derailed,” said Sharif Eid, a portfolio manager at Franklin Templeton Investments.
“Short term, measured adjustments are to be expected, particularly as they may impact social factors,” he said.
Oman’s government bonds due in 2047 yielded 6.9 percent at the end of last week, only slightly higher than 6.7 percent before the protests. In March last year, the yield hit nearly 12 percent as the coronavirus outbreak triggered a collapse in crude prices.
Oman’s austerity measures unveiled last year are seen as crucial for maintaining the cash-strapped country’s ability to access international debt markets ahead of debt redemptions worth about $11 billion this year and next.
Oman is among the weakest countries financially in the oil-rich region and more vulnerable to swings in the price of hydrocarbons, a sector that accounted for about a third of its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019.
Since the oil price crash in 2014, its debt to GDP ratio has leapt from about 15 percent in 2015 to 80 percent last year, while Oman’s plans to diversify revenue away from oil and to reduce spending on its bloated public sector have lagged.
Oman’s finance ministry and central bank did not respond to requests for comment about the country’s ability to prop up its economy in the face of financial constraints.
The medium-term fiscal plan announced in October, which included the introduction of a value-added tax (VAT) in April, has reassured investors, helping Oman to raise billions of dollars in bonds and loans this year.
“Oman provided comfortable levels of information since late last year that supported the market and are further supported by oil prices at $70 per barrel, which significantly reduced their funding gap,” said Zeina Rizk, executive director, fixed-income asset management, at Arqaam Capital.
“Also, Oman raised most of its budget funding needs this year, which is also supportive,” she said.
Oman plans to reduce its deficit from more than 4 billion rials ($10.4 billion) in 2020, or 15.8 percent of GDP, to 537 million rials in 2024, which would be equivalent to 1.7 percent of GDP.
Debt to GDP is expected to remain at about 80 percent by 2024, but in the absence of the medium-term fiscal plan it would have shot up to 128 percent, the ministry of finance has said.
Oman is also aiming to increase non-oil revenue to 35 percent of the overall total in the coming years from 28 percent last year.
The fiscal plan does allow for some time to launch particularly sensitive steps such as a personal income tax on high earners, which Oman said it was considering for 2022 in what would be a first for the Gulf region.
Still, while the unrest that erupted last week appears to have abated after a heavy security response, it is a sign that Oman’s efforts to contain state deficits and debts may slow down to accommodate job demands.
Oman’s unemployment rate spiked to a record 5 percent last year and youth unemployment is over 10 percent, according to World Bank data.
“The road to fiscal consolidation was unlikely to be smooth and the concessions made by the authorities will slow the rate of adjustment,” said Scott Livermore, Middle East chief economist at research group Oxford Economics.
Tariq Haq, senior employment policy specialist for Arab states at the International Labour Organization, said Oman needed to develop a medium- to long-term employment policy.
“The provision of government jobs as an emergency response is not a sustainable substitute for a more comprehensive reform of the labor market, which needs to accompany structural reform of the Omani economy more broadly,” he said.
In addition to introducing VAT and gradually raising water and electricity tariffs this year, Oman cut its civilian and military spending in 2020 and has budgeted for further declines this year.
However, an expectation that such ambitious reforms would have to be balanced against socio-economic pressures has been largely factored in by investors and credit ratings agencies.
Fitch said last month its outlook for Oman — which is rated sub-investment grade by all major agencies — was negative owing to “risks to sustained enactment of fiscal consolidation plans given the challenging economic and social context.”
Oman may use government spending to dampen some of the social fallout from its efforts to diversify revenue but the direction of reforms will not change, said Livermore.
“The Omani authorities have little choice but to remain committed to medium-term fiscal adjustment, although there may be some fine-tuning on how this is achieved.”
Still, some investors said how Oman reacts to any resurgence of social unrest and other economic challenges would need to be monitored closely.
“Investors evaluated the medium-term consolidation plan in Oman with relative relief as it provided some short-term relief for the fiscal figures,” said Sergey Dergachev, a fund manager at Union Investment.
“But Oman also faces other risks, including a challenging tourism sector outlook and inflationary pressures, all in parallel to the employment situation, which needs to be watched,” he said. ($1 = 0.3849 Omani rials)

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Algeria to review gas prices with all its clients

Updated 03 July 2022

Algeria to review gas prices with all its clients

  • Algeria’s oil and gas earnings are up 70 percent and have reached $21.5 billion in the five first months of 2022

ALGIERS: Algeria is negotiating with all its clients to review gas prices, state oil and gas producer Sonatrach’s CEO, Tewfik Hakkar, told reporters on Sunday.

Hakkar added that the review of the prices is not targeting a single company or country.

The statement comes almost a week after Spain began re-exporting gas to Morocco in reverse flow via the Gazoduc Maghreb-Europe pipeline, marking the first direct flow of piped gas from Europe to Africa.

Spain and Morocco agreed earlier this year to consider using the GME pipeline for reverse flow to the North African country with the gas to be sourced from the global LNG market.

On Nov. 1, Algeria, which has cut off diplomatic ties with Morocco, stopped supplying natural gas to its neighboring country through the GME pipeline.

Algeria is now supplying Spain using the Medgaz undersea pipeline with an annual capacity of 8 billion cubic meters, which does not go through Morocco.

Earnings up

Algeria’s oil and gas earnings are up 70 percent and have reached $21.5 billion in the five first months of 2022, compared to $12.6 billion in the same period last year, an executive at state oil and gas producer Sonatrach told reporters on Sunday.

Along with gas, Algeria is a large oil producer with 12.2 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. The country exports 540,000 barrels per day of its total production of about 1.1 million bpd. All proven oil reserves are held onshore, though offshore exploration is in the early stages.

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Argentina government crises build as Economy Minister Guzman resigns

Updated 03 July 2022

Argentina government crises build as Economy Minister Guzman resigns

  • Inflation is running above 60 percent and the peso currency is under growing pressure

BUENOS AIRES: Argentina’s economy minister Martin Guzman resigned on Saturday, a blow to a government beset by mounting economic crises.
Guzman, who led Argentina’s debt restructuring deal with the International Monetary Fund and creditors, posted a letter to his Twitter account announcing his decision.
“I write to you to present my resignation as economy minister,” Guzman said in a letter addressed to President Alberto Fernandez. He had been minister since late 2019.
The government is facing its lowest approval rating since taking office in 2019. Inflation is running above 60 percent and the peso currency is under growing pressure. Sovereign bonds have plummeted.
The resignation leaves the ministry leaderless just as Guzman was expected to travel to Europe to negotiate a $2 billion debt deal with the Paris Club of sovereign lenders.
Investors are skeptical about the economy and infighting in the governing coalition between moderates like Guzman and a more militant wing including Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Mariel Fornoni, director of the Management and Fit consultancy, said the resignation of a key ally was a reflection of President Fernandez’s loss of power since a painful midterm election defeat last year.
“It is the chronicle of a death foretold. Ever since the loss in last year’s legislative election,” she said, adding that a militant wing around the powerful vice president had been pushing to oust Guzman.
“(The president) has lost another piece of his board, perhaps the most important, and is increasingly alone,” Fornoni said.
Guzman tellingly posted his resignation letter while Fernandez de Kirchner was giving a speech commemorating iconic former Argentine President Juan Domingo Peron.
Guzman said “there should be a political agreement within the governing coalition” to choose his successor.
The president’s office said that it did not yet know when a replacement for Guzman would be announced.
A government source who asked to remain anonymous told Reuters that Guzman’s exit was due to what he felt was a lack of political support for his agenda.
Miguel Kiguel, former secretary of finance in Argentina, told Reuters that whoever takes over will have a tough time, noting that inflation could hit 80 percent this year and there is a gap of nearly 100 percent between official and parallel currency exchange rates.
“We don’t know who’s coming, but this will be a very hot potato,” Kiguel said. “Whoever comes is going to have a very complicated time.”


Dubai firms board the metaverse to improve customer engagement

Updated 03 July 2022

Dubai firms board the metaverse to improve customer engagement

  • Realty major Damac has invested up to AED367 million to develop and monetize a metaverse

DUBAI: Top Dubai-based companies are racing against time to build metaverse or immersive virtual worlds to bolster their sales prospects and disrupt customer experiences in their respective industries.

Realty major Damac has invested up to AED367 million ($100 million) to develop and monetize a metaverse that could allow potential customers to check into their luxury properties virtually, choose an apartment, explore furniture options and toy with the paraphernalia on offer.

Called D-Labs, the metaverse platform will create digital replicas of their top projects, including Damac Hills, Damac Lagoons, Safa by De Grisogono, and Cavalli Tower in Dubai. It will also host other notable projects such as Damac Tower Nine Elms in London and the upcoming Cavalli Residences in Miami.

So, how does this work? First, a potential customer in any part of the world can meet up with the sales agent of Damac Properties inside the metaverse instead of connecting over a Zoom call. Then, inside the metaverse, the prospect can tour the apartment and pay for the unit during the checkout.

“We sell around AED100 million monthly over Zoom calls without any immersive technology. With the metaverse, we can sell AED700-800 million a month to any customers in California, New York or Miami,” Ali Sajwani, general manager of operations at Damac and CEO of D-Labs, told Arab News.

The company, which has been annually clocking a business of $5 billion in real estate, expects to rake in $6.5 billion a year using the metaverse, added Sajwani.

We sell around AED100 million monthly over Zoom calls without any immersive technology. With the metaverse, we can sell AED700-800 million a month to any customers in California, New York or Miami.

Ali Sajwani, general manager of operations at Damac

Potential to disrupt

Metaverse owes much of its success to its disruptive nature that displaces traditional ways of looking at a category and creates a new business model. Gone are the days when real estate buyers would close deals based on brochures and project plans.

Instead, they are not only engaging in real-time with the property, but they now have the option to shop for things during their virtual tours. In the case of D-Labs, customers could also pick a host of non-fungible tokens or scarce digital objects on offer and sell them for a better price on a future date. The company, for instance, will soon be offering a variety of NFTs, including digital wearables and jewelry.

“The idea is you own your real estate and virtual assets. As part of our De Grisogono relaunch, we will also be offering digital jewelry. However, the goal is to convert that customer into an owner of real assets, not just digital ones,” Sajwani said.

According to management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., more than $120 billion have been globally invested in building metaverse technology and infrastructure in the first five months of 2022. That’s more than double the $57 billion invested in 2021.

The company recently surveyed more than 3,400 consumers worldwide and found two-thirds are excited about transitioning everyday activities to the metaverse, especially when it comes to connecting with people, exploring virtual worlds, and collaborating with remote colleagues.

“Our bottom-up view of consumer and enterprise use cases suggests it (metaverse) could generate up to $5 trillion in impact by 2030,” said Eric Hazan, senior partner of McKinsey in the study.

Strategy in motion

To make this groundbreaking concept a reality, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum recently announced the Dubai Metaverse Strategy, which aims to increase the contribution of the metaverse sector to the emirate’s economy to $4 billion by 2030.

Given the government’s proactive role, companies are now looking at ways to develop metaverse platforms that could launch pilot activities, study consumer behavior, learn from the real-time interactions and nurture the business model.

Emirates Airline, another early adopter of the metaverse, also announced that it would soon offer a slice of immersive technology, where the customer could virtually relish the travel experience aboard the premium airline.

“These projects will allow customers to transform their entire processes, whether it’s a business operation, training, or sales force, into an interactive experience in the metaverse,” said Emirates Chief Operating Officer Adel Ahmed Al-Redha during a press roundtable.

These projects will allow customers to transform their entire processes, whether it’s a business operation, training, or sales force, into an interactive experience in the metaverse.

Adel Ahmed Al-Redha, Emirates chief operating officer

As part of its metaverse offerings, the customer can tour the aircraft and experience economy, business, and first class, besides selecting their seats and the food and beverage of their choice.

“The customers can also tour the airport, do their duty-free shopping and buy their items while sitting at home, which can be delivered to them at home or in the aircraft,” he added.

It wasn’t a new idea for Emirates to digitize. Still, they did not have the technology to do so and are currently cooperating with different technology companies “to ensure we get the right thing,” Al-Redha said.

Al-Redha is among the league of forward-looking business executives reaping the fruits of the first-mover advantage. It will be interesting to see how they use this fresh produce technology to disrupt their business models and create newer avatars of consumer engagement.

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Exxon signals operating profits could double over Q1

Updated 02 July 2022

Exxon signals operating profits could double over Q1

  • Energy prices have shot up this year with oil selling for more than $105 per barrel

HOUSTON: Exxon Mobil Corp. has signaled that skyrocketing margins from fuel and crude sales could generate a record quarterly profit, according to a securities filing.

Energy prices have shot up this year with oil selling for more than $105 per barrel and gasoline at about $5 per gallon in the United States. The enormous earnings are likely to ignite new calls for windfall profit taxes.

The largest US oil producer projected a sequential increase of about $7.4 billion in operating profits compared with the first quarter. In the first quarter, Exxon posted an $8.8 billion profit, excluding a Russia writedown.

The filing indicates a potential profit of more than $16 billion for the second quarter. The company’s peak quarterly profit was $15.9 billion in 2012.

The filing showed Exxon expects higher oil and gas prices will add about $2.9 billion to results. Margins from selling gasoline and diesel will add another $4.5 billion to operating profits.

“High energy prices are largely a result of underinvestment by many in the energy industry over the last several years and especially during the pandemic,” Exxon said in a statement on the profit gains.

Analysts tracked by IBES Refinitiv forecast a per share profit of $2.99, up from $1.10 in the same quarter a year ago. Official results for the period will be released on July 29, according to a summary of factors influencing the period disclosed late Friday.

Exxon’s profits led US President Joe Biden last month to say the company and other oil majors were capitalizing on a global oil supply shortage to fatten profits.

The company said it is investing more than any other producer in the US to expand oil and natural gas production, including in the Permian, the country’s largest unconventional basin.

US Representative Ro Khanna said Exxon’s record-breaking profits reinforce his call for Congress to pass a windfall tax on Big Oil.

“Big Oil companies should be providing relief to their customers, not pouring billions into stock buybacks to enrich their investors,” he said in a statement.

Exxon’s shares closed up 2.2 percent at $87.55 on Friday.

Exxon, which lost more than $22 billion in 2020, has been using the extra cash from higher energy prices sales to pay debt and raise distributions to shareholders. It plans to buy back up to $30 billion of its shares through 2023.

Despite losses during the pandemic, Exxon continued to invest in additional production and expects to increase output in the Permian by 25 percent in 2022, the company’s spokesperson said.

The second-quarter results will be the first quarterly earnings report since Exxon decided to report results by four business units, giving a more detailed breakout of its petrochemical operations. The snapshot showed that margins in its chemical and specialty products units were flat in the second quarter compared with the first.

The company estimated the impact of exiting Russia would cut oil and gas profits by about $150 million compared with the first quarter. Exxon wrote down $3.4 billion in Russia assets earlier this year.

Exxon also signaled a contribution of about $300 million from asset sales in the quarter.

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Stuck bags add to tangles at Paris airports amid travel boom

Updated 02 July 2022

Stuck bags add to tangles at Paris airports amid travel boom

  • Union activists said many more passengers flew without their bags
  • The scene at Charles de Gaulle on Saturday was busy but typical for the first weekend in July

PARIS: Airlines worked Saturday to deliver luggage to passengers around the world after a technical breakdown left at least 1,500 bags stuck at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, the latest of several tangles hitting travelers this summer.
The airport’s baggage sorting system had a technical malfunction Friday that caused 15 flights to depart without luggage, leaving about 1,500 bags on the ground, according to the airport operating company. The airport handled about 1,300 flights overall Friday, the operator said.
Union activists said many more passengers flew without their bags, apparently because of knock-on effects from the original breakdown.
It came as airport workers are on strike at French airports to demand more hiring and more pay to keep up with high global inflation. Because of the strike, aviation authorities canceled 17 percent of flights out of the Paris airports Friday morning, and another 14 percent were canceled Saturday.
Passengers on canceled flights were alerted days ahead of their flights. The scene at Charles de Gaulle on Saturday was busy but typical for the first weekend in July, when France’s summer travel season kicks off.
Unions plan to continue striking Sunday but no flights have been canceled so far. They have threatened to renew the strike next weekend if negotiations with company management don’t succeed in finding a compromise.
Until now, French airports had been largely spared the chaos seen recently at airports in London, Amsterdam and some other European and US cities. Airlines and airports that slashed jobs during the depths of the COVID-19 crisis are struggling to keep up with soaring demand as travel resurges after two years of virus restrictions.

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