D-Day on markets upgrade nears

The heat is on for Qatar and the UAE to implement the key criteria for an upgrade by index compiler MSCI with just a month to go

Qatar and the UAE are racing to meet the MSCI's criteria for an upgrade to "emerging market" status with just a month to go before a decision is made by the index compiler.

Both countries' markets have to meet various MSCI criteria before an upgrade from "frontier" to "emerging market" status, but neither has so far fulfilled all the requirements.

The limit on foreign ownership in the country's stocks and putting into practice a key settlement mechanism, the so-called delivery versus payment system (DvP), are still a problem for both markets.

However, there is doubt in some quarters about how much impact an upgrade would have.

The MSCI index is tracked by thousands of fund managers and directs billions of dollars' worth of liquidity from international investors. The company classifies six of the Gulf's seven bourses, including those in the UAE and Qatar, as frontier markets.

This designation typically applies to less developed, more volatile financial markets. Such markets are perceived to hold more risk. Most international fund managers tend to shy away from these markets as a result.

The Qatari and UAE exchanges have tested and finally enforced the DvP system - in which securities are delivered and cash received on the same day - as pressure mounts to address MSCI's concerns about it, something the index compiler detailed in its report last June.

But industry experts have said the markets may have done too little too late.

"They're cutting it too short before the deadline," said Joe Kawkabani, the chief investment officer for Middle East and North Africa equity at Franklin Templeton Investments. The deadline for brokers to adopt DvP in the UAE has already been extended once.

"Foreign ownership is another important element, and Qatar may be uncomfortable with raising the limit to 49 per cent immediately," he said.

Qatar's foreign ownership limitis 25 per cent at present, but the exchange has floated the possibility of raising the limit to 49 per cent.

Deborah Fuhr, BlackRock's global product leader in exchange traded funds and implementation strategy, said the company would be "obliged" to look at countries in the region if there was an upgrade to emerging market status.

BlackRock is the world's largest asset manager, with about US$3.65 trillion (Dh13.4tn) of assets under management, and investments by company in the region would bolster the markets and boost liquidity. But as yet BlackRock does not look at the region beyond its frontier markets fund.

An MSCI upgrade could be a big boost for the UAE's international reputation, as it would be likely to help to make the stock markets more attractive to institutional investors, lift trading volumes and lower investors' risk perception of the country's exchanges. MSCI is the benchmark most investors tend to track.

In September, the FTSE Group became the first to categorise the UAE as a "secondary emerging" market, two notches behind "developed market", although it still classifies Qatar as a frontier market.

Jonathan Cooper, the Middle East and Africa managing director at FTSE Group, said upgrading a country was not a cure-all for markets.

"Classification is not a one-day event," he said.

"It's about ticking lots of boxes, and the more of those things that need to be done the better the landscape for international investors. But it doesn't mean the markets will benefit overnight," he said.

Mr Cooper said the UAE markets could find it difficult to handle an inflow of billions of dollars directed from international funds.

"When you look at the total market capitalisation of indices it is significant, but we're talking about a much smaller portion of this that would be going to the UAE," he said.

The benchmark QE Index in Doha and the UAE's two main bourses, the Dubai Financial Market and the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange, have rallied and enjoyed bigger volumes in the past few weeks on optimism over the MSCI review.