Dubai on the brink of collapse - The Skyscraper Curse [update]

In just a matter of 48 hours, I ran into a couple of articles describing the fall of the Dubai bubble economy, hugely driven by speculation in real estate (and propelled by easy borrowing and lax lending standard). I went to Dubai just for a week-end in January 2006 and I could tell that the fall will come and that it would hit hard.

Here are some quotes from a the Times Online and Bloomberg - and also very interestingly, Bloomberg made me discover an economic indicator that I had never heard about: the Skyscraper Curse. After digging, it appears that not only is this indicator is not new at all, but that it is quite reliable, for various reasons that will follow.

Let's first take a look at the Times Online article [emphasis mine]:
For many expatriate workers in Dubai it was the ultimate symbol of their tax-free wealth: a luxurious car that few could have afforded on the money they earned at home. Now, faced with crippling debts as a result of their high living and Dubai’s fading fortunes, many expatriates are abandoning their cars at the airport and fleeing home rather than risk jail for defaulting on loans.

Police have found more than 3,000 cars outside Dubai’s international airport in recent months. Most of the cars – four-wheel drives, saloons and “a few” Mercedes – had keys left in the ignition.

Some had used-to-the-limit credit cards in the glove box. Others had notes of apology attached to the windscreen.

When the market collapsed and the emirate’s once-booming economy started to slow down, many expatriates were left owning several homes and unable to pay the mortgages without credit.

“There were a lot of people living the high life, investing in real estate and a lifestyle they couldn’t afford,” one senior banker said.

Under Sharia, which prevails in Dubai, the punishment for defaulting on a debt is severe. Bouncing a check, for example, is punishable with jail. Those who flee the emirate are known as skips.

The abandoned cars underscore a worrying trend. Five years ago the Emir, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, embarked on an ambitious plan to transform Dubai into a hub for business and tourism. A building boom fuelled double-digit growth, with thousands of Westerners arriving every day, eager to cash in on the emirate’s promise of easy living and wealth.

Many Westerners invested in Dubai’s skyrocketing real estate market, buying and reselling homes before building was even complete. But, as the recession took effect, property and financial companies made thousands of workers redundant and banks tightened lending. Construction companies have delayed or cancelled projects and tourism is slowing.

There are increasing signs that the foreigners who once flocked to Dubai are leaving. “There is no way of tracking actual numbers, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Dubai is emptying out,” said a Western diplomat.
Most of the emirate’s banks are not affiliated with British financial institutions, so those who flee do not have to worry about creditors. Their abandoned cars are eventually sold off by the banks at weekly auctions. Those recently advertised include BMWs, Porsches and Mercedes.
Police have issued warrants against owners of the deserted cars. Those who return risk arrest at the airport.

3.62 million expatriates in Dubai
864,000 nationals
8% population decline predicted this year, as expatriates leave
1,500 visas cancelled every day in Dubai
62% of homes occupied by expatriates
60% fall in property values predicted
50% slump in the price of luxury apartments on Palm Jumeirah
25% reduction in luxury spending among UAE expatriates
Sources: arabbusiness.com ; Times database
More useful information in this Bloomberg report:
Feb. 6 (Bloomberg) -- As construction cranes littering Dubai’s skyline go idle, it’s time to revisit that ever intriguing economic indicator: the Skyscraper Curse.

As this columnist has pointed out periodically, there’s an uncanny, if unscientific, correlation between financial crises and efforts to build the world’s tallest building. Look no further than Kuala Lumpur in 1997, Chicago in 1974, New York in 1930 and in biblical times with the Tower of Babel.

The human propensity for architectural overreach has been a surprisingly reliable omen. It’s not a stretch to think of such projects as visual punctuation marks. A giant billboard made of steel, glass, concrete and money. A common thread between skyscrapers and economic disasters has to be easy credit, which fuels irrational growth, valuations, and hubris.

The gleaming Burj Dubai, as fate would have it, recently overtook Taipei 101 as the tallest building at 818 meters (2,684 feet). Right on cue, Dubai’s economy is looking unthinkably shaky.

A year ago, with oil prices heading toward $200 a barrel, few dared question property prices in the United Arab Emirates. Now, there is evidence they “fell off a cliff” as banks reduced lending and speculators withdrew amid the worsening global crisis, Mai Attia, a Morgan Stanley analyst based in the sheikdom, said in a Jan. 30 report.

Strong language, and yet it’s a reminder of how far and wide a credit crisis that began in the U.S. is traveling. China, that other supposed juggernaut, is looking shaky, too. Japan is back in recession, while Singapore seems to have fallen off the same cliff as the U.A.E.’s asset markets.

Thanks to deteriorating economic conditions, job cuts and the unavailability of mortgages, Dubai property prices are down 25 percent from the market peak in September, Morgan Stanley said.

The implications of that will travel the globe. Take the Philippines, where money sent home from overseas workers in booming economies such as Dubai’s are taking a hit. Remittances make up about 10 percent of the Philippine economy, fueling purchases of homes and cars in a nation where private consumption accounts for about two-thirds of gross domestic product. That support is now questionable.

It’s easy now to look back and say we should have seen this coming. Some did, of course. After a Dubai visit in late 2006, Claudia Zeisberger [...] told me: “All the building going on made me feel like I was experiencing the last days of ancient Rome.”
Few seriously doubt Dubai is a development miracle. Yet it’s fair to wonder if it’s the epicenter of an Arabian asset bubble tied largely to surging energy prices. With crude oil now around $35, fortunes are shifting. Construction booms should have been a harbinger of trouble.

Where else should we be looking? Well, China. Of the 10 tallest high-rise buildings listed by Darmstadt, Germany-based Emporis Buildings, five are in the third-biggest economy and one is in its special administrative region, Hong Kong. Of the 20 tallest, nine are in mainland China or Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is already in recession and China may be heading that way. For a nation at China’s level of development, growth below 6 percent is arguably a recession and anything below 5 percent is crisis territory.

What skyscrapers say about China is investor overreach. The conventional wisdom was that China could grow 10 percent indefinitely. That view meant the numerous mini-Manhattans popping up around the nation were a logical extension of its potential. Or was it merely a textbook case of an easy-credit- driven boom going bust?

Russia may avoid a meltdown, meanwhile, thanks to billionaire Chalva Tchigirinski. In November, Tchigirinski halted construction on the Russia Tower, which would have been Europe’s tallest. Ditto for the U.S., where Donald Trump reined in his ambitions to erect America’s tallest building. His Trump International Hotel is the world’s 11th-tallest high rise.

The Skyscraper Curse may be nothing more than a whimsical exercise to entertain, not inform. Then again, it’s proving to have some pretty solid foundations as an economic barometer.
This report was by William Pesek who has also written on Bloomberg about the Skyscraper Curse before in December 2006 and in November 2007 which share a common base but are still worth having a read.

[Update] An interesting video on YouTube from a German TV report about the collapse of the real estate. I am wondering if I should hope for this guy who still wants to go on with his "Michael Schumacher" luxury tower to really make it to the construction or not, because if he does build it without selling them beforehand, I am 99% sure he's going to be bankrupt before the construction is over.

[Update 20110208] For an in depth analysis and discussion about the Skyscraper Curve, please read this post.

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