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Dubai: Subprime state

Written By: - Date published: 2:18 pm, December 1st, 2009 - 31 comments
Categories: economy, International - Tags: , ,

Dubai is the subprime folly writ large.

In the US, they built ‘exurbs’ in the Californian high desert, two hours each way from LA; rows of McMansions bought by people who couldn’t afford them whose lifestyles were dependent on cheap petrol*.

In Dubai, they built skyscrapers in the desert; golf courses, swimming pools, even indoor snowfields in a land with no rivers; fake islands off the coast of a near empty country. All of it with borrowed money. Dubai is a monument to the triumph of humanity’s ability to dream over its ability to see sense.

The country has natural gas wealth but its boom was fuelled by the boom itself, a construction bubble that drew in engineers and builders demanding more construction. And it’s all coming crashing down. The skyscrapers and the artificial islands were built on borrowed money (imagine an oil and natural gas rich-country living so far beyond its means that it has to borrow). Then the bottom dropped out of oil and natural gas prices and the world financial crisis hit. The companies have stopped coming, new skyscrapers sit near-empty.

The state-owned construction company, Dubai World, is in enormous trouble. It announced it won’t be meeting its debts of US$59 billion for six months. It remains to be seen whether Dubai will be able to restart payments at that point or whether it was simply the furthest date they could ask for without triggering all out panic.

Dubai’s effective partial default on its debt has already been compared to the collapse of Lehman Brothers last year, which turned a rapidly worsening situation into a full financial meltdown. The world markets are already wavering. Maybe a good time for the Cullen Fund to bank its gains from this year’s bull market and put its money in bonds and cash (specifically Euros and USD, ride the flight to quality).

What Dubai shows is that under the veneer of recovery created by government stimulus programmes, the fundamental economic problems that caused the recession as still unresolved. Many people have been predicting a ‘w’ shaped recession. We may already have passed the middle apex and Dubai is the signal of the second descent.

*(check out Yasha Levine’s accounts of life in subprime Victorville)

31 comments on “Dubai: Subprime state ”

  1. infused 1

    been known for quite sometime…

  2. vto 2

    Some good thoughts there mr marty. Mine own readings on this point to this being perhaps the tipping point for the apex as you say, but generally on the basis that it is the excuse investors need to pull their positions in equity markets (after a substantial rise this year). The subsequent fall in those markets triggers a mini-avalanche which may in turn trigger the big one.

    Other comment also suggests however that this is not a GFC problem on the scale of Lehmann Brothers. It is not so structural. So it may be a trigger but not any underlying cause.

    But don’t you just love the human capacity for dreaming and conquering?

  3. sweetd 3


    Are you saying that stimulus packages don’t work? That the market should be left to sort itself out, that is, companies succeed/fail on their own merit.

    Yup, agree with the ‘w’ shaped recession. The original problems have not been solved, and the govt bail outs/intervention have not helped the problem, but are the problem. All the bail outs have done is push forward the time when the medicine has to be taken.

    • snoozer 3.1

      The experience of history is that government has to step in when the private sector fails, if it stands by or, worse, cuts its spending then things will just get worse. the problem is that governments can only prime the pumps for so long, if private business is unable to start pulling its weight again then things will start to slide.

    • Draco T Bastard 3.2

      The stimulus packages were basic stupidity writ large. They tried to bail the banks out rather than the economy which was suffering from too much money and increasing at exponential rates due to the fractional banking system. The best that the governments of the world could have done was to put a ban on borrowing/lending money for a year or three and then forgiven all debt while allowing people to keep what they bought with that debt. Some people would have lost some money but most people would have been ok. And the people who did lose? shrug, when you loan out money you’re taking the risk that you won’t get it back.

      • Lanthanide 3.2.1

        You know all those bank deposits, normally called “savings”? That’s a loan that you have made to your bank. Think about the implications of what you’re suggesting – it won’t just be “some people” that lose “some money”.

        • Draco T Bastard

          I’m quite aware of that and I had thought about it. My conclusion was that most people, living at subsistence level and therefore with little or no savings, wouldn’t be adversely affected. After all, they wouldn’t actually lose anything that they had.

          Anyway, I said that was the best they could have done – I didn’t say that it would ever be done.

      • Lew 3.2.2

        Financial Year Zero.


  4. MikeE 4

    A fine example of why the state should stay out of business eh?

  5. Tim Ellis 5

    Interesting points Marty.

    Dubai is an extraordinary place. The degree of one-upmanship (it’s often reported that Dubai had until recently a quarter of the world’s cranes) in Dubai is just astonishing. The excess and desire to build a great city from the sand is perplexing. The money had to run out sometime.

    Still I suppose Rome, Paris and Prague were built by people with grand ideas as well.

  6. vto 6

    Some more thoughts. This illustrates one of my theorems on the recent boom bust scenario. Many people regard the recent boom as all puffery and no substance. Built on false credit and false hope and unsustainability and etc.

    But that is not quite right. The recent boom allowed mankind to accomplish some things, such as Dubai. The recent money glut in fact spawned many things like this – the mcmansions were actually built and families were born and raised in them, people rested their weary heads in them at night, the yachts and ferraris were actually crafted and drive and sail today. They still exist right now and continue to be used and enjoyed. They were made by mostly normal people using their tools and skills to make these things. Tall buildings were built, rockets were sent to the sky, millions were employed. Physical creation happenned. Work happenned. Dreams were met. People got to live an upgraded lifestyle. A better standard of living was enjoyed.

    Sure there is a hangover now, but things were built and accomplished. So while it is oh so easy to lambast in miraculous hindsight, the accomplishments should be given their due.

    (I’m sure that will all go down in a rather smelly manner with readers given the certain loathing of ferraris and superyachts and mcmansions etc on here.)

    • Draco T Bastard 6.1

      Things were built and accomplished the problem is the financial economy which, according to some reports I’ve read, now has a total value of derivatives of ~$1 quadrillion while the real economy has a value of ~$1 trillion. When the financial aspect of the economy is larger than the real economy then something has to give.

      BTW, the only way that the financial economy can get larger than the real economy is due to the fractional reserve banking system and the lack of regulation and oversight.

      • Quoth the Raven 6.1.1

        Criticism of the fractional reserve banking system your starting to sound free market 🙂 But I know you’re not.
        Captcha Bank

        • Draco T Bastard

          I’ve been criticising the fractional reserve banking system for a few of years. Anybody who actually thinks about it and holds it up to some logic must come to the conclusion that it’s completely delusional.

  7. Quoth the Raven 7

    In light of the talk of monetary reform here it is instructive to look at what the central bank in Dubai did: What’s Behind the Dubai’s Financial Crisis?

    The key factor behind the crisis is the boom-bust policy of the UAE central bank. After closing at 4% in October 2006 the yearly rate of growth of the central bank’s balance sheet (the pace of monetary pumping) climbed to 177% by December 2007. In response to this pumping the yearly rate of growth of UAE’s monetary measure AMS jumped from 6% in October 2006 to 62% by April 2008. This massive pumping has given support to various activities that without the money pumping wouldn’t have emerged. In short these activities cannot stand on their own feet without support from monetary pumping.

    Since January 2008 the pace of pumping by the central bank has been trending down. In January this year the yearly rate of growth of the central bank’s balance sheet plunged to minus 36.5%. As a result the yearly rate of growth of money supply fell to minus 12.5% by July this year. It is the fall in monetary pumping that is currently putting pressure on various activities that sprang up on the back of previous massive monetary pumping.

  8. tsmithfield 8

    The indications are that the Dubai problem is pretty much contained. It looks like their very rich neighbour, Abu Dubai is going to bail them out. Of more concern is other heavily-indebted countries with the potential to default. e.g. Ireland, Greece, etc. That is what the Dubai situation has brought to into sharp focus.

    I am not sure that bailing out failing enterprises, national or private, is a good thing. It only prolongs inefficient systems that may be better to fail and re-emerge as something more efficient.

    BTW, I seem to remember that many commentators here were advocating that we going on a borrow and spend blitz to get us out of the recession. In hind-sight, that sought of approach may well have put us in the same boat as some of those nations that the investors are very concerned about now.

    Any comments from those who were making borrow and spend recommendations now?

    • Pascal's bookie 8.1

      It’s worth bearing in mind that the bank bailouts were not stimulus. They really should be thought of seperately. The bank bailouts were to prevent a financial crisis, the stimulus packages were about the economic crisis.

      Also, ‘borrow and spend’ is nice rhetoric, but dishonest. The point is stimulus. That is what is advocated. the borrowing is necessary usually, and the spending needs to be done right.

      But anyway, I anticipated your request here:

      Pascal’s bookie
      November 26, 2009 at 11:01 am
      NYT has a round up of economists (both from academia and the private sector) on the US stimulus:


      with graph, strangely hidden behind a sidebar link:


      rumours of it’s failure; unsupported.

      Main criticisms are of the tax cut aspects put in to appease right wingers and that those made less money available for the parts that, you know, worked.

      • tsmithfield 8.1.1

        It is working to the extent that it is artificially pumping up asset prices through the carry-trade on the US dollar and the like. If you factor in the decline of the US dollar, for instance, the S&P500 hasn’t grown in real terms since about July, even though the US stock market appears to be roaring ahead. So, the US are basically inflating themselves into oblivion. It is a really fine balance the Fed has to tread to avoid the US becoming another Zimbabwe.

        If you want to get a good, diverse range of commentary on all these sorts of issues, I suggest you have a look at:


        The real debate is, is it actually a good thing to bail out the world economies, or would it have been better in the long run to have let them fail and start again a-fresh and endure some long-term pain for the next couple of decades.

        The current attempts to rescue the world economies is just going to lead to more asset bubbles in the future. In fact, Bernake seems to accept this as the necessary consequence of cleaning up the current mess.

        • Pascal's bookie

          I try not to confuse the markets with the economy.

          • tsmithfield

            If the markets aren’t the economy, then what is?

            • Pascal's bookie

              For real? Serial?

              Surely you’d agree that the financial markets are a part of the economy.

              If so, necessarily, to use them as a proxy for the economy in total, = fail.

  9. tomfarmer 9

    small thing Marty,

    you mention ‘partial default’ and mebbe best you state the DW figure (latest) of restructuring to cover $26bn debt.. to explain this..

    that said would other commenters like tell us what the world would look like today without stimpacks.. yes, and including the enzed government’s income tax reduction packages.. it is all very well to yak about matters after the event, but courage in human affairs has hardly ever been theoretical..

  10. Bored 10

    Read Kunstler.com this morning on this very subject, very illuminating.

  11. tsmithfield 12

    Pascal “For real? Serial?

    Surely you’d agree that the financial markets are a part of the economy.

    If so, necessarily, to use them as a proxy for the economy in total, = fail.”

    I meant markets in the widest sense, as developed from the days of bartering etc, not just the financial markets. Do you agree that, in that context, the markets are the economy? Think about it. Even an employee is engaging in a market function of exchanging their labour for money. I stand by what I said. The market is the economy.
    After all, you did say “markets” without qualification.

    • Pascal's bookie 12.1

      After all, you did say “markets’ without qualification.

      Don’t be knob. I was responding to this:

      It is working to the extent that it is artificially pumping up asset prices through the carry-trade on the US dollar and the like. If you factor in the decline of the US dollar, for instance, the S&P500 hasn’t grown in real terms since about July, even though the US stock market appears to be roaring ahead. So, the US are basically inflating themselves into oblivion. It is a really fine balance the Fed has to tread to avoid the US becoming another Zimbabwe.

      That is what I was talking about. And the fact that you linked me to a an interesting, but very financial and equity market-centric, website.

      Markets as you describe them a re necessary in some form for an economy, but they are not the same as the economy. Any more than a cardio vascular system is the same thing as a person.

  12. Bored 13

    TS, I have said before you should read a little more, your world view is incredibly narrow. As for markets, they are an important abstract in our current economic system, they may even approximate real transactions taking place. Markets dont physically make things, they dont actually consume, these too are components of economic activity distinct from a market. To ascribe markets with being the entire economy is to give an abstract a monotheistic position. If you have not done so already with your faith in markets you would do well to become one of those occultist fortune tellers and interpreters of chicken guts that as a profession call themselves economists.

  13. tsmithfield 14

    Bored, from the very widest perspective the activities you describe are also part of the market. Consumption drives demand which drives the need to make things.

    If someone gives you some seeds and you grow and eat the food yourself, then you have not engaged in the market. The moment you buy the seeds, then you are part of the market. Therefore, market=economy.

    • Bored 14.1

      TS, it seems obvious to me that you have a mechanistic viewpoint, purely materialist. A world view where there is nothing that might not be enumerated, classified and linked to a transaction. Its the picture common to Marxists and market fundamentalists, we are only units of consumption entirely self interested. Very sad, no free will and human spirit, merely self interested transactions, in your case labelled a “market”.

      As an aside, I am a keen gardener, I grow plants and harvest their seeds. In your terms I am part of a symbiotic market, the transaction is that I harvest and replant, the plant gets to grow rent free on my patch of micro biotic biomass, which I have (in a self interested way) seized from my fellow man through some pecuniary process. We are an internal market. Hurrah!

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