NEW YORK – Dubai's debt crisis rattled world financial markets Friday, raising concerns that some banks could further tighten lending and hamper the global economic recovery.
The possible spillover effects from Dubai fed fears that international banks could suffer big losses if the debt-laden emirate is forced to default. That sent stock and commodity markets tumbling in New York, London and Asia as investors flocked to the U.S. dollar as a safe haven.
But earlier concerns that the crisis might trigger another major financial meltdown seemed to ease Friday after some analysts downplayed the risks for U.S. banks. U.S. stocks rebounded from their earlier lows as investors grew confident that the damage might be contained.
"I don't think the collateral damage is going to be that great," said Jeffrey Saut, chief investment strategist at Raymond James. "People will dig into this over the weekend, but I think balance sheets have healed enough to withstand a shock like this."
Still, the unfolding crisis in Dubai pointed to the vulnerability of the global economy despite recent signs of recovery.
A year after the global slump derailed Dubai's explosive growth, the city-state's main investment arm, Dubai World, revealed this week it was asking for at least a six-month delay on paying back its $60 billion debt. Major credit agencies responded by slashing debt ratings on Dubai's state companies, saying they might consider the plan a default.
In recent years, Dubai has expanded with ambitious, eye-catching projects like the Gulf's palm-shaped islands and the world's tallest skyscraper in hopes of becoming a tourist friendly and cosmopolitan Middle Eastern metropolis. In the process, however, the state-backed networks nicknamed Dubai Inc. have racked up $80 billion in red ink, and the emirate may now need another bailout from its oil-rich neighbor Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Following a rout in Europe, Asia's stock markets tumbled Friday, while the dollar hit a fresh 14-year low against the yen as investors piled into currencies perceived as safer. Crude oil at one point fell more than 6 percent.
With Dubai World hard pressed to pay its bills, banks could take the biggest hit, analysts said.
Heavyweight London-based lenders HSBC Holdings and Standard Chartered could face losses of $611 million and $177 million respectively, according to early estimates from analysts at Goldman Sachs. Both have substantial Middle East operations.
In Asia, Japan's Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group, the country's No. 3 bank, could be exposed to Dubai World's indebted property arm to the tune of several hundred million dollars, according to a person familiar with the matter.
South Korea estimated the country's financial institutions have just $88 million exposure. Construction firms from Japan, Australia and South Korea behind Dubai's recent development boom also might be on the hook.
While most have the wherewithal to absorb any losses, Dubai's troubles could lead banks to reevaluate and scale back their lending. That could make it more difficult for companies to borrow money and hold down a world economy still emerging from the throes of its deepest recession in decades, analysts said.
Equally unsettling for investors was the uncertainty over which companies were exposed and how much money they might actually lose. European banks alone have $87 billion at risk in the U.A.E.
"It touched investors' sensitive nerves," said Cai Junyi, an analyst for Shanghai Securities. "The world is watching whether that will have any substantial impact ... Dubai World is just like a small window that might reflect another financial tsunami."
Emerging markets in the Middle East and elsewhere have attracted massive amounts of capital in recent years amid investor enthusiasm for regions with rapid economic growth. This year, financial markets in Asia and Latin America have vastly outperformed ones in the U.S. and Europe. But Dubai's woes could bring a temporary end to the promiscuous buying behind the boom, analysts said.
"I think it will make investors realize they need to be more discriminating about emerging markets," said Arjuna Mahendran, head of Asian investment strategy at HSBC Private Bank in Singapore. "In the longer term we have no doubt that things are going to recover."
HSBC declined to comment. Calls to Standard Chartered representatives were not returned.
Among other companies with Dubai ties, South Korean construction firms have about 40 projects there whose remaining work is valued at as much as $3 billion. South Korea's government expected the problems to have minimal impact.
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