Monday, 3 March 2008

The Return of the Nanny State

It was the stuff that dreams, or nightmares, are made of, depending which side of the fence you sit on. Kuwait finally caved in to the demands of hundreds of citizens to write off hundreds of millions of dollars worth of loans that they have accumulated in mortgages, personal loans and car loans. To any GCC pundit this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Here’s why.

The Background

It’s 1982, the merchant families of Kuwait maintain a stronghold on the equities market and don’t allow new and relatively small investors in (does it remind you of certain listed companies in the UAE?) the aspiring Kuwaitis, living up to their entrepreneurs of the GCC reputation, decide to invest in a parallel stock market that isn’t officially sanctioned and based on a little more than oral promises. There was talk of key money for prime property, inflated valuations per square foot and lots of free “things can only get better” sentiments being distributed that bring to mind a sister emirate currently experiencing an impressive boom. The result was a stock market bubble that wiped off over $90 Billion[1] and guaranteed its place on the Who’s Who of equity crashes list for decades to come. The government which was prudent enough to establish two funds, the Kuwait General Reserve Fund (Kuwait Investment Authority to you and me) and the Kuwait Fund for Future Generations, used its accumulated wealth from record oil prices of the 1970’s to bail these literally poor unfortunate souls out of trouble. Like wild mushrooms springing up in forests, bail out funds were established to alleviate the pain (the Difficult Debts Program, the Minor Investors Fund etc.) and like wild mushrooms indeed, things aren’t always what they seem. It took several years for the economy to recover and as soon as it had done so August 2nd 1990 happened. Again after the liberation of the country the government felt obliged to assist its citizens in recovering financially and went as far as writing off 100% of all consumer debts[2]. The government’s generosity extends to various other elements of life in the state including but not limited to retirement income, marriage grants, housing loans, free medical services and education at all levels[3]. In addition to that the state employees 95% of its citizens (the private sectors employs an impressive 3%), with over 20,000 Kuwaitis on its waiting list as of January 2008[4]. In late December 2007 the government promised to enhance its already generous foods subsidiary scheme[5] it then announced a 20% wage increase[6] to state employees a year after the KD 200 one-off grant it has offered them[7].

Oddly, the country literally sent contradictory messages throughout 2007, first by announcing that income tax will soon be levied[8] and then by texting mobile phones of citizens to warn them to turn the AC down last summer, one would think, why not start by removing utility subsidies or making them selective to lower income level citizens.

Recently, in a heated parliamentary session that hundreds of citizens attended the government had to battle the demands of MPs to buy bank consumer loans of a staggering $14.65 Billion[9] claiming that the oil wealth belongs to all Kuwaitis. After a heated discussion the government finally caved in and agreed to set up a $1.1 Billion fund to pay citizen debts[10]. The government then announced that banks should shoulder a part of the bail out package by waiving some interest payments which could set a bad precedent making banks more wary of lending money in the future[11]. The truth is that outcome was inevitable, after decades of cradle to the grave financial support it has become a sort of natural right to expect the government to bail anyone who is unable to plan his or her financial life. Although this article tackles Kuwait only, other GCC countries have similar subsidy schemes that warrant a second look. Excessive subsidies lead to reckless investments, high risk taking, an apathetic workforce, and environmental waste as well as general unrealistic expectations on the part of nationals of these countries that come to see the government as a divine entity. The dreams of constantly receiving financial aid will one day turn out to be a nightmare that these states and their future generations cannot recover from.

What was that saying about no such thing as a free lunch?

There is if you’re having Gulf wild mushrooms.













Anonymous said...

well that debt repayment law never actually passed but you're right about a fund being set up to assist those truly in crisis by restructuring loans and buying debts but not forgiving them.

this was one of the cases where the govt actually was stubborn for the public good even though the people did not agree but the move will be appreciated in years to come.

the forced forfeit of loan interest by the banks was struck down in kuwait's courts in a landmark case a few weeks back setting a positive precedent so hopefully that is taken care of and can support the banking sector and prove the wisdom of the justice system.

finally, this is a great example of the moral hazard problem gone haywire. kuwait has to dial this trend back and its going to be a hard one in the prevailing economic environment.


Sultan Al-Qassemi said...

WWhich Hamad is this?
Do I know you bro?

Charo said...

Good words.