Margareta Pagano: Qatar is the new Venice and London has missed the boat
After losing out on a partnership deal, the LSE could fall prey to the ambitious emirate
Sunday 29 June 2008
Is Qatar set to be the new Venice? Like the Adriatic port in the 15th century, Qatar has big ambitions, a tiny population, many islands and huge wealth.
At one stage Venice had 3,000 trading ships, 300 navy vessels and was the richest and greatest trading port in the world. Qatar may not have the ships but instead it has a subterranean wealth of natural resources: about a third of the world's total gas reserves lie within the emirate. Much of the money it makes from gas is pumped into the Qatar Investment Authority, which is creating a fascinating portfolio of investments around the world, ranging from the London Stock Exchange to last week's stake-buying in Barclays bank.
Even more intriguing is the ambition of Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar who wants it to become the leading entrepôt of the Middle East – a mecca for companies seeking to raise capital and develop their local economies. It was a mark of his grand vision that he pulled off such a sensational deal with the NYSE Euronext stock market last week.
In a masterstroke of geopolitical manoeuvring, Qatar's stock market, the Doha Securities Market, brought the New York exchange in as a partner to buy a 25 per cent stake for $250m (around £125m). The two will work together to build a new integrated cash and derivatives exchange in the capital, and so in one swoop Qatar will get all the latest technology, the know-how and a platform to fulfil its ambition to become the main capital centre of the Middle East. It also wants local investors, which is why it's planning to sell some of its own shares in an IPO within the next three years.
Doha already has 43 listed companies with a market value of $136bn, but it wants to grow faster to beat Dubai and be the Gulf's main liquidity pool.
Over the past few months, Qatar has been running a beauty parade for the world's exchanges: the contestants included the LSE, Deutsche Börse, NYSE and a couple of others. It was quite clear what it wanted from a prospective partner: long-term commitment, a manager who could build and oversee the Doha platform, intellectual capital, and the kind of wealth that would help the Doha market do future deals – like a bid for its rival in Dubai, say. The little matter of the dowry was the easy part.
The NYSE was the obvious partner. It has all those attributes and it already has the experience of integrating exchanges across Europe through Euronext.
What is devastating for the UK is that Dame Clara Furse of the LSE couldn't or wouldn't make all those commitments, even though chairman Chris Gibson-Smith is close to the Qataris – so close that he brought them in as a big investor last year to rescue the exchange from Nasdaq's bid.
I am loath to say it again but the LSE really does look as though it is losing opportunities – and in doing so, it is starting to look careless. Apart from the lack of a proper derivatives market, the LSE could have been the beauty queen. But for whatever reason, Dame Clara was not able to clinch a deal. Once again she has been trumped by that wily operator Jean-François Théodore, the deputy chief of NYSE Euro- next who beat her to Liffe a few years ago.
But back to Doha, where the exchange is just one part of Qatar's plan to diversify away from natural resources and create its own dynamic private sector for when the gas runs out or prices collapse. For now, though, the Qatar economy is rattling along like a train: it's going to grow at 10 per cent per annum over the next five years and beyond that at 7 per cent. Current GDP is estimated at some $64bn. The ruling al-Thani family is a modernising one: there are plans to invest $130bn in the country's health and education and to back local enterprise.
Skyscrapers are the chosen temples to the new wealth, just as the Venetians built their palaces and bridges. There are other links to the Adriatic port: next to St Mark's Cathedral, you can still see the Fresco of Islamic Traders. Then the Arabs were one of Venice's biggest trading partners – big importers of glass and diamonds coming out of the city. Today the dynamics are not much different but the political challenges are greater.
If Qatari money and vision, coupled with US-Franco know-how, can bring stability to the Middle East by spreading wealth and opening local economies, then this could be a spectacular turning point in the region. But how long before they turn their sights towards London?
Kent digs in but it's mud in the eye for Bradford & Bingley's investors
Rod Kent, pack your bags – your time as chairman of Bradford & Bingley is up. Or at least it should be.
Is it mere coincidence that that he has presided over not one but two bungled takeover processes this year, twice depriving long-suffering shareholders of value?
The shenanigans at B&B last week, which saw Kent and his board thwart the attempts of the former Zombie fund raider, Clive Cowdery, who sought to put an alternative on the table to the Texas Pacific Group (TPG) private equity stitch-up, is scandalous.
Cowdery described Kent and his board's refusal to open up the books to closer inspection as "entrenched", and it's difficult to argue against such an accusation.
Andy Stewart, the founder of Cenkos, the brokerage that tried to buy Close Brothers, which had Kent at the helm at the time, was equally disparaging about the obstinacy of Kent when he was also denied a proper look at the blue-blooded bank.
Once is bad enough, but twice?
The weight of informed opinion was very much on the side of Cowdery, who enjoyed the support of the Association of British Insurers, angry at the TPG deal, the UK Small Shareholders Association, and an estimated 25 per cent of B&B's institutional shareholder base too.
It's tricky to see what course of action is now left for the battered B&B shareholders after Kent's decision. With no alternative offer on the table, accepting TPG's preferential involvement seems unavoidable.
Perhaps Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Money group, which described B&B as a "damaged brand", might still ride back in to save the day? Possible but unlikely.
TPG will use the B&B deal as a springboard to snap up banking "bargains" such as Alliance & Leicester and maybe even a slimmed-down Northern Rock.
But judging by a defiant statement on Friday, TPG will probably have to duel it out with Cowdery, who has promised to pursue opportunities in the sector in his quest to create a "new larger, stronger bank with an AA rating".
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