In the last two weeks, we have seen the damage wrought by the potential default of Dubai World, a Dubai-government controlled company that funded some of the most extravagant projects on the face of the earth over the last decade.
While the magnitude of the default was large, it is interesting that it has shaken markets as much as it has. After all, there have been other large loan defaults in markets over the decades. So, why the panic? I think the reason lies in the unraveling of what I would call the "implicit guarantee".
What is the implicit guarantee? Consider a standard loan agreement, where a lender assesses a borrower's credit worthiness in determining how much to lend and on what terms. Through the ages, though, lenders have been willing to lend to borrowers who may not meet their credit worthiness tests, because their loans are backed up implicitly by others with deep pockets. Thus the money lender who granted a loan to the wastrel son of a wealthy merchant was trusting in the "implicit guarantee" of the father to pay back the loan; family honor was assumed to trump the absence of a legal obligation.
So, what does this have to do with Dubai World? Dubai is a city-state, with limited resources and economic capacity. The projects that were funded with the loans showed little potential of generating the cash flows needed to service the debt. However, Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates, which has significant oil wealth and lenders assumed that the UAE would step in and provide backing, when the payments came due. At least so far, that has not happened.
Why does this have global consequences? Let's face it. A significant proportion of all lending is based on implicit guarantees. From bondholders in companies that are too big to fail (where the government is the implicit guarantor) to banks that lend to troubled family group companies (expecting the parent group to step in and save them), it is the implicit guarantee that allows for the lending. To those lenders, the Dubai World default is the stuff of which nightmares are made. The initial worry was that other implicit guarantors would use this crisis as the opportunity to walk away from their implicit obligations. While that has not materialized, it should serve as a wake up call to those who have been cavalier about implicit guarantees.
What is the bottom line? I am not suggesting that implicit guarantees are necessarily bad but they can pose a danger when too large a proportion of the debt in a system is dependent on them. Since none of the parties involved - the lender, borrower and implicit guarantor - make the obligation explicit, it is possible for them to misjudge the extent of their indebtedness and for investors to make the same mistake. I have seen many Asian and Latin American family group companies that have little or no debt on their balance sheets but have unconsolidated subsidiaries with massive debt on their balance sheets (backed up by the implicit guarantee). If we assume that these firms will honor their implicit guarantees, they should be treated as highly levered firms.