WASHINGTON - The Obama administration said yesterday it was monitoring developments in a looming debt default by the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai, whose efforts to fend off creditors sent stocks skidding around the globe amid fears of new bank losses.
The Dow Jones industrial average opened down more than 200 points during yesterday's abbreviated session. The index recovered slightly as analyst reports suggested U.S. banks had little exposure to Dubai, one of seven sheikhdoms that compose the United Arab Emirates. The Dow closed down nearly 155 points in light trading.
Around the world, fears focused on the danger that a massive debt default by Dubai could trigger similar defaults elsewhere. Such defaults in Mexico, Russia, and Argentina over the last two decades proved contagious.
"The Treasury Department is monitoring the situation," a White House official said.
The Obama administration and U.S. financial analysts aren't greatly worried about exposure to Dubai, whose main investment arm, Dubai World, seeks a six-month delay in repaying nearly $60 billion in debt. Citibank is the only U.S. financial firm that has significant exposure. Citibank, still depending on taxpayer support, has about $5.8 billion in loans, deposits, or assets tied up in Dubai, according to Barclays Capital, a global investment firm in Britain.
Citi's exposure in Dubai pales in comparison with those of two London international banks, HSBC, with $28.5 billion, and Standard Chartered, with $19.3 billion.
Middle Eastern banks have the greatest exposure to Dubai, and foreign banks, mostly European, account for about $90 billion, or 22 percent, of the $413 billion in banking assets in Dubai.
The effect of Dubai World's problems on the banking system could eventually touch businesses and consumers. Even if most banks could absorb any Dubai-related losses, the emirate's troubles could lead them to reevaluate and scale back lending. That would make it harder for companies to borrow and to help sustain the global recovery, analysts said.
A small area with enormous oil wealth, Dubai became a global magnet for investment in recent years as oil prices soared. It pumped money into creating a list of "biggests." Dubai boasted that it has or is building the world's tallest building and the world's biggest shopping zone, theme park, airport, artificial islands, and horse track.
In the United States, Dubai World owns at least eight office buildings and hotels, including the Mandarin Oriental and W Union Square hotels in New York and the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, according to data supplied by Real Capital Analytics.
Dubai World's projects also include a deal with the casino operator MGM Mirage to build the CityCenter project on the Las Vegas Strip. MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said that project was not imperiled.
"Dubai's announcements have no bearing on CityCenter, as it is fully funded and on schedule to open beginning next week," Feldman said. "Any possibility of impacts from Dubai's financial difficulties were eliminated last April" in a negotiated agreement.
The emirate's massive construction wave created soaring profits for global cement- and steelmakers but led to enormous debts. With oil prices down to about half their July 2008 peak of $147 a barrel, and the United States and global economies struggling to return to growth, Dubai's debt load caught up with it.
The U.S. stock market was closed for Thanksgiving, but stocks elsewhere skidded sharply. By the time the New York Stock Exchange reopened yesterday morning, Japan's Nikkei had closed down 3.2 percent and Hong Kong's Hang Seng was down 4.8 percent.
Even buyers and sellers of high-end racehorses are monitoring the situation. The emirate's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and his family have been among the biggest spenders at major American thoroughbred auctions dating to the 1980s, often paying millions of dollars for top bloodstock.