Saudi Arabia: More to the market than oil

Where are the opportunities in Saudi Arabia stocks?
Where are the opportunities in Saudi Arabia stocks?   

Oil may be Saudi Arabia's bread and butter but as the Middle East's largest bourse gets set to open its doors to foreigners, investors may want to focus their attention outside the energy sector.

"There are 162 listed companies and the largest by market cap is a pretty diverse group: Technology, construction, financial services, retail, and chemicals. There are lots of different sectors that an international investor can enter," said Joel Whitaker, senior vice president of global research at Frontier Strategy Group.

Starting from June, qualified foreign investors with a minimum of $5 billion in assets will be able to invest in the stock market, known as the Tadawul. The $570 million bourse previously only allowed foreigners indirect access via equity swaps and exchange-traded funds.

Indeed, Tadawul's top five companies by market cap are all non-energy focused: Chemical manufacturer Sabic Basic Industries, National Commercial Bank, Saudi Telecom, Al Rajhi Banking and Saudi Electricity.

"It's a broad market. Although it is energy-centric, there are other opportunities for international investors like consumer goods, health care and banking," Robert Parker, senior adviser at Credit Suisse, told CNBC on the sidelines of the Euromoney Saudi Arabia Conference this week.

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Insurance and health care are especially enticing sectors, according to Frontier Strategy. The former is the second-fastest growing sector in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) because penetration is still very low, while the latter will continue to benefit from spending regardless of oil revenues, Whitaker said.

But will there be enough demand?

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There is tremendous appetite for Saudi stocks, according to John Sfakianakis, regional director at Ashmore Group. "This is the biggest story for emerging markets this year and the outlook looks good. The stock market is back to levels when Brent crude traded at $95, so I think the market is now pricing in higher oil levels."

Diversification is key

The new investment rules are expected to reduce the Kingdom's reliance on oil, something economists have long been recommending due to the commodity's volatile prices. Over 90 percent of Saudi government income presently comes from oil revenues.

"This is part of a long term strategy on the part of Saudi leadership to diversify the economy, and also provide more diversified employment opportunities for Saudi citizens," said Whitaker.

The rules could also offset the economic hit from lower oil prices. Citi is expecting a 3.3 percent growth contraction in 2015 and a 130 billion budget deficit, or 22 percent of GDP, if the Kingdom refuses to cut government spending in response to Brent crude's 40 percent fall in the past year.

The opening of the stock market is the latest in a series of dramatic developments under the new leadership of King Salman.

Last week, the King surprised the world by removing Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz as crown prince, naming his nephew Prince Mohammed bin Nayef instead as next in line. He also recently announced that Aramco - the world's biggest energy company- will no longer be controlled by the petroleum ministry. Analysts widely interpret both moves as a significant departure from the late King Abdullah's policies.

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To be sure, caution will prevail at least in the early months when the scheme kicks off.

"Investors like ourselves swill move slowly because there are limits on how much we can invest over time in the market, and we want to avoid chasing a market where valuations over time may start to look stretched if too much money comes in quickly," said Parker. Further interest is likely to come when the Tadawul becomes a member of MSCI's emerging markets index, he added.