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RPT-MIDEAST DEBT-Gulf's rate reprieve may end as U.S. spreads stop narrowing

(Repeats Tuesday item)

* U.S.-Gulf three-month rate spreads lowest in about a decade

* Narrowing has cushioned Gulf economies, real estate markets

* But little room left for further narrowing

* Market conditions may change as loan demand picks up

* Saudi likely to raise repo rate as soon as in March

DUBAI, Feb 13 (Reuters) - A dramatic narrowing of spreads between interest rates in the United States and the Gulf cushioned the region's economies last year, but the trend may be close to ending as demand for loans picks up and monetary policy tightens further.

Any move towards significantly higher regional rates - those in Saudi Arabia have actually fallen in the past year, against the U.S. tide - could weigh on a modest acceleration of economic growth expected in 2018.

In theory, short-term money rates in the United States and the Gulf should move in similar ways as the region's currencies are closely linked to the U.S. dollar, leaving central banks little room to conduct independent monetary policies.

But in the last couple of years, theory has gone out the window and spreads have fluctuated wildly as Gulf economies struggle under the impact of low oil prices.

On Monday, the three-month Saudi interbank offered rate was just 8 basis points above its U.S. dollar equivalent - the smallest gap since mid-2009, when rates were distorted by the global financial crisis - compared with 104 bps at the end of 2016.

Meanwhile, the spread of three-month money in the United Arab Emirates has shrunk on occasions to zero in the last several weeks, the lowest since late 2008. It stood at 6 bps on Monday.

Narrowing spreads have been good news for businessmen and consumers in the Gulf, shielding them from some of the pain of the Federal Reserve's five increases in U.S. rates since late 2015. In particular, slumping real estate markets in Dubai and elsewhere in the region, deflated by low oil prices, have been spared a significant rise in loan costs.

While the three-month U.S. dollar London interbank offered rate has surged 82 bps in absolute terms since the end of 2016, the three-month Saudi rate is down slightly and the UAE rate has edged up only gradually.

That pattern may change in the coming months as the U.S. central bank continues to raise rates. Markets expect between two and four more Fed hikes of 25 bps each in 2018, and this time, the conditions that insulated the Gulf from U.S. policy may change.

"Spreads have narrowed so much that it's difficult for them to narrow more. The feed-through from higher U.S. rates might be more this year, more of a headwind for the economy," said Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, said of the outlook in the UAE.

Economic growth in the Gulf oil exporters is expected to pick up a little this year; analysts predicted in a Reuters poll last month that Saudi gross domestic product would expand 1.5 percent, after contracting 0.5 percent in 2017.

But growth looks likely to stay far below the pace of around 5 percent early this decade, and real estate markets are in poor shape to cope with higher interest rates. Dubai property prices are estimated to be down as much as 16 to 19 percent from peaks hit several years ago.

LOAN GROWTH

Olivier Panis, senior regional credit officer at Moody's Investors Service in Dubai, said Saudi spreads narrowed for two main reasons last year: less demand for loans due to the weak economy, and lower domestic borrowing by the government.

Bank lending to the Saudi private sector shrank 0.8 percent from a year earlier in December. However, Panis expects overall loan growth to pick up this year because of greater government spending and a slightly stronger economy.

Loan growth could reach 4-5 percent in 2018 and 8-10 percent in 2019. That would not be enough to tighten the money market significantly, Panis said, but it could prevent a further loosening and start to change the outlook for rates.

Similarly, annual bank lending growth in the UAE sank to 0.4 percent in December, the lowest in at least three years. Panis said growth could rebound to around 5 percent in 2018.

Another factor pushing down Gulf spreads, bankers say, is increased confidence about the stability of the region's financial system after last year's recovery in oil prices.

Governments now have more money to support banks if needed, so banks demand less of a risk premium in lending to each other. But that trend may have run its course; Brent crude has dropped back to around $63 a barrel from above $70 last month.

In Saudi Arabia the central bank, keen to protect the economy, kept money rates low last year by adjusting the way in which it responded to each U.S. rate rise. It increased its reverse repo rate, at which commercial banks deposit money with the central bank, by 25 bps each time but did not move its repo rate, used to lend money to banks.

That strategy cannot continue much longer, however, because the corridor between the rates has narrowed to just 50 bps. Too narrow a corridor would remove the incentive among banks to lend among themselves, damaging the money market.

A Saudi commercial banker predicted the central bank would have to raise the repo rate after the next U.S. rise, expected in March; Malik said the corridor might conceivably narrow to 25 bps. Either way, the repo rate looks set to begin climbing sometime in 2018, pulling the money market with it.

History shows it is not impossible for Gulf spreads to continue tightening into negative territory; the Saudi-U.S. spread reached almost minus 100 bps in 2008.

But that was during the global crisis, when emergency measures by central banks and a freezing up of money markets influenced rates. In more normal times, banks are unlikely to lend more cheaply in the Gulf than in the United States.

"Spreads have sometimes been negative in the past but this has been very rare and unsustainable," said a Gulf banker. "Markets will tend to demand some kind of premium for the risk of lending in the Gulf versus the U.S."

(Reporting by Andrew Torchia; editing by David Stamp)