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Dubai Spooks Investors But May Bring Buying Opportunity

While the immediate reaction Friday to the Dubai crisis was to sell stocks, many investors are more likely to wait for the issue to unfold before making any big decisions.

Dubai Palm Island
Photo Source: AP
Dubai Palm Island

In fact, caution rather than panic prevailed after the United Arab Emirates nation's ability to pay on its debts came into question.

If anything, pros seemed to be anticipating a buying opportunity should Wall Street get overly pessimistic about the Dubai ramifications.

"I would tell investors to sit tight and watch this play out," said David Kotok, chief investment advisor at Cumberland Investment Advisors. "We raised a little cash before the holidays. Hopefully we'll get to employ it in the dip."

A slew of advisors appearing on CNBC Friday weighed in about their positions in the immediate aftermath, most saying that Dubai's problems at worst would send the market into the correction that many have been anticipating for months.

Such an opportunity, they said, would bring about opportunities to get back into what some consider an overbought market.

"This is a good reminder that people have to be careful that it's not yet the calm, we still have bits of last year's storm operating," said Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of bond giant Pimco. "This is a catalyst for a repricing of markets across the board (for) markets that have gone too far on pure liquidity. There will be opportunities created because markets tend to overshoot on the way up and they overshoot on the way down."

A holiday-shortened trading day Friday saw light volume, so the day was unlikely to serve as a reliable barometer for what investors' true reaction will be to the Dubai situation.

Still, there were concerns that the problems could run deeper.

Dubai's standing as a centerpiece of the emerging markets dynamic that investors are counting on now comes into question.

Contagion from the nation to other developing economies—affecting their ability to import goods and drive global growth— would pose a significant headwind to the rally that has sent US markets up more than 60 percent off their lows.

Should Abu Dhabi balk at providing aid to Dubai, that would serve as an even greater catalyst for investors to start selling.

"This changes the animal spirits rather dramatically," said Dennis Gartman, editor of the Gartman Letter, which analyzes trends in commodities and other markets. "The fact that Abu Dhabi has not come immediately to the aid of its sister Emirate Dubai raises concern, it raises confusion, and as I like to say confusion breeds contempt."

Among other things, analysts were watching the Chicago Board Options Exchange's Volatility Index for clues as to which way the market is heading.

The index hit its low for the year earlier in the week but soared about 20 percent Friday.

"The VIX will have a huge impact on the market," said Andrew Keene, an independent trader at the CBOE. "We're going to have more details next week. Today's reaction is kind of like a blip in the bucket."

Yet Friday's selloff was fairly orderly and abated as the day went on.

All 30 Dow components fell but none dramatically. Caterpillar was the biggest decliner of the day on the bluechip index.

The other major indexes reflected the same trend, underscoring the notion that while investors were worried, nobody seemed to be panicking.

"We'll wait and see," said Art Cashin, director of floor operations at UBS. "I think this is somewhat tempered until we find out what the details are."

Those worried about what Dubai might portend for the market focused not on the situation in the nation itself, which most figure to be resolved one way or another, but rather on whether it will shake broader confidence.

A flight to safety would push the US dollar up, after months of investors using the cheap greenback to buy up undervalued assets.

"You don't get a hangover from drinking, you get a hangover when the drinking is done. It looks like the party is over in Dubai for now," said Jack Bouroudjian, CEO of Index Futures Group. "We have to be concerned that we're probably going to see some weakness as we start to see that trade unwind."

Indeed, investors may well start to take a closer look at some other emerging countries to make sure they're as sound as they appear, said Tim Seymour, of Seygem Asset Management.

"It doesn't mean that suddenly we have to reassess the credit quality of the whole world," Seymour said. "It has been a rough week. It may get a little rougher."