* Saudi stocks to suck in $20 bln in passive flows
* Foreign ownership in Saudi stocks just 2 pct
* Khashoggi affair might stem active flows -analysts
* Slow reform, high valuations also factors
By Tom Arnold and Saeed Azhar
LONDON/DUBAI, March 17 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in major emerging markets stock indices from Monday is likely to suck in around $20 billion in passive inflows, but unease after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and sluggish reforms could lead some active foreign investors to steer clear.
Saudi Arabia will be the biggest recent addition to the global indices, the largest of which is the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, which it joins from May. MSCI will give the kingdom a weight of 2.7 percent, between Russia and Mexico.
The kingdom is hoping the inclusions, starting on Monday when Saudi stocks join the FTSE Emerging All Cap Index, will kickstart its drive to become a major destination for foreign capital, after its global reputation was tainted by Khashoggi’s killing at the hands of Saudi agents in October.
The process should help bring in about $20 billion of combined passive inflows during 2019, analysts estimate. That would push up foreign ownership from around 2 percent, one of the lowest in the region, to around 6 percent, according to Al Mal Capital.
“The 2.7 percent pro-forma benchmark weight [within the MSCI index] is much more significant than prior index inclusions during the past decade,” said Alexander Redman, head of global emerging market equity strategy at Credit Suisse.
“And given that the proportion of assets under management within emerging markets passive funds is much larger than during previous index inclusions, it means there will be a significant amount of net foreign buying of Saudi equities.”
Analysts say pre-positioning by investors has been slow ahead of the process, however. Arqaam Capital attributes that to concern about delays to mega-projects, the kingdom’s fiscal constraints, high valuations for Saudi-listed firms and concerns that government asset sales will oversupply the stock market.
“As has been seen with a lot of other markets undergoing emergence, the reform process is not always smooth,” said Edward Evans, emerging markets equity portfolio manager at Ashmore Group.
“We’ve seen that in Saudi Arabia with their somewhat unorthodox approach to policymaking over the last few years, and the hope is that as the kingdom becomes more integrated in global financial markets, policy will become more predictable.”
The kingdom’s drive to diversify its economy away from oil dependence has had some hiccups, including a recession in 2017 and delays to plans to float shares in oil giant Aramco.
A source at a major western investment firm, who asked to remain anonymous, highlighted another reason why investors might be cautious. “I would find it unlikely that the active funds coming in will be anywhere close to benchmark as there are still reputation issues from holding Saudi assets,” the source said.
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), and other state-owned funds indirectly own the lion’s share of Saudi stocks.
Many stepped in to limit a market crash in October last year caused by foreign investors dumping stocks after Khashoggi’s killing. Some had made similar moves when foreign investors were spooked after the government detained hundreds of officials under an anti-corruption drive in November 2017.
The index inclusions are seen as an opportunity for those funds to sell their positions in around 4 percent of the market, estimate analysts.
Foreign net buying has picked up since the start of the year, hitting $2.1 billion year-to-date. That is still below the expected passive and active inflows that could reach a total of up to $60 billion, said Arqaam.
For an interactive version of the below chart, click here tmsnrt.rs/2NXK0gp.
Arqaam said concerns the government could oversupply the market and, in turn, pressure valuations were misplaced, with local institutional selling, particularly from mutual funds, well below foreign buying in recent days.
“We expect the Saudi government-related entities such as PIF to cater to the required demand of stocks in a controlled manner,” said Vrajesh Bhandari, senior portfolio manager at Al Mal Capital in Dubai.
Additional reporting by Hadeel Al Sayegh, Marwa Rashad and Abinaya Vijayaraghavan; Editing by Catherine Evans