Sovereign Wealth Funds’ Somber Secrets

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The latest sovereign wealth fund (SWF) profile from tracker Prequin, after a decade of following the industry, shows assets largely flat at $6.5 trillion across 75 vehicles. The ten largest control 80 percent of the total, led by Norway with $835 billion and smaller ones in Malaysia and elsewhere have combined for scale. Hydrocarbon earnings provide over half of capital, with the Abu Dhabi and Kuwait Investment Authorities main representatives. Asian countries with large trade surpluses, headed by China, are the other 45 percent and non-energy commodity producers account for just 1 percent of the field. Traditional public equity and fixed income asset classes are in the portfolios of 80 percent of participants, and Ghana and Peru completely allocate to bonds. Private debt and equity also draws a majority, and over half are in alternatives like real estate, infrastructure and natural resources with Kazakhstan and Angola among the examples. Hedge funds are another strategy and take one-tenth of global institutional money there, but their short-term nature and illiquidity limit popularity. Equity engagement can be designed to support the local stock exchange as in Taiwan’s case and Venezuela is rare in having no such exposure after controls forced its market out of the MSCI index. Distressed loans are the chief private debt class, with European banks with EUR 2 trillion on their books the prevailing source. According to consultants Price Waterhouse the SWF definition meet basic criteria, including a clear mandate as a financial passive investor; an autonomous structure to counter the resource “curse” and fiscal imprudence; and distinct governance and operation apart from the government in power. Funds nonetheless can come under official interference and pressure despite nominal independence and protection, as with requests to Brazil’s and Nigeria’s startups to aid the budget and currency and the transfer of post-coup try nationalized companies to Turkey’s.

Turkey’s delegation to the IMF-World Bank spring meetings downplayed such concern and presented President Erdogan’s razor-thin referendum win on constitutional changes as a political stability sign. The next national elections are scheduled for 2019, and the Syrian border situation is calmer with greater territorial control. The GDP growth forecast is 4 percent, and the inflation burst from lira depreciation should recede to manageable single digits with monetary tightening. Externally, the current account gap should remain constant and debt rollover ratios for private companies are above 100 percent, although large holes exist in the balance of payment errors and omissions column. The structural reform agenda, which initially included private pension promotion, will be reactivated in the wake of the plebiscite and concentrate on better public finance management and other higher efficiency areas.  Russian representatives likewise cast Western sanctions and diplomatic tensions as a secondary issue, and dismissed recent renewed street protests as a challenge to President Putin’s rule. The ruble has firmed with rising oil prices, and the next budget will be disciplined based on a $40/barrel level. Tax shifts increasing VAT and reducing the payroll levy to tackle informality are in the works, and with good inflation and currency readings the central bank is in gradual rate reduction mode as supervisors continue to clean up the banking system. The deputy governor continues to win international praise for her technocratic deft touch, and was featured on a flagship “emerging market resilience” panel at the Fund meetings amid shaky geopolitics.

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