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Sovereign wealth funds: Investment vehicles or political operators?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The $6.85 billion acquisition in 2006 of Peninsular & Oriental (P&O) Steam Navigation Company, a storied British shipping and logistics company, by Dubai’s state-owned DP World, one the world’s largest port management and terminal operators, sparked fears that governments could employ cash-rich sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) and state-run companies as political muscle.

Twelve years later, with the Middle East fighting multiple battles and external powers jockeying for influence, those fears have proven justified despite the adoption in the wake of the sale of non-binding guidelines for sovereign funds that manage hundreds of billions of dollars.

Concern that an Arab state would post 9/11 gain control of some of the busiest terminals in US ports, including New York, Newark, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Miami, forced DP World to exclude P&O’s American assets from the deal.

The worries prompted the creation of a multilateral international working group chaired by a senior UAE financial official alongside an International Monetary Fund executive that in 2008 adopted the Santiago Principles designed to “ensure that the SWF undertakes investments without any intention or obligation to fulfil, directly or indirectly, any geopolitical agenda of the government.”

Enforcing adherence to the principles has proven easier said than done. With the UAE, whose 1.4 million citizens account for a mere 15 percent of its population of 10 million, projecting itself as a regional military power in the war in Yemen and through the establishment of foreign military bases, DP World has since the US debacle been acquiring ports rights globally, including in countries where the UAE military is active.

To be sure, DP World’s expansion in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden often makes economic sense and may well have been initially commercially driven in cases like the agreement in 2008 to operate for a period of 30 years the Yemeni port of Aden, once the British empire’s busiest port. The company lost its contract four years later because of its failure to invest in the port.

The port has since taken on even greater geopolitical significance with the UAE military’s focus on Aden and alleged backing for a secessionist movement in southern Yemen in the almost three-year-old Saudi-led military intervention in the country that has allowed DP World to again enter into negotiations about assisting in rebuilding Yemen’s maritime and trade sector that would likely include the company’s return to the Aden port.

DP World’s involvement in Aden tallies in geopolitical terms with its own as well as the UAE’s expansion elsewhere in the Horn of Africa. The company won two years ago a 30-year concession, with an automatic 10-year extension, for the management and development of a multi-purpose deep seaport in Berbera in the breakaway region of Somaliland.

Berbera faces South Yemen across the strategic Bab al Mandab Strait, past which some 4 million barrels of oil flow daily. The UAE military is training Somaliland forces and creating an air and naval facility to protect shipping.

DP World was also developing the port of Bosaso in Puntland, another Somali breakaway region, and was discussing involvement in a third Somali port in Barawe. The Somali ports compliment a UAE military base in Eritrea’s Assab as well as various facilities in Yemen.

“Money and politics make a combustible mix: If you don’t get the formula right, it can blow up in your face,” analysts Adam Ereli and Theodore Karasik warned in a recent Foreign Policy article about the role of sovereign wealth funds in relations between Russia and the Gulf.

In one instance, Kirill Dmitriev, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin and the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), met in early January 2017l in the Seychelles with Blackwater founder Erik Prince, a supporter of President Donald J. Trump and the brother of US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in an effort to create a US-Russian back channel. The meeting, days before Mr. Trump’s inauguration, was arranged by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

The meeting occurred as UAE, Saudi and other Gulf sovereign funds as well as DP World earmarked $20 billion for investments in infrastructure, energy, transportation, and military production through RDIF as a way of strengthening relations with Russia. RDIF is one of several Russian entities sanctioned by the US Treasury.

“Even if allowances are made for sectorial and geographic diversification, the level of allocations to these markets is out of proportion to their size and viability,” Messrs. Ereli and Karasik said. In a separate article for The Jamestown Foundation, Mr. Karasik argued that “the Gulf states are using their economic strength to flex their political muscle, in order to invest in Russia at a time when Moscow’s embattled economy is struggling with low oil prices.”

Debate about the political role of sovereign wealth funds subsided with the adoption of the Santiago Principles. Those principles are currently being flaunted in an environment of greater economic nationalism, reduced US emphasis on transparency and democratic values, Russian and Chinese focus on economic benefit, and Gulf governments that have become more assertive in flexing their muscles and asserting themselves internationally.

Gulf sovereign wealth funds have learnt the lessons of DP World’s US experience and are likely to be more cautious in ensuring that potential future investments in the US do not challenge Mr. Trump’s America First principle as well as his emphasis on security. Elsewhere, they operate in an environment in which the Santiago Principles fall by the wayside and governments face little criticism of their use of sovereign wealth funds as geopolitical tools.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Economy

Business disorder between Europe and U.S.

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The European Union remains cautious in the economic battle with the White House. U.S. President Donald Trump continues to pursue his protectionist policies in international trade system. This has led to raising concerns and serious discontent among the United States’ European partners.

Disputes between the United States and other countries around the world are continuing on trade and economic issues. The fact is that U.S. President Donald Trump intends to exacerbate tensions until the presidential elections of 2020. Many international experts and analysts believe that a major part of the economic approach to the world of Trump has an electoral and political goal.

Many international analysts now talk about the conflicts between the United States and Europe over imposing sweeping steel and aluminum tariffs as a transatlantic “trade war”.

Conflicts that may extend in the near future and affect the widespread relations between Washington and Europe.

On the other hand, the authorities of Germany, Britain and France have not taken a proper approach to the policies of the President of the United States.Though politicians such as Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Theresa May seek to manage the situation and prevent the exacerbation of tensions with Washington, but people, business owners and European opposition parties are so angry at Trump and the U.S. government that the European troika’s authorities aren’t capable to control or even hide it.

One of the most important reasons for the continuation of Trump’s economic policies in the world is the passivity of European leaders against the White House. Under such circumstances, Europe has threatened to retaliate against the U.S. if Trump imposes steel and aluminum tariffs on European exports.

After Trump made his first announcement on the tariffs, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker threatened to put tariffs on American goods in response to Trump’s decision. That could decrease demand for those products inside EU borders and consequently lead to U.S. workers losing their jobs. But practically, European countries did not do anything about this.

Although some European citizens thought that the Chancellor of Germany would have a more determined approach than other European politicians, this was also a mistake!The German Chancellor stated that European Union member states must give the EU trade commissioner a clear mandate for negotiations with the United States over a long-term exemption from U.S. metal tariffs. Markel added: “Of course, we think it’s important that there are exemptions not only for a limited period of time … So far, we have had a very united stance, namely that we view these tariff demands as unjustified and that we want a long-term exemption.”

The fact is that Merkel’s implicit threat, which she didn’t address directly and explicitly because of her conservative policy towards the United States, is the same as the “European countermeasures” against the United States.

For months now, there have been months of anti-European measures taken by the White House and customs duties on European aluminum and steel. However, European countries have preferred to keep Silent instead of confronting Washington!
Indeed, the prolonged U.S.-EU talks on steel and aluminum tariffs is going to increase the dissatisfaction and anger among the European public opinion. It will also affect the performance of American companies in Europe.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Economy

Citizen Capitalism: How a Universal Fund can provide Influence and Income to all

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In the face of growing wealth inequality worldwide, more and more people are discussing alternatives to the current laissez-faire capitalism status quo.  Tamara Belinfanti, Sergio Gramitto and the late Lynn Stout offer up their own solution in Citizen Capitalism: How a universal fund can provide influence and income to all.

Our authors have devised up a concept they call the Universal Fund.  It’s like a sovereign wealth fund, but is privately created and funded via private ordering. That means that the Universal Fund is to be created from donations of stocks by companies and philanthropists.  The government would hence be uninvolved; the Universal Fund is not a socialist venture.  Rather, it is in part modeled on the structure of NGOs like the Sierra Club and the Red Cross. The Fund would provide an annual dividend to every citizen, with no maximum income cap.  Though it may seem absurd to send welfare payments to the wealthy, it’s politically savvy framing.  A free public college bill was passed in ultraconservative Tennessee thanks to having no maximum income cap; conservative detractors weren’t able to use the “class warfare” and “welfare queen” arguments. It should be noted that charitable tax deductions, estate tax reductions and lowered tax brackets would act as a de facto government incentive for the wealthy to donate to the Universal Fund.

The goals of the Universal Fund would be to decrease wealth inequality, encourage long-term investment and increase civic engagement in corporate culture.  On the last point, the authors remind us that, “The top 10% [of wealthiest Americans] hold more than 90% of all shares.”  Even in regards to the other 10% of shares owned, most of them are passively owned.  Most small-time investors don’t have time to vote in the annual general meetings of every company in which they are invested in.  Thus, boardroom votes are dominated by two shareholder proxy advisory firms and individual investors who own a substantial percentage of shares, as well as fund portfolio & hedge fund managers.

These Wall Street elites naturally tend to vote based upon their elitist interests.  Thus, they usually make decisions that are insane in terms of employee welfare, long-term corporate growth, executive pay and the environment. For example, `the authors remind us of the recent case of Martin Shkreli, the hedge fund manager who acquired Turing Pharmaceuticals and then raised AIDS medication prices from $13.50 to $750. This is the embodiment of the Reagan-era Golden Rule of maximizing shareholder value.  Not only is this Gordon Gekko truism objectively crazy, it’s actually legally unfounded.  Contrary to what you hear on CNBC or Fox Business, there’s no legal requirement that companies only focus on maximizing shareholder value.  The book relates the following quote from Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito comments in the recent case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby:“Modern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not do so.”

CITIZEN CAPITALISM points to the ongoing successes of the sovereign wealth funds of Norway and Alaska, an ultraliberal and an ultraconservative society, respectively.  The Alaskan fund generally provides each citizen with a dividend payment of a few thousand dollars each year, via the state’s oil revenues.  The Government Pension Fund Norway is a more pertinent example, since it’s funded through a $1T stock portfolio.  Norway is not only able to fund its citizens’ pensions through the Fund, but also exert a moral influence on the market.  The Fund boycotts various egregious companies, like cigarette manufacturers, and will sell its shares in a company that gets exposed for abusive practices, like say employing child labor.  Our authors likewise want the Universal Fund to use a carrot-and-stick approach in regards to corporate ethics.

The thesis of CITIZEN CAPITALISM is, as the title suggests, rooted in optimism for capitalism.  Though they write about the success of socialist program in Alaska specifically, a conservative state in the US, the authors are convinced that a sovereign wealth fund bill could never be passed in Congress.  Recent polls and election results, however, show that Americans are starting to overwhelmingly favor ambitious government-program proposals like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.  As I wrote before, the Universal Fund would mostly be feasible due to tax incentives; these government incentives would likely need to be greatly expanded in order to encourage enough stock donations to build the Fund to a substantial size.  Even America’s greatest philanthropists still stockpile billions of dollars in their offshore bank accounts.  Thus, one shouldn’t expect the Universal Fund or other private UBI schemes to become a replacement for state management of wealth inequality through programs like public school funding and marginal taxation.  Nonetheless, CITIZEN CAPITALISM is a stimulating little primer for rethinking the relationship between Wall St and Main St, managing the looming crises of a rapidly aging workforce and automation, plus the balancing of private and public sectors in regards to solving societal problems.

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Working for a brighter future

Cyril Ramaphosa

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Authors: Cyril Ramaphosa and Stefan Löfven*

We stand at a crossroads as seismic shifts take place in the world of work.

Technological advances are changing the nature of many jobs, and leading to the need for new skills. The urgently required greening of economies to meet the challenge of climate change should bring further employment possibilities. Expanding youth populations in some parts of the world, ageing populations in others, may affect labour markets and social security systems.

On one path, countless opportunities lie ahead, not only to create jobs but also to improve the quality of our working lives. This requires that we reinvigorate the social contract that gives all partners a fair stake in the global economy.

On the other path, if we fail to prepare adequately for the coming challenges, we could be heading into a world that widens inequalities and leads to greater uncertainty.

The issues are complex. As co-chairs of the Global Commission on the Future of Work  we, and our fellow members of the Commission – leading figures from business and labour, think tanks, government and non-governmental organizations – have been examining the choices we need to make if we are to meet the challenges resulting from these transformations in the world of work and achieve social justice.

We call for a new, human-centred approach that allows everyone to thrive in a carbon neutral, digital age and affords them dignity, security, and equal opportunity. It must also meet the changing needs and challenges facing businesses and secure sustainable economic growth.

The opportunities are there to improve working lives, expand choice, close the gender gap and reverse the damage that has been wreaked by global inequality.

But it will need committed action on the part of governments and social partners to turn those opportunities into reality.

So how do we achieve this? Three areas of increased investment are needed:

First, we have to invest more in people’s capabilities: This means establishing an effective lifelong learning system that enables people to skill, reskill and upskill – a system that spans early childhood and basic education through to adult learning. It also means investing in the institutions that will support people as they go through transitions in their working lives – from school leavers to older workers. Making gender equality a reality and providing social protection from birth to old age are also critical. These social investments will not only increase productivity. They will also allow for a more inclusive growth, where informal workers and business can both benefit from and contribute to a sound formal economy.

Second, we must invest more in the institutions of work – including the establishment and implementation of a Universal Labour Guarantee. This will ensure that all workers enjoy fundamental rights, an “adequate living wage”, limits on their hours of work and safe and healthy workplaces. Linked to this, people need to have more control over their working time – while meeting the needs of enterprises – so that they can fulfill the full range of their responsibilities and develop their capabilities.

Collective representation through social dialogue between workers and employers needs to be actively promoted. Workers in the informal economy have often improved their working conditions by organizing. Unions need to expand membership to informal workers, whether they work in the rural economy, on the city streets of an emerging economy or on a digital platform. This is a critical step towards formalization and a tool for inclusion.

We’re also calling for governance systems for digital labour platforms that will require these platforms and their clients to respect certain minimum standards.

Finally, we need to invest more in decent and sustainable work. This includes incentives to promote investments in key areas, such as the care economy, the green economy, and the rural economy, as well as high-quality physical and digital infrastructure. We must also reshape private sector incentive structures to encourage a long-term, human-centred approach to business. That includes fair tax policies and improved corporate accounting standards. We need to explore new measures of country progress to track important aspects of economic and social advancement.

Beyond these critical investments, there is a further opportunity: to place discussions about the future of work at the heart of the economic and social debates taking place at the high table of international policy-making. This could revitalize the multilateral system at a time when many are questioning its legitimacy and effectiveness.

Yet none of this will happen by itself. If change is the opportunity, we must seize the moment to renew the social contract and create a brighter future by delivering economic security, equal opportunity and social justice – and ultimately reinforce the fabric of our societies.

Stefan Löfven, Prime Minister of Sweden, co-chairs of the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work

ILO

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