A revolution is taking place in world finance, and it appears that the world is sound asleep. Investment entities owned by nations are rapidly forming in the world. These entities are called Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs). While the SWFs started out by investing in purely corporate debt, the SWFs have begun investing in equities, bonds (both private and government) and commercial real estate. With SWFs capital increasing, the economic power eventually will translate into political power in global politics.
The term sovereign wealth fund was first coined by Andrew Rozanov in his article “Who holds the wealth of nations?” Sovereign wealth funds are a state-owned investment fund or entity that are funded primarily by: balance of payments surpluses; official foreign currency operations; proceeds from selling state lands to private entities; rent of state land to private corporations or individuals; taxes on corporations extracting mineral resources from state-owned lands; and fiscal surpluses and receipts resulting from resource exports.
The first recognized sovereign wealth fund is the Kuwait Investment Authority. The fund was established in 1953 with profits from the sale of Kuwaiti oil. The objective of the fund is to preserve wealth and to allow Kuwait to transition from an oil-exporting economy to a newer and more stable source of income for Kuwait and its population.
From 1953 to the present day, there are now 91 sovereign wealth funds in the world, with assets of over $9.1 trillion
Top 10 Sovereign Wealth Funds Country (in billions) 2021
There are informal rules of conduct for sovereign wealth funds under the Santiago Principles. While seeking to promote greater accountability of sovereign wealth funds, the Principles are voluntary and there is no enforcement mechanism. The Linaburg-Maduell Transparency Index which measures public transparency of sovereign wealth funds can be found here.
The Financial and Political Power of National SWFs
China’s recent military buildup and seizure of the Philippine’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea has been made easier by the success of China’s SWFs. The cost of the artificial island Fiery Cross Reef is estimated to have cost China $11.5 billion. The latest known increase in military spending for China was $13.3 billion, easily financed by CIC’s earnings from 2017.
The Investment Corporation of Dubai has been using DP World, which it purchased in 2006, to expand its political and military presence in the sensitive geopolitical area of the Gulf coast and Somaliland. DP World has purchased a 30-year concession, with a 10-year automatic extension, in the Port of Berbera on the Red Sea in the Republic of Somaliland. Berbera is located just across from Yemen, with the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in between them. Some 4 million barrels of oil pass through these straights daily. The UAE military is training the Somaliland military and establishing a naval base in the port. DP World is also developing the port of Bosaso in Puntland, another breakaway region of Somalia, and is currently considering investing in a third port in Barawe.
The Russian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the National Wealth Fund, has a valuation of $174.9 billion. Using its SWF, Russia has been following a policy of gaining influence in what they call the “Middle Eastern and North African” countries, aka MENA. The Russian goal is to increase its economic and political ties with the Persian Gulf states rich with oil.
With sanctions from the West cutting off Russia’s ability to borrow capital, Russia is dipping into the $174.9 billion pension fund to help fund Russian banks and to keep them afloat. The Russian’s also have the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF)
The RDIF was created to assist foreign companies invest in Russia without the entanglements of going through the Russian bureaucracy. The RDIF was responsible for the research into a Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V.
The Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund
he Norwegian Government Pension Fund is in reality two different funds. There is the Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG) and the Government Pension Fund Norway (GPFN). The GPFG is that part of the fund that invests in equities worldwide, along with government and corporate bonds and real estate investments, again worldwide. The GPFN invests in Scandinavian countries and in equities that are listed in the Oslo stock exchange. Both of the funds are managed by the Norges Bank. The Government Pension Fund Global earned $180 billion in 2019.
Nicolai Tangen, the CEO of the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, has signaled a dramatic change in its philosophy on investing in stocks, bonds, and land worldwide. Tangen is the founder of AKO Capital, a multi-billion-dollar investment company, and one of the largest investment banks in Europe. Tangen, in an interview with the Financial Times, said that “his role is to create a ‘safe area’ where people in the fund can take risks.” Given Tangen’s performance as an investment manager at AKO Capital, it can safely be assumed that the investment policies of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund will be more aggressive in the investment of its assets in the world market in the near future.
In 2021, the fund placed the private beer company Kirin on its watch list because of the governing military junta ties to this company. The fund is closely watching Kirin’s plans to end its manufacturing of Kirin beer in Myanmar. The fund has publicly stated that it would dissolve its stake in Kirin should Kirin continue to operate manufacturing facilities in Myanmar.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) was first established in 1971 and is currently valued at $360 billion. At first, PIF invested in conservative causes, but this has changed.
In the first quarter of 2020, the PIF poured $7.7 billion into blue-chip stocks such as Citigroup, Facebook, and the oil firm Total, but sold these stocks in the second quarter to take advantage of the higher prices of these company’s stocks and bonds. PIF invested $4.7 billion into exchange-traded funds. In July of 2020, the PIF boosted its public markets team by hiring Maziar Alamouti, the former head of Quilter Investors, a wealth management firm. According to a senior Gulf banking manager, executives at PIF are engaging in more equity analyst calls and are using global brokers to execute trades at their direction. In 2020, PIF had a return on investment of 7% and expects to expand the value of the fund to nearly $1.9 trillion by 2030. In order for PIF to achieve this ambitious goal, the fund will have to take risks normally associated with a private investment bank.
Possible Economic Consequences of the Rise of Sovereign Wealth Funds
The rise, and now evolving nature of sovereign wealth funds, pose a new wrinkle in financial investments in business capital markets worldwide.
One of the effects of the more pro-active investment activities of sovereign wealth funds is the economic concept of “crowding out.” While the term crowding out has typically been used to define government spending driving down private sector spending, the rising commercial investments by sovereign wealth funds globally will eventually crowd out the private investment banks by undercutting their ability to compete in the intermediation of capital worldwide.
With private investment capital unable to compete with a national sovereign wealth fund, various funds have the possibility of evolving into entities competing for power and influence on the world stage, thereby increasing the chances of open warfare among nation-states who wield power through their sovereign wealth fund.
The ability of a sovereign wealth fund to bring large amounts of capital to bear in private investment also brings with it an implicit ability to pressure foreign governments to support the parent company of any sovereign wealth fund in political matters.
While the United States has a protective measure against such pressure in the Committee of Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which was recently reformed and strengthened by the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018 (FIRRMA), the question has to be asked do the other modern economies of the world have the same protections in place? While the EU has adopted regulations for some protection against outside investors, EU regulations only suggest that member states review foreign investment in their respective economies.
It is not inconceivable that a sovereign wealth fund, such as the Saudi or the Chinese sovereign wealth fund might be used to pressure governments currently friendly to the United States to oppose a political initiative that would bring about an unfavorable result to the standing of the United States on the world political stage. CFIUS would not be able to affect such a scenario.