LONDON (Reuters) – Once the preserve of rich oil exporters or nations with trade surpluses, like Norway, Kuwait and Singapore, an unlikely new breed of sovereign wealth fund is emerging – in countries with large deficits and deep debt.
Sovereign wealth funds (SWFs), which first emerged in the 1950s, are traditionally associated with huge financial firepower. They control about $6.5 trillion, according to data provider Preqin, and have transformed the global investment landscape by snapping up stakes in multinational companies and landmark real estate in cities from London to Melbourne.
Now Turkey, Romania, India and Bangladesh are launching sovereign funds – but for very different reasons than usual, and with very different methods.
Traditionally, wealthy nations use SWFs to invest their surplus billions overseas to prevent inflation at home, diversify income streams and accumulate savings for the day when commodity revenues run out. In stark contrast, the countries launching the new funds, burdened by large current account deficits or external debt, are using them as vehicles to get their economies moving in the face of a global slowdown and lower trade volumes. And rather than splashing cash abroad, the plan is to attract finance from overseas and invest it at home to stimulate growth.
“Sovereign wealth fund is a term that’s used very loosely in the labelling of some of these new entities, they are more like sovereign holding companies,” said Elliot Hentov, head of research for official institutions at asset management firm SSgA. “They need to lever up – they need private sector co-investment to work.”
There are both potential benefits and risks to this strategy – and only time will tell whether it will be effective.
One of the advantages of having an SWF, apart from the cachet it bestows, is the fact it opens the door to industry associations and peer group networks that offer guidance and – crucially – contacts in the investment world.
Turkey runs an annual external financing deficit of around $30 billion, so it must attract foreign money to plug the gap. By putting the government’s stakes in big companies into a sovereign fund, Turkey hopes to attract external funding, by borrowing against the companies and tapping other SWFs for money.
Similarly, Romania plans to finance roads and hospitals by raising debt against the value of the government’s company stakes, or selling them via public listings.
India and Bangladesh want to kick-start infrastructure projects via new sovereign funds, with India seeking co-investors amongst SWFs and pension funds for its National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF).
Other funds have been mooted in countries like Lebanon and Guyana, but have yet to be established.
Such plans have had a varied reception depending on the country. Economists and industry experts have also warned of potential pitfalls that need to be avoided.
Critics worry that domestic-focused funds in general can fall prey to a misallocation of resources or outright corruption, citing the example of Malaysia’s 1MDB, which is the focus of money-laundering probes in at least six countries.
“The danger with (this model) is that in many cases normal budgetary procedures don’t apply, so they are a way of getting around parliamentary oversight and ministry scrutiny of projects,” said Andrew Bauer, senior economic analyst at the Natural Resource Governance Institute. Any lack of transparency can mean there is little way to verify how the money is spent, he added. One risk is that unviable “vanity projects” get funded.
However, in many ways, it is in the interests of countries to ensure funds are free of political interference, have a robust legal framework, a clear mandate and professional management – as these are likely to improve decision-making and, ultimately, returns.
Grouping state company holdings into a professionally managed fund can improve the performance of the assets – with, for example, Bahrain’s Mumtalakat considered a success in this regard. Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala is also cited as a fund that has helped diversify the UAE economy by developing industries in different sectors.
In Romania, separating company ownership from policy-making should improve transparency and accountability, said Greg Konieczny, fund manager of Fondul Proprietatea, a Romanian investment fund created by the state to compensate those who lost property under the former communist regime.
“Right now these companies are under line ministers that also set policy and strategy for the sectors they are responsible for – that never works,” Konieczny said.
Similarly, in India, where infrastructure projects are hobbled by red tape, a dedicated state fund may offer a way to accelerate the process, said Nikhil Salvi, a manager at Aranca, an investment research and analytics firm.
A major sticking point will be assessing performance – railways and ports may boost economic growth, but won’t show up on the fund’s balance sheet. The social benefits of new schools and hospitals can take years to come through.
“Many of these (inward-focused) funds do not publish a return benchmark,” said Sven Behrendt, managing director of consultancy GeoEconomica. “Whether or not investments are profitable … often remains unclear.”
The new funds also need to avoid the fate of those in poor countries such as Suriname and Zimbabwe, which failed to get off the ground due to a lack of capital.
India’s NIIF has been allocated $150 million for the 2017/2018 fiscal year, and plans to tap strategic partners to raise $1.2 billion in the coming fiscal year.
Bangladesh’s planned $10 billion fund will be seeded from foreign exchange reserves over the next five years.
“The fund will be used for mega projects, including repayment of any loans taken by the government in dollars,” said Jalal Ahmed, additional secretary at the ministry of finance.
Turkish fund head Mehmet Bostan told Reuters last month he would finalize a strategy plan and present it to the cabinet soon. The government has already transferred company stakes worth billions to the fund, and hopes it will be managing $200 billion soon.