The Sham of Sovereign Wealth Fund Negotiations

While I am running around this morn, we have a guest post from naked capitialism, on all of those well meaning, non-meddling, only interested in return maximization  Sovereign Wealth Funds:   

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The Sham of Sovereign Wealth Fund Negotiations

The Wall Street Journal reports today in "U.S. Pushes Sovereign Funds To Open to Outside Scrutiny," that the US Treasury Department talking to two large sovereign wealth funds, Singapore’s Temasek and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, as the first steps in a process to ""draft rules to oversee the behavior of such funds, without discouraging them from investing."

Let’s see if I get this straight. The US is running a chronic current account deficit, which means we are dependent on the kindness of foreigners to maintain our lifestyle. In other words, we have to run a capital account surplus, which is tantamount to having other countries buy our real or financial assets. And while the fall in the dollar has reduced our current account deficit somewhat,  it’s still at a high level. Ergo, we need our money fix.

Brad Setser, who monitors the international capital data closely, has been reporting for some time that the private demand overseas for US assets has fallen considerably. The key buyers now are foreign governments. And those governments, who used to be content to buy low-returning Treasury bonds, are now looking to diversify their holdings and earn higher returns. Enter the sovereign wealth funds.

What is comical about this whole idea is the idea that we have any say in this matter. Of course, the US can nix individual deals, as we did to Dubai Port World’s purchase of UK P&O Ports. Dubai Ports had to divest five US port operations; the UK imposed no such requirement. Similarly, the US blocked Chinese oil company CNOOC’s bid for Unocal blocked, which ruffled quite a few feathers.

But we’ve already let foreign banks make substantial investments into our troubled financial sector, which one can argue gives them strategic leverage. Yes, these are minority stakes, the investors don’t hold any board seats. Nevertheless, as eminence grise Felix Rohatyn pointed out, “You don’t need to appoint two directors to a board to have influence when you own 10 percent of the company.”

Indeed, when Citi’s board was ready oust Chuck Prince, Sandy
Weill paid a visit to the bank’s biggest shareholder, Prince Alwaleed,
to make sure he was on board. Alwaleed owns a mere 3.6%,  smaller than some of the stakes recently acquired.

So consider the elements of fantasy at work in this discussion over these efforts to set guidelines on SWF investments:

1. We are pretending that a large stake in and of itself won’t lead to influence

2. We are pretending that we have negotiating leverage in this
matter. We don’t.  We need the dough desperately. Unless we get our
saving rate up to make ourselves more independent (which will almost
certainly lead to a recession or a very prolonged period of low
growth), we are in no position to place restrictions on capital inflows
(except now and again, for show)

3. We are pretending that any commitments made are meaningful. Let’s
say the SWF decide that it’s politically expedient to play nice and
agree to certain measures, like allowing for a certain amount of
transparency and publishing their fund objectives, which will of course
be to earn a certain level of financial return and will have nothing to
do with getting access, say, to resources or technologies.  First,
there is no way to make the funds conform to their statements. Second,
even if the funds are completely sincere when they make these
representations, a change in leadership can lead them to repudiate
their former policies, after they have acquired substantial positions.

So
these negotiations are really theater for the benefit of the American
public. We’ll plead in private, if need be, for the SWF to give us
something to keep Congress from interfering, and they may well agree to
cosmetic measures. Or, if they really have no interest in going along,
they’ll just string out the discussions until our financial sector has
another ratchet down and the wounded players have nowhere else to turn.

Oh, and another amusing and revealing tidbit from the Journal story:

Abu
Dhabi’s fund has assets of about $900 billion; Singapore’s is estimated
to have $300 billion. "The two funds are some of the most mature,
well-known and credible sovereign-wealth funds," said Treasury
Undersecretary David McCormick in an interview yesterday. "We are
actively trying to have many conversations" with different funds.

The
claim that these fund is "mature, well-known, and credible" is
mind-bogging (although those terms are so carefully chosen as to be
close to meaningless).

Ted Truman, a former senior staff member at the Treasury Department
and the Fed, recently developed and published a scorecard for the
Peterson Institute that evaluated 32 SWFs (see here,
page 12 for the rankings). On a 25 point scale, New Zealand was the
best, earning 24 points. Qatar was second to worst, earning a mere two
points. It got zero for governance and zero for transparency. This
Singapore fund (note this fund is different from another Singapore SWF,
Temasek, which got much higher marks) is third from the worst, again
scoring zero on transparency. While the story does mention these poor
rankings, it does so much later.

Also note that the story several times mentions that at least 11
nations that are recipients of SWF investments have made some
restrictions on direct investment. While narrowly true, the "11
nations" is a bit misleading in terms of the US’s stakes in  attracting
foreign capital. It creates the impression that all have common cause
when the reality is more complex. We now absorb 75% of the world’s
savings.  Most other countries can afford to say no; it’s not a luxury
we have.

From the Journal:

Seeking to head off a political
backlash against huge investments in Western companies by Asian and
Middle Eastern government-run investment funds, the U.S. is prodding
two of the biggest funds to embrace a set of promises that they won’t
use their wealth for political advantage…..

With encouragement from the U.S. and Europe, the International
Monetary Fund is aiming to put together by the fall what it calls a
voluntary code of "best practices." The code would cover how
sovereign-wealth funds are structured, how they invest, and how they
disclose information, among other things. The Treasury meeting appeared
to be an attempt to push forward that process. "Discussions are
obviously useful," says John Lipsky, the IMF’s deputy managing
director, adding that the fund wasn’t involved in the session.

Mr. Lipsky says the IMF wants to help the funds reach consensus on
issues such as transparency, governance, disclosure and fund
organization…"We’ll come up with something useful," says Mr. Lipsky.
"It’s in everyone’s interest."….

Officials in many national capitals are increasing pressure on the
funds to agree to revamp their practices. The efforts come amid rising
worries about the political implications of foreign investment. Over
the past two years, at least 11 major nations, including the U.S., have
passed or debated laws to restrict foreign investment….

The European Commission’s statement on the behavior of
sovereign-wealth funds, due to be released tomorrow, will urge the
funds to reduce their "opacity" so their investments can be
"demystified," according to an individual briefed on the matter…

But the commission will also make clear its commitment to remain
open to foreign investment. It will urge that investments be judged on
national-security grounds, not on more amorphous ones, according to a
European Union official…

The Treasury meeting in Abu Dhabi was another effort to persuade the
funds to change. The Abu Dhabi and Singapore funds are considered
significant because of their size, the difference in the sources of
their capital — Abu Dhabi’s money comes from oil; Singapore’s from
export revenue — and their unwillingness thus far to disclose much
about their operations. In a ranking of the openness of 32
sovereign-wealth funds by former IMF official Ted Truman, Abu Dhabi’s
fund ranked last, and Singapore’s ranked third to last. Any agreement
by those funds to make their operations more public could have wide
influence among other funds….

When contacted about the matter, a representative of Singapore’s
fund referred a reporter to comments made last month by the fund’s
deputy chairman, Tony Tan, in Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper. Mr.
Tan said the fund was ready to make changes, including regularly
announcing its rate of return on investments and clarifying the
objectives of those investments. But the fund wouldn’t disclose all its
purchases, he said, because that would put it at a "competitive
disadvantage" to hedge funds and private-equity funds.

Abu Dhabi’s fund, so far, hasn’t opened its books. But it may be
encouraged to do so by the example of state-controlled companies in
Dubai, a 90-minute drive away. Recent deals by those companies used
borrowed money, which obligated them to give bankers and other lenders
access to their finances. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are part of the United
Arab Emirates.

Source:

The Sham of Sovereign Wealth Fund Negotiations
Yves Smith
FEBRUARY 26, 2008
http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2008/02/sham-of-sovereign-wealth-fund.html

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What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. Jessica commented on Feb 26

    1) When the dust finally settles from the current financial problems, the financial industry is likely to be, umm, less popular. It will also substantially be in foreign hands.
    2) In any nation and any time, it is somewhat (or a lot) easier to blame things on foreigners.
    The political fall-out on this will be large and lasting. The main-stream media will have to use every bit of remaining credibility they have to make this all seem OK.

  2. Ross commented on Feb 26

    We used to rent. Now we are selling our soul to the devil.

    U.S. Treasury, a subsidiary of Goldman Sucks, will no doubt convince us that this is a good thing. The banks meanwhile gorge themselves on capital.

    Proud to be an American! I wonder if Jimmy Rogers will adopt me. I always wanted to live in Singapore.

  3. Brendan commented on Feb 26

    The US did not block CNOOC from buying Unocal. The house did pass a resolution that Bush review the deal. Unocal’s board prefered Chevron’s lower bid, which did not have the political risk of the deal not going through.

  4. rj commented on Feb 26

    “When the dust finally settles from the current financial problems, the financial industry is likely to be, umm, less popular. It will also substantially be in foreign hands.”

    Yes. People can talk about diversity and globalization all they want, but at the end of the day, the U.S. is overwhelmingly nativist when it comes to “we are the best and greatest” and no one will like having their savings accounts in the hands of Arab sheikhs or Southeast Asian dictators. I’d expect legislation giving significant curtails to these SWF.

  5. Stuart commented on Feb 26

    At a time when we are becoming more restrictive to SWFs, we are becoming more dependent upon them too. Now that’s negative divergence.

  6. cinefoz commented on Feb 26

    What I’m reading can be boiled down to the phrase ‘self absorbed xenophobia’. If you want to play, you have to pay.

    Part of the problem can be clearly associated with uninspired political leadership. The attitude from Washington has been to stick someone else with the bill. Conservation, real education, and investment for innovative new technology has been ignored in favor of a free ride. This is the bill coming due for using the national credit card far too often.

    You can whine or you can put forth the effort to get strong and become independent. Inspired leadership and personal effort is required for this. Aggressively tossing out the pompous old deadwood who brought this problem to our doorstep through neglect, stupidity, and the greed for personal power is the first step. Then smart people need to step up and make smart things happen in the free market.

    Whining about wealth funds is a loser ploy and will perpetuate loser results. It is only a work substitute for the lazy who are skilled at looking busy. Don’t just sit their and whine about those damn foreigners. You got what you bought. Do something constructive.

  7. Doctor of Love commented on Feb 26

    The US has always been a target for foreign investment. The infrastructure of the US in the 19th century was financed by (and owned by) British banks.

  8. ross commented on Feb 26

    “Most other countries can afford to say no; it’s not a luxury we have.”

    Actually, these capital exporting countries, through their central banks and SWFs, can afford to cut off most other countries if they regulate SWF investments. They can’t afford to alter investment in the US much, not without killing their currency policies. The US, as borrower, isn’t in a strong position here. But neither are the lenders.

  9. Francois commented on Feb 26

    Politicians will do anything to avoid telling the truth to John and Jane Q Public. The plain and naked truth is that we need to save more, spend less and get our house in order, financially AND politically.

    Also, the financial sector needs a hefty dose of spanking and monitoring; left to their own devices, they’re a freaking menace to any national interests, and that include US, members of the Uncle Sam’s club. Less engineering and more common sense required.

  10. Stuart commented on Feb 26

    How did that old saying go…

    The dollar, sure it’s our currency, but it’s your problem.

  11. Joe Klein’s conscience commented on Feb 26

    cinefoz:
    Who are you aiming that at? If it is at the party of the current occupant of the WH, then it is a start.

  12. wunsacon commented on Feb 26

    America has at least its fair share of freaking hypocrites who cry about trade barriers in other countries. (Not directing that to anyone here.) The ONLY “foreign-investment-in-America” America *likes* is investment in shitty financial papers: bonds, bonds, bonds, and troubled financial co’s.

    >> The US did not block CNOOC from buying Unocal. The house did pass a resolution that Bush review the deal. Unocal’s board prefered Chevron’s lower bid, which did not have the political risk of the deal not going through.
    >> Posted by: Brendan | Feb 26, 2008 8:16:37 AM

    That’s a distinction without a difference.

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