* Deal selection boils down to returns, not politics -sources
* Prefers exclusive talks with sellers, not auctions
* Competition from private equity and pension funds increasing
* In talks with UK on billions of pounds of infrastructure deals
By Mirna Sleiman and Dinesh Nair
DUBAI, April 8 (Reuters) - Bankers and politicians touting their countries' wares have to work hard to get the attention of Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, such is the range of its interests, from banks to cars to soccer clubs, and its exacting requirement for returns.
With estimated assets of about $200 billion, and more than a dozen potential deals on its radar every week, the state-run firm has no time for less than compelling investment opportunities and hopes to make more than 17 percent on its book this year, according to one banker close to the fund.
In a series of interviews with top bankers and officials who deal with the fund, most of whom wished to remain anonymous due to their business relationships, Reuters probed the thinking behind the gas-rich Gulf state's investments and the future destination of its capital.
"There's clearly an open-door policy. Qatar has no mystery and no global mission to conquer the world. All it is is buying strategic shares in big companies at an advantage," says a senior banker at a global bank who has worked on several deals for the fund.
Qatar Holding, the investment arm of the wealth fund, has been actively deploying the nation's riches from plentiful natural gas in recent years in a string of high-profile assets ranging from French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain to stakes in German sports-car maker Porsche, British bank Barclays and Swiss lender Credit Suisse.
The world's top exporter of liquefied natural gas has a lot of spare cash to invest; recent figures showed a budget surplus of $26 billion in the second quarter of fiscal year 2012/13, or 54 percent of GDP for the period.
"The state exports 6 million barrels a day of oil equivalent (1m oil and 5m gas). At $100 a barrel, that would give revenues of $200 billion a year," the banker close to the fund said.
"After spending on government and budgets, the remaining $50 billion are channelled to QIA for investments. Qatar Investment Authority invests $40-$50 billion a year."
Executives at Qatar Holding, who said last year it had about $30 billion to spend, have said the fund follows no particular investment strategy and nothing is off limits.
"You name it - shares, bonds, real estate, private equity. We will look at every sector in every country around the world," Hussain al-Abdullah, Qatar Holding's vice-chairman, told a news conference in February.
"The Qataris have shown to be astute investors. Their focus is to identify good assets which they can acquire opportunistically regardless of geography or asset class," said Christos Papadopoulos, chief executive for the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan, at Standard Chartered.
"It's all about the price."
INFRASTRUCTURE, REAL ESTATE
A growing focus for the fund is infrastructure investment.
Another banking source said the fund had hired Deven Karnik, the most senior managing director of Morgan Stanley's Asia infrastructure fund until he left in March, to head a new infrastructure division.
Bankers say the fund, which paid 900 million pounds ($1.4 billion) last year for 20 percent of BAA, which owns London's Heathrow airport, Europe's busiest, is in talks with the UK government to invest billions more in British infrastructure.
"The fund is now looking actively at assets in pipelines, ports, airports, roads. Everything infrastructure will grab their attention now," the source said.
QIA is also bullish on real estate, having invested billions of dollars in high-end property in Europe, especially London, where it owns assets such as the Shard skyscraper.
It is looking at mezzanine-related deals with distressed sellers where the fund has a likelihood of taking possession of the property, said a London-based banker who advises the fund.
Qatar prefers bilateral transactions where exclusive talks with sellers allow them to negotiate better terms and it generally avoids auctions or formal processes with multiple bidders.
The fund also demands additional perks like downside protection contracts, which ensures their investments are safeguarded in the event of a sharp downturn in asset prices, bankers aware of the fund's plans said.
In recent months, the fund has embarked on an investment strategy of picking minority stakes in large global companies such as oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, jewellery maker Tiffany & Co and Germany's Siemens.
The strategy took an activist turn in 2012 when it demanded better terms from Glencore for its planned acquisition of London miner Xstrata, in which it had built up a stake of more than 12 percent, forcing the commodities giant to raise the share swap offer.
Among advisors, Credit Suisse, in which it holds the second-largest ownership stake of 6.2 percent, is a preferred choice.
The fund has also increasingly used boutique advisory firms such as Lazard, Evercore Partners and Perella Weinberg in the recent years on big deals.
Bankers say the fund's choice of boutique advisors rather than bulge-bracket investment banks shows its focus is advice, rather than financing requirements.
Advisers and bankers working closely with the fund say deal selection is all about the internal rate of return (IRR).
"It's 100 percent about economics and zero politics. Many deals have been killed if they don't make financial sense, even if they are politically beneficial. It all boils down to the IRR," a banking source close to the fund said.
In a rare media briefing in February, Al-Abdulla said the average return in the past four years was around 13 percent.
QIA does not disclose its targets, but a banker close to the fund said return on investments was 17 percent in 2012. "They don't benchmark against any index but they're hoping to achieve more this year," he said.
By comparison, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), one of the world's biggest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2011 annual review that it made returns of 6.9 percent on an annualised basis over a 20-year period as of Dec. 31, 2011.
An improvement in market liquidity and sentiment has meant large private equity firms (PE) and pension funds are posing more competition for the kind of assets Qatar is interested in.
"We have seen them walk away from couple of situations recently because the sellers brought in PE firms. When market conditions improve, the strategy of bilateral talks and negotiating better terms always don't work as there is always another buyer," a Dubai-based banking source said.
Another potential concern is the concentration of power and decision making with a handful of people and the absence of a large pool of second and third level managers at the fund who have the authority to make key decisions.
All deals are approved by the board, which includes central bank governor Sheikh Abdulla bin Saoud Al-Thani, finance minister Yousef Kamal and is chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani.
Ahmad Al-Sayed, managing director and chief executive officer of Qatar Holding, is another key decision maker.
"If the deal hits the $5 billion mark or more then it goes to the Emir and crown prince for blessings," one source said.
Despite the concerns, the fund's appetite for deals is only seen increasing in the coming years as it builds out a portfolio spanning several sectors and regions.
"Qatar has been very active and will continue to be active going forward. They are very smart and sophisticated investors and are very focused on what they do," said Elif Bilgi, country head for Turkey and co-head of emerging markets investment banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.