LONDON (Reuters) - Billed a year ago as saviors of Western capitalism, sovereign wealth funds now look as vulnerable to the credit crunch as anyone else and are witnessing a rapid downgrade to their growth outlook.
Less than a year ago these state-owned funds from countries ranging from the United Arab Emirates to Singapore were pouring some $80 billion into major banks crippled by the fallout of a collapsing U.S. housing sector.
Their sometimes flashy style of investment, at a time when hedge funds and other major players licked wounds from the credit crisis, prompted speculation that they could effectively underwrite malfunctioning global markets.
Now their future is looking less rosy as the value of their investments sinks, tumbling oil prices reduce future income and governments eye the extra capital to reflate local economies.
As the pace of wealth generation slows, these funds may not only row back from buying riskier assets but some may even be forced to cut investments to fund domestic fiscal needs, potentially adding stress to already frail world asset markets.
Many people are convinced of their increasing role in the global economy, but experts are slashing their forecast on how rapidly assets managed by sovereign wealth funds -- currently around $3 trillion -- will grow over the next several years.
Morgan Stanley, for example, now expects global SWF assets will grow to $10 trillion by 2015, down from their previous projection of $12 trillion.
Merrill Lynch, taking into account slower rates of transfer of funds from central banks to SWFs, expects total assets to hit $5 trillion by 2012, instead of by 2011 previously forecast.
The outlook risks a further downgrade if oil prices extend losses, and stocks and other asset markets do not recover soon.
“We need to acknowledge that SWFs’ firepower may have been constrained somewhat,” said Stephen Jen, global head of currency research at Morgan Stanley.”We are now taking seriously the possibility that some SWFs may be forced to sharply slow down their pace of purchases of risky assets or, in extreme cases, liquidate parts of their portfolio in the coming year or so.”
He estimates SWFs may have seen paper losses on the order of 25 percent this year as global stock markets and other alternative asset markets declined.
World stocks fell 47 percent this year, while those in emerging markets, where many of the SWFs are from, endured an even bigger loss of over 60 percent.
“They are going to face severe restrictions on their operations. They’re going to stop the trend toward ... glamour investment and big splash spending,” said Alexander Mirtchev, chairman of the board of directors of Kazakhstan’s SWF Kazyna.
Mirtchev, who is also an economic adviser to the Kazakh prime minister, said SWFs were likely to shift their focus on productive assets that are related to their own economies, such as natural resources or technologies, in order to survive.
“They are going to unload non-core assets they have acquired during the boom times. They are not going to buy hotels in Bermuda when countries need something else,” he said.
Merrill Lynch expects that given losses in stocks and alternative investments and a marginal gain in fixed income, a 50-20-30 portfolio allocation split in these asset classes would have produced returns of -16.7 percent in the third quarter.
The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, considered the world’s largest SWF, invested $7.5 billion in Citigroup in November 2007. Since then, Citi’s share price has fallen 75 percent.
BALANCING THE IMBALANCES
Apart from paper losses, there are more fundamental forces that would slow growth of wealth funds in the longer term.
Oil, which is the main source of foreign currency revenues for nations with big SWFs, has fallen over $90 a barrel from its July record high to trade at two-year lows below $54.
Moreover, a reversal in the dollar’s seven-year downtrend and a shrinking U.S. trade deficit -- as a result of falling domestic demand -- mean emerging economies have less need to intervene in the currency market and accumulate FX reserves.
Therefore, growth of “über cash,” or surplus reserves beyond the 4 months import cover needed for balance of payments and liquidity purposes, is likely to contract in the next few years.
Consultancy IHS Global Insight expects the growth of excess surplus reserves to slow to 5 percent next year, and then turn negative for three years from 2010. This compares with gains of 29 percent and 16 percent respectively in 2007 and 2008.
“Growth of sovereign wealth funds is inextricably linked to global imbalances. The U.S. deficit is narrowing and the surplus is narrowing elsewhere,” said Jan Randolph, head of sovereign risk at IHS Global Insight. “That means there is a lot less coming in, and a lot less sovereign wealth available.”
In some countries such as Russia, the central bank has had to draw down on its reserves to defend its national currency as capital flies out of emerging economies. Its foreign reserves have fallen by a fifth to $475.4 billion since August.
Kuwait has asked its sovereign wealth fund to set up a long-term fund to invest in a local bourse.
Slowing growth means SWFs are being forced to rethink their bank-heavy strategies and diversify further .
“The resources which generate the SWFs are depleting and investments needed to be made in global alpha assets which can generate sustainable cash flows for the future generations,” said Michael Nobrega, head of Canadian pension fund OMERS.
“Alpha assets are major real estate, infrastructure and related private market assets.”
OMERS has a partnership with the Government of Singapore Investment Corp to co-invest in private firms. It is also in talks with the ADIA to make multi-billion-dollar joint investments in infrastructure and real estate assets.
“Capital pools have a responsibility to their stakeholders to diversify their investments. The folly of focusing principally on one sector is now evident to SWFs which have incurred significant losses in the financial sector,” he said.
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