Global Investing

There’s oil in them thar wealth funds

Some interesting new data on sovereign wealth funds from State Street Global Advisors, a huge fund firm that does a lot of business with them. Most interesting, perhaps, is that the vast majority of sovereign wealth fund money comes from oil and gas revenues rather than from countries building up large foreign reserves from other trade, eg China.

    – The U.S. firm identified 37 major sovereign wealth funds worth a total of $3 trillion. – More than two-thirds, or 70 percent, of that money came from oil and gas interests. – Of the 37, all had at least $3 billion in assets. – Eight of them had more than $100 billion. – Only 13 of the 37 funds were not based on commodity wealth. – Asia had the largest number of SWFs at 13. – The 10 funds based in the Middle East had nearly half the wealth, or 46 percent, between them.

These funds, incidentally, are becoming more like mainstream investment companies by the day. State Street says they are eventually going to turn into the equivalent of large public sector pension funds and could well start becoming more active as shareholders in companies in which they invest.

What’s on your reading list?

If anyone needed a reminder that Christmas and NewYear holidays are almost here, Societe Generale has provided it. Analyst Dylan Grice has picked up the mantle of the departed James Montier to offer a seasonal reading list for those with a fixation about investment and economics.

True, some people might prefer to immerse themselves in a rollicking sea tale from Patrick O’Brian or a good old  Sookie Stackhouse vampire mystery. But we know that Reuters blogs’ readers are a discriminating lot with a keen understanding of and passion for finance. So here is Dylan’s list of six must-reads:

1. Manias, Panics and Crashes, by Charles P. Kindleberger;
2. The Essays of Warren Buffet, edited by Richard Cunningham;
3. Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, by Edwin Lefevre;
4. Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Taleb;
5. The Case against the Fed, by Murray Rothbard;
6. Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, eds Kahneman, Slovic and
Tversky.

What worries the BRICs

Some fascinating data about the growing power of emerging markets, particularly the BRICs, was on display at the OECD‘s annual investment conference in Paris this week. Not the least of it came from MIGA, the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, which tries to help protect foreign direct investors from various forms of political risk.

MIGA has mainly focused on encouraging investment into developing countries, but a lot of its latest work is about investment from emerging economies.

This has been exploding over the past decade. Net outward investment from developing countries reached $198 billion in 2008 from around $20 billion in 2000. The 2008 figure was only 10.8 percent of global FDI, but it was just 1.4 percent in 2000.

Time to kick Russia out of the BRICs?

It may end up sounding like a famous ball-point pen maker, but an argument is being made that Goldman Sach’s famous marketing device, the BRICs, should really be the BICs. Does Russia really deserve to be a BRIC, asks Anders Åslund, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, in an article for Foreign Policy.

Åslund, who is also co-author with Andrew Kuchins of “The Russian Balance Sheet”, reckons the Russia of Putin and Medvedev is just not worthy of inclusion alongside Brazil, India and China  in the list of blue-chip economic powerhouses. He writes:

The country’s economic performance has plummeted to such a dismal level that one must ask whether it is entitled to have any say at all on the global economy, compared with the other, more functional members of its cohort.

A black swan in the desert

Just when investors were settling down to lock in a few of the year’s profits and put their feet up for the end of the year holidays, a black swan has come waddling out of the desert to put everything on edge.

The unwelcome cygnus atratus came in the form of Gulf emirate Dubai telling creditors of Dubai World and property group Nakheel that debt repayments would be delayed.  Fears of contagion spread widely, hitting world stocks, lifting the dollar out of its basement and driving demand for European debt so much that a roughly 6-month trading range for futures was breached.

It all may settle down soon. Dubai says the problem does not apply to its big international ports group.  Meanwhile, the emirate is a pretty leveraged place, but fellow emirates and neighbouring countries such as Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are pretty flush with cash. They could even step in to help as a matter of solidarity.

Good news and bad in investor confidence data

Good news and bad in the latest  investor confidence sounding from State Street. The overall index took a dive again — third month in a row — and is now barely above neutral. That’s the bad news if you are keen to see risk assets do well.

The good news is that despite three months of falling the index is still above 100, showing that risk appetite remains present among the U.S. financial services firm’s institutional investor cllients, albeit only just.

But add to that State Street’s findings that the fall in its global index was almost entirely due to Asian investors. The regional indices for North America and Europe both rose.

Credit rules, ok?

Equities may be the poster child for this year’s market recovery, but corporate bonds have been the runaway outperformer.

As the graphic below shows, corporate debt was less volatile and moer profitable over the past nearly three years of crisis and recovery — even “junk” bonds.

This year’s performance for corporate bonds has been stunning. In December last year, the spread between global large cap company debt and U.S. Treasuries was 155 basis points, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. It has now narrowed to around 52 basis points.

Pity Poor Pound

Britain’s pound has long been the whipping boy of notoriously fickle currency markets, but there are worrying signs that it’s not just hedge funds and speculators who have lost faith in sterling. Reuters FX columnist Neal Kimberley neatly illustrated yesterday just how poor sentiment toward sterling in the dealing rooms has become and the graphic below (on the sharp buildup of speculative ‘short’ positsions seen in U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission data) shows how deeply that negative view has become entrenched.              

 While the pound’s inexorable grind down to parity with the euro captures the popular headlines, the Bank of England’s index of sterling against a trade-weighted basket of world currencies shows that weakness is pervasive. The index has lost more than a quarter of its value in little over two years — by far the worst of the G4 (dollar, euro, sterling and yen) currencies over the financial crisis. The dollar’s equivalent index has shed only about a third of the pound’s losses since mid-2007, while the euro’s has jumped about 10% and the yen’s approximately 20% over that period.

There’s no shortage of negatives — Britain’s deep recession, recent housing bust, near zero interest rates and money printing, soaring government budget deficit (forecast at more than 12% pf GDP next year, it’s the highest of the G20) and looming general election in early 2010. In the relative world of currency traders, not all of these are necessarily bad for the pound — the country is emerging tentatively from recession, the dominant financial services sector is recovering rapidly and  short-term interest rates (3-month Libor at least) do offer better returns than the dollar, yen, Swiss franc or Canadian dollar. 

from DealZone:

Sovereign Funds sextuple down

They may be placing smaller bets, but sovereign wealth funds were back with a vengeance in the third quarter.

Global corporate mergers and acquisitions activity involving sovereign wealth funds jumped sixfold to nearly $22 billion in the quarter, with 37 deals completed. Global announced M&A volumes involving state investment vehicles stood at $21.8 billion, up from $3.6 billion in the second quarter, according to our data.

The number of deals more than doubled from 17 in the April-June period. Only two weeks into the fourth quarter, there were five pending or completed deals with a combined value of $164.7 million. At the height of the boom in the first quarter of 2006, sovereign wealth funds sealed 35 deals worth $45.7 billion.

from DealZone:

R.I.P. Salomon Brothers

It's official: Salomon Brothers has been completely picked apart.

Citigroup's agreement to sell Phibro, its profitable but controversial commodity trading business, to Occidental Petroleum today puts the finishing touches on a slow erosion of a once-dominant bond trading and investment banking firm.

When Sandy Weill (pictured left) staged his 1998 coup -- combining Citicorp and Travelers, Salomon Brothers was a strong albeit humbled investment banking and trading force. Yet little by little, a succession of financial crises, Wall Street fashion and regulatory intervention has whittled away at the once-dominant firm.

Not long after the Citigroup was formed, proprietary fixed income trading --  once the domain of John Meriwether, was shut down after the Asian debt crisis fueled losses that Weill could not stomach.