CIC braves U.S. distressed assets

China is no stranger to rolling the dice on risky U.S. investments. But like most big investors, it has been staying away from the tables for a while. Now we have word that its $200 billion sovereign wealth fund is pouring $2 billion into three funds focused on U.S. distressed assets. The funds are run by Goldman Sachs, Oaktree Capital and a third, as yet unidentified manager.

At only 1 percent of its portfolio, the balance of risk to Chinese wealth is small. CIC has pumped up its investment volume recently, buying a 14.5 percent stake in commodities trading firm Noble Group for $850 million just last week. Resources may seem like a better investment for a Chinese state-linked fund than distressed U.S. assets, given the country’s gaping hunger for commodities. But China’s macroeconomic exposure to the U.S. economy is at least as important to its future as its ability to source foreign raw materials. And with the dollar against the ropes, distressed U.S. assets may offer China a better bang for its buck.

CIC made a profit of $10 billion last year as it benefited from staying largely in cash and avoiding new investments in Western banks, a source close to the fund told us in February. But it lost over half of an initial $8 billion it ploughed into private equity firm Blackstone and Morgan Stanley when the fund was set up in September 2007.

CIC Chairman Lou Jiwei (pictured above) said in Hong Kong last December that he was “not brave enough” to invest in financial institutions at that time. He seems to have found his nerve.

Taking the Wall St bypass

THAILAND APECRemember early last year and the year before, when the U.S. financial system won huge investments from Asian sovereign wealth funds? Those investments seemed so rich at the time, offering conversions into shares at deep discounts and the kind of interest rates banks had demanded from subprime borrowers. The biggest fear anyone on Wall Street had was some vague sense that foreign ownership of U.S. financial institutions might be somehow un-American or a threat to national security.

Nobody talks about those days much anymore. Merrill Lynch, the recipient of billions of expensive sovereign wealth fund support, was swallowed up by Bank of America. Talk of nationalization swirls around Citigroup, another sovereign wealth fund investment target throughout the stunning collapse in its share price.

Our correspondent George Chen reports China’s $200 billion sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corp, is shifting to natural resources, fixed income and real estate after taking big haircuts on the U.S. financial sector. The fund, headed by former Vice Finance Minister Lou Jiwei, “has drawn criticism at home over large paper losses on its combined $8.6 billion investments in U.S. private equity giant Blackstone Group and Wall Street bank Morgan Stanley,” Chen says, citing people familiar with the matter.

Shrinking Citi

pandit.jpgCitigroup chief Vikram Pandit has sold off assets here and there in the months since taking over the top job, including stakes in CitiStreet, CitiCapital and Diners Club. But with sources saying some $400 billion of extraneous assets are going on the block, it’s fair to ask whether the head of the country’s biggest bank is being boldly aggressive or slamming the panic button.

“The only reason you’d sell off that many assets is you have a lot more losses coming than you originally thought,” said Jim Huguet, co-chief executive at fund manager Great Companies LLC, which does not own Citi shares. Since late last year, Citi has recorded more than $45 billion of writedowns and credit losses, raised more than $40 billion of new capital including $2 billion of preferred shares this week, and slashed its dividend 41 percent. The Financial Times, which first reported the story on Thursday, said the moves would take place over several years.

Global economic instability has created huge investment opportunities for China Investment Corp, but the sovereign wealth fund’s head said he will be careful not to destabilize countries where it operates. CIC paid $5 billion in December for a stake in U.S. investment bank Morgan Stanley but has otherwise kept its powder dry as Western financial institutions have sought to replenish capital depleted by big subprime credit losses. “The current international market turbulence has produced unprecedented investment opportunities,” said Lou Jiwei, head of the $200 billion sovereign wealth fund. “In the 1990s, some hedge funds exploited defects in the macroeconomic policies of some emerging economies and attacked them, which damaged their economies and caused hardship for people,” he said. “CIC will certainly never do a similar thing.”