Strong gains beat diversity when the opportunity knocks

Sovereign wealth funds may have diversification as a main goal, but that does not mean they will avoid a bargain.

SWFs may rescue Tony Hayward and BP.
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What a difference a global financial crisis makes. Before the summer of 2008, the sovereign wealth funds (SWF) of the world, and of the Gulf in particular, were seen as dangerous interlopers on the western business scene. Their petrodollars were welcome, but sniffy corporations in the US and Europe expressed concern that the presence of SWFs on their share registers carried all sorts of dangers, mainly to do with lack of transparency and the possibility of political and executive interference.

Xenophobic western corporations saw them as Trojan horses from an alien business environment. They even forced SWFs to agree to a set of rules to limit the influence to which they were entitled by their share ownership, and encapsulated the new regulatory regime for SWFs as the Santiago Principles. That all moved through 180 degrees when western balance sheets were hammered in autumn 2008. Suddenly SWFs were potential saviours of capital-depleted westerners, and the rush was on to the Gulf - and to Singapore and China, the two other Asian countries with big SWFs - to get life-sustaining funds.

We saw yet another example of this trend last week with the visit to the region of Tony Hayward, the embattled chief executive of BP. Equally the situation has changed for the SWFs themselves. They no longer have to beg to be allowed to spend their money on western shares, but can be cautious and selective in their investment deliberations. In fact, there is a whole new debate going on at the funds, and in the international bodies that monitor them, as to what is the most appropriate way for them to spend their cash. The result of that debate will have important repercussions for the economies of the Gulf in particular.

There are two strands to the argument, separate but mutually influential. The first comes out of the broader Gulf reaction to what many in the region consider to be a western-provoked financial crisis. According to this viewpoint, the SWFs should invest its billions of dollars in energy revenue at home, in infrastructure and long-term investment in the socioeconomic fabric of Gulf countries. The argument has been advanced on several occasions by Sultan al Suwaidi, the Governor of the Central Bank, and has a persuasive ring to it: like charity, financial investment begins at home. It runs contrary to the globalisation theme of the past two decades, but is in keeping with the new spirit of austerity.

The second aspect to the debate has been revived by the BP situation, and runs like this: SWFs were intended to diversify Gulf economies away from oil dependence, so why should they invest in western oil companies? Sven Behrendt, of the Carnegie Middle East Centre think-tank, put it well in a comment after news of Mr Hayward's Gulf visit this week: "SWFs were designed to move the economies of the Gulf region 'Beyond Petrol'. If this is true, BP would only be of interest for an oil revenue-fuelled SWF if BP was to focus its efforts on the supply of new energy forms, like gas and renewables."

It's an interesting thought, though not one that Mr Hayward would probably want to hear as he solicits Gulf investments in his ailing company. He just wants your money, and, according to BP strategists in London, was not trying to persuade Gulf investors on the grounds of BP's investment in new energy strategies - although that is an increasingly important part of BP's business - but on the oldest sales technique in the book: the shares are cheap.

It is true that most SWFs pay lip service to the idea of diversification away from oil, and have some kind of declaration to that effect in their founding principles. But in practice they have been happy to behave as opportunistic financial investment vehicles whenever the opportunity has presented itself. How else can you explain the investments of Qatar and Abu Dhabi in Barclays Bank, on which both made a lot of money? Or the investment by Aabar - itself owned by Abu Dhabi's International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC) - in the German car manufacturer Daimler?

Mr Behrendt sums it up like this: "The issue is really what is good for the country as a whole, and then instrumentally use SWFs to reach this objective." Under this more pragmatic approach, an investment in BP makes eminent sense on several fronts, apart from the simple statement that the shares are cheap. Oil is the industry on which the Gulf founded its fortunes. Investors in the region know the oil business inside out, and, having done business with BP for a century, also know the company very well.

Perhaps the top priority for Gulf policymakers in the decade ahead is how to manage the economic effects of "peak oil", and a stake in a major global oil group like BP can only be beneficial in that respect. There is also a neat historical circularity to the idea: western companies exploited Gulf oil from its discovery, but the trend since then has been the loosening of western ownership and control of the region's resources. The next logical step is for the Gulf to assume ownership of the western companies themselves.