Brad Setser

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Bye, Bye Asian Oil

by Brad Setser

“Asian Oil Exporters” always was a geographically accurate yet still somewhat misleading subcategory of the Treasury International Capital (TIC) data release.

Technically, the Gulf is in Asia, and Asian oil exporters were a set of countries that could be differentiated from African oil exporters. But the title wasn’t terribly helpful either. Not for a set of countries—the GCC countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait), Iraq, and Iran—in what more commonly is called the Middle East.

And, thanks to a wise decision by the U.S. Treasury to release the disaggregated data, it will soon be only of historic interest. The Treasury didn’t just release the current Treasury security holdings (or to be more precise, their holdings of Treasury securities in U.S. custodial accounts) for individual Gulf and Caribbean countries, it also released the historical time series. That is the way to immediately establish the credibility of a data series (Take note, for example, of the difficulty in interpreting China’s Special Data Dissemination Standard [SDDS] release, including the lines on China’s forward book, without back data).

So, shock of all shocks, we now know Iran doesn’t own any Treasuries. At least not any in U.S. custodial accounts.

The real story in the data, though, is the lack of any real story. The Gulf countries do not keep that many Treasuries in U.S. custodial accounts, so there wasn’t much for the disaggregated data to reveal.

That has long been apparent from the aggregated data. The $250 billion or so of Treasuries held by “Asian oil exporters” was small relative to combined reserves of these countries (excluding Iran, for obvious reasons) of around $1 trillion. And after say 2010, the changes in the Gulf’s combined Treasury holdings haven’t even really moved with their reported reserves.


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How much do the major Sovereign Wealth Funds manage?

by rziemba

This post is by Brad Setser and Rachel Ziemba of RGE Monitor

A score of recent reports have put the total assets managed by sovereign wealth funds at around $3 trillion. That seems high to us – at least if the estimate is limited to sovereign wealth funds external assets.

We don’t know the real total of course. Key institutions do not disclose their size – or enough information to allow definitive estimates of their size. But our latest tally would put the combined external assets of the major sovereign wealth funds roughly $1.5 trillion (as of June 2009) – rather less than many other estimates. This portfolio of $1.5 trillion does reflect an increase from the lows reached of late 2008. But it is well below the estimated $1.8 trillion in sovereign funds assets under management in mid 2008. Significant exposure to equities and alternative assets like property, hedge funds and private equity led to heavy losses by most funds in 2008 – a fact admitted by many of the managers.

$1.5 trillion is lot of money. But it is substantially less than $7 trillion or so held as traditional foreign exchange reserves.

There are three main reasons for our lower total.

First, we continue to believe that the foreign assets of Abu Dhabi’s two main sovereign funds – The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), and the smaller Abu Dhabi Investment Council (which was created out of ADIA and manages some of ADIA’s former assets) – are far smaller than many continue to claim.* Our latest estimate puts their total size at about $360 billion. That is roughly the same size as the $360 billion Norwegian government fund – and more than the estimated assets of the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA) and the combined assets of Singapore’s GIC and Temasek. Our estimate for the GIC’s assets under management is also on the low side.

To be sure, Abu Dhabi’s total external assets exceed those managed by ADIA and the Abu Dhabi Investment Council. Abu Dhabi has another sovereign fund – Mubadala and a number of other government backed investors. Its mandate has long been to support Abu Dhabi’s internal development (“Mubadala [was] set up in 2002 with a mandate not only to seek a return on investment but also to attract businesses to Abu Dhabi and help diversify the emirate’s economy) but it now has a substantial external portfolio as well. Chalk up another $50 billion or so there. Sheik Mansour’s recent flurry of investments also has made it clear that not all of Abu Dhabi’s external wealth is managed by ADIA, the Council and Mubadala. The line between a sovereign wealth fund, a state company and the private investments of individual members of the ruling family isn’t always clear. Abu Dhabi as a whole likely has substantially more foreign assets than the $400 billion we estimate are held by ADIA, the Abu Dhabi Investment Council and Mubadala. And despite Dubai’s vulnerabilities, it still holds a good number of foreign assets, even if its highly leveraged portfolio has suffered greatly in the last year.

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SAFE, state capitalist?

by Brad Setser

One of the questions raised by the expansion of sovereign wealth funds – back when sovereign funds were growing rapidly on the back of high oil prices and Asian countries’ increased willingness to take risks with the reserves – was whether sovereign funds should best be understood as a special breed of private investors motivated by (financial) returns or as policy instruments that could be used to serve a broader set of state goals. Like promoting economic development in their home country by linking their investments abroad to foreign companies investment in their home country. Or promoting (and perhaps subsidizing) the outward expansion of their home countries’ firms.

Perhaps that debate should be extended to reserve managers?

Jamil Anderlini of the FT reports that China now intends to use its reserves to support the outward expansion of Chinese firms. Anderlini:

Beijing will use its foreign exchange reserves, the largest in the world, to support and accelerate overseas expansion and acquisitions by Chinese companies, Wen Jiabao, the country’s premier, said in comments published on Tuesday. “We should hasten the implementation of our ‘going out’ strategy and combine the utilisation of foreign exchange reserves with the ‘going out’ of our enterprises,” he told Chinese diplomats late on Monday.

A number of countries have used their reserves to bailout key domestic firms – and banks – facing difficulties repaying their external debts. Fair enough. It makes sense to finance bailouts with assets rather than debt if you have a lot of assets.

But China is going a bit beyond using its reserves to bailout troubled firms. It is trying to help its state firms expand abroad The CIC has invested in the Hong Kong shares of Chinese firms, helping them raise funds abroad (in some sense). And now China looks set to use SAFE’s huge pool of foreign assets to support Chinese firms’ outward investment.

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One graph to rule them all …

by Brad Setser

If I had to pick a single graph to explain the evolution of the United States’ balance of payments – and thus, indirectly, the entire story of the world’s macroeconomic “imbalances” – this would be it.


All data is in dollar billions, and is presented as a rolling four quarter sum.*

The red line is the United States current account deficit.

The black line is the United States financing need – defined as the sum of the current account deficit plus US outward FDI and US purchases of foreign long-term securities.** The dip in the total US financing need from mid 2005 to mid 2006 isn’t real. It reflects the impact of the Homeland Investment Act, a holiday on the repatriation of the foreign profits of US multinationals that produced a sharp fall in outward FDI.*** The rise in the United States financing need over the course of 2007 by contrast is real; American investors bought the decoupling story and wanted to invest more abroad.

The shaded area represents official demand for US assets. The inflows from central banks that report data to the IMF and Norway are known. The inflows from central banks that don’t report and other sovereign funds are my own estimates. The key countries that do not report reserves are – in my judgment – China, Saudi Arabia and the other countries in the GCC. I have assumed that the dollar share of their reserves is closer to 70% than 60% (supporting evidence). I by contrast have assumed that the GCC’s sovereign funds have a diverse portfolio.

What does the graph tell us?

In my view, three things:

First, the rise in the US current account deficit from 2002 to 2006 is associated with a rise in official demand for US assets. The quarterly IMF data doesn’t extend back to the late 90s – or to the early 1980s. But trust me, that is a change from past periods when the US current account deficit expanded. To be sure, private investors abroad were also buying US assets. But the rise in the overall US financing need associated with the rise in the current account deficit wasn’t financed by a comparable rise in private demand for US assets.

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The China-Once-Again-Investing Corporation

by Brad Setser

Sundeep Tucker of the FT (drawing on work by Z-Ben advisors) reports that the CIC is ready to allow its external managers to start buying equities:

Early last year CIC picked two or three fund management groups for each of six investment mandates, four equity and two fixed income, with an aggregate sum of $12bn. Only the global fixed income mandate was funded before the shutters came down. The managers of the remaining five mandates have just been notified that they are finally about to be funded, in stages, over the coming weeks. A public announcement is expected imminently, according to Z-Ben Advisors, a Shanghai-based consultancy.

Z-Ben says CIC has also earmarked a further $30bn of its liquid assets for passive mandates, which will also be handed to global portfolio managers over the next 6 to 12 months.

Tucker suggets that the CIC’s decision to ”fund” its external managers is a reaction to the difficulties Chinese firms have faced taking large stakes in Western oil and mining companies. I am a bit skeptical that the connection is that direct. Not unless the CIC was helping to finance Chinalco’s investment, which really would be news.

No doubt Chinese officials are frustrated that “their companies” haven’t been able to complete some high profile transactions. On the other hand, the heavy hand of China’s sate in China’s outward investment was always going to make it difficult to convince other countries that outward investment from Chinese firms is motivated purely by commercial concerns. Call it a cost of an exchange rate regime that gives China’s state a de facto monopoly on most of China’s outward investment.

More importantly, though, China simply doesn’t face the same constraints as countries whose reserves barely cover their external debts and have to maintain a fairly liquid portfolio. The foreign portfolio of China’s government is so large that it really doesn’t really have to pick and choose among strategies. It can do a bit of everything.

SAFE – counting the PBoC’s other foreign assets – and the CIC have between $2.2 and 2.3 trillion to invest abroad. The state banks have a sizeable pool of foreign currency (their foreign assets top $200 billion) as well. Chinalco can easily borrow $19 billion (or more) from the state banks even as the CIC hands roughly $40 billion over to external fund managers to invest. And the CIC can increase its exposure to equities even as SAFE nurses the wounds it incurred after investing $150-200 billion (my estimate) of China’s reserves in US, European and Australian equities before global stock markets turned south.

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Sovereign bailout funds, sovereign development funds, sovereign wealth funds, royal wealth funds …

by Brad Setser

The classic sovereign wealth fund was an institution that invested a country’s surplus foreign exchange (whether from the buildup of “spare” foreign exchange reserves at the central bank or from the proceeds of commodity exports) in a range of assets abroad. Sovereign funds invested in assets other than the Treasury bonds typically held as part of a country’s reserves. They generally were unleveraged, though they might invest in funds –private equity funds or hedge funds – that used leverage. And their goal, in theory, was to provide higher returns that offered on traditional reserve assets.

To borrow slightly from my friend Anna Gelpern, sovereign wealth funds argued that they were institutions that claimed to invest public money as if it was private money, and thus that they should be viewed as another private actor in the market place. Hence phrases like “private investors such as sovereign wealth funds”

This characterization of sovereign funds was always a bit of an ideal type. It fit some sovereign funds relatively well but the fit with many funds was never perfect. Norway’s fund generally fits the model for example, except that it seeks to invest in ways that reflect Norway’s values, and thus explicitly seeks to promote non-financial goals.

And over time, the fit seems to be getting worse not better.

Governments with foreign assets have often turned to their sovereign wealth fund to help finance their domestic bailouts – and thus investing in ways that appear to be driven by policy rather than returns. Bailouts are driven by a desire to avoid a cascading financial collapse – or a default by an important company – rather than a quest for risk-adjusted returns. That is natural: Foreign exchange reserves are meant to help stabilize the domestic economy and it certainly makes sense for a country that has stashed some of its foreign exchange in a sovereign fund rather than at the central bank to draw on its (non-reserve) foreign assets rather than run down its reserves or increase its external borrowing.

Of course, a country doesn’t need foreign exchange reserves to finance a domestic bailout. Look at the US.

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China’s reserves are still growing, but at a slower pace than before

by Brad Setser

If China’s euros, pounds, yen and other non-dollar reserves were managed as a separate portfolio, China’s non-dollar portfolio would be bigger than the total reserves of all countries other than Japan. It would also, in my view, be bigger than the portfolio of the world’s largest sovereign fund. That is just one sign of how large China’s reserves really are.

Roughly a third ($650 billion) of China’s $1954 billion in reported foreign exchange reserves at the end of March aren’t invested in dollar-denominated assets. That means, among other things, that a 5% move in the dollar one way or another can have a big impact on reported dollar value of China’s euros, yen, pound and other currencies. China’s headline reserves fell in January. But the euro also fell in January. After adjusting for changes in the dollar value of China’s non-dollar portfolio, I find that China’s reserve actually increased a bit in January. Indeed, after adjusting for changes in the valuation of China’s existing euros, pounds and yen, I estimate that China’s reserves increased by $40-45b in the first quarter — far more than the $8 billion headline increase.

That though hinges on an assumption that China’s various hidden reserves — the PBoC’s other foreign assets, the CIC’s foreign portfolio, the state banks’ foreign portfolio – didn’t move around too much.*

The foreign assets that are not counted as part of China’s reserves are also quite large by now; they too would, if aggregated, rank among the world’s largest sovereign portfolios. They are roughly equal in size to the funds managed by the world’s largest existing sovereign funds. That is another indication of the enormous size of China’s foreign portfolio.

Clearly, the pace of growth in China’s reserves clearly has slowed. Quite dramatically. Reserve growth — counting all of China’s hidden reserves — has gone from nearly $200 billion a quarter (if not a bit more) to less than $50 billion a quarter. Indeed, reserve growth over the last several months, after adjusting for valuation changes, has been smaller than China’s trade surplus.

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Leveraged desert real estate (squared)

by Brad Setser

Dubai’s government, which owes its (now diminished) fortune to a leveraged bet on real estate in the Gulf, decided to diversify by, well, making another leveraged bet on desert real estate.

And Dubai World’s investment in Las Vegas’ real estate doesn’t seem to be working out so well

Suffice to say that Dubai would have been better off now if hadn’t sunk $4.3 billion into the troubled Vegas City Center project. It could currently use some of those funds to sort out its own problems.

Did SAFE really buy that many US (and global) equities?

by Brad Setser

Jamil Anderlini’s Monday FT story — which obviously drew heavily on my work — attracted a fair amount of attention. Particularly in China. Americans are more focused on AIG’s losses than China’s equity market exposure.

Two specific questions have come up a lot, both in the comments section here and in various other conversations, namely, why is it likely that SAFE holds most of China’s US equity portfolio, and why did I assume that SAFE’s non-US equity portfolio was roughly equal in size to its US equity portfolio?

Both are fair questions.

The evidence that SAFE accounts for the majority of China’s US purchases is overwhelming. SAFE own data on China’s net international investment position shows that at the end of 2007, private Chinese investors held less than $20 billion of foreign equities. And that would include private Chinese holdings of non-US equities. Chinese portfolio equity purchases — according to the China’s balance of payments data — in the first half of 2008 were also modest. Consequently, it is hard to see how private Chinese investors could account for most of the $100 billion Chinese portfolio in the US survey data.

Moreover, we know from the US balance of payments data that private Chinese investors have been selling US securities other than Treasuries for the last two years. Private Chinese investors (i.e. the state banks) were significant buyers of US securities other than Treasuries (likely various US corporate bonds and some agencies) in 2005 and 2006, but they started selling after the subprime crisis.


The BEA’s data is here.

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SAFE seems to have started buying US equities in the spring of 2007, and didn’t stop until July 2008 …

by Brad Setser

Jamil Anderlini of the FT has picked up on one of the surprises of the latest survey of foreign portfolio investment in the US: the $70 billion rise in China’s holdings of US equities between June 2007 and June 2008. Roughly $10 billion of that can be linked to China’s direct purchases of US equities – the kind that show up in the monthly TIC data. But $60 billion was initially bought by investors in other countries and thus didn’t show up in the monthly TIC data

After spending a bit more time looking at the TIC data, I didn’t have much trouble inferring that most of China’s equity purchases were routed through Hong Kong.

The US survey data reduced Hong Kong’s equity holdings (relative to those implied by summing up the monthly flows) by $44b even as it increased China’s holdings by around $60 billion. The pattern in the US data also fits well with the revelation last year that SAFE’s Hong Kong subsidiary had bought stakes in Australian banks and a host of British firms. Anderlini:

“Safe uses a Hong Kong subsidiary when investing in offshore equities in the US and other countries, including the UK, where this subsidiary took small stakes last year in dozens of UK companies including Rio Tinto, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Barclays, Tesco and RBS. As part of its diversification in early 2008, Safe also gave some money to private equity firms such as TPG and to hedge funds on a managed account basis. This gave the Chinese government ultimate approval for how its money was invested, according to people who have worked with Safe.

It all sort of makes sense; China usually leaves traces of its activity in the TIC data once you know where to look.

The monthly TIC data suggests that China started to buy large quantities of US equities through Hong Kong in the spring of 2007. The big rise in China’s equity holdings in the June 2007 survey (equities rose from $4 billion in June 2006 to $29 billion in June 2007) offered the first hint of this shift in strategy. The Hong Kong flows suggest that China kept on buying through the first stage of the subprime crisis. Large purchases through Hong Kong didn’t come to an end until July 2008.

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