sovereign wealth funds and ETFs

Monday’s Financial Times notes that the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the sovereign wealth fund of the Middle Eastern State of Qatar, is changing its investment strategy.  Qatar is a country of 2.2 million people and 15 billion barrels of oil (that we know about), making it one of the wealthiest places on earth.

Since its inception in 2005, the $335 billion QIA has focused on expensive “trophy” assets, like the Canary Wharf property development and Harrods in the UK and film company Miramax plus 13% of Tiffany in the US.  It owns high-end hotels and office buildings all over the place.

According to the FT, however, the QIA has now decided to shift its focus to index funds and ETFs, indicating to the newspaper that the world supply of new trophies waiting to be bought is running low.

Maybe this is true, although there is a much more obvious issue with the QIA’s holdings that neither it nor the FT allude to.

Such trophies are virtually impossible to sell, except maybe to other Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds.

Hotel companies in the US, and latterly elsewhere, have spent the past two or three decades shedding their properties–while retaining management contracts–because the returns on ownership are so low.  Iconic office buildings are a much better return bet.  But, again, there are only a limited number of possible buyers of, say, a $5 billion project.  A sharp price discount would likely be in order to compensate for taking on an expensive, highly illiquid asset like this on short notice–doubly so if the buyer sensed the seller was having cash flow problems.

It seems to me that the QIA bought into the narrative of “peak oil,” meaning a looming shortage of crude, that has been the consensus among oilmen for the past couple of decades–up until the emergence of mammoth amounts of shale oil production from the US three years or so ago. that is.  So liquidity was never a consideration.

I think the QIA change of strategy is the prudent thing to do.  It’s odd, though, that the QIA is calling public attention to the shift.  This would seem to imply at least that it has no need to divest any of the trophies it now has on its shelves.

Of course, something deeper may be going on as well, since the unasked question is who else may be in worse shape and may want to offload illiquid assets before its cash squeeze becomes evident.

Surprise!  That train has just left the station.

 

 

institutions reacting to poor hedge fund/private equity returns

A couple of days ago, the Dealbook section of the New York Times reported on a recent meeting of the Institutional Investors Roundtable in western Canada.

The purpose of the organization, founded in 2011, is to help large government-linked investment bodies, like sovereign wealth funds and managers of government employee pension plans, cooperate to solve common problems.

According to the NYT, the agenda of the latest meeting was hedge fund and private equity investments.  Although the proceedings are secret, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what went on.

The institutions’ dilemma:  on the one hand, they want and need the diversification and the high-return investment opportunities that hedge funds and private equity promise.   On the other, despite their colorful brochures and persuasive presentations, many hedge fund/private equity ventures produce pretty awful returns.

There are two main reasons for this:

–some hedge fund/private equity operators are brilliant marketers and well-connected politically, but that’s it.  They’re not great investors.  It doesn’t help matters that academic research shows a significant number of them bend the truth in stating their qualifications, track records, assets under management…

–the hedge fund/private equity fees are so high that there’s little extra return left over for the institutions who supply the investment capital.

The IIR solution?

It’s to try to develop hedge fund/private equity projects among the members themselves, thereby cutting out the fees charged by third parties.  One institution cited in the NYT article says doing so adds 5 percentage points to the annual returns it received from such projects.  On a world where bonds yield next to nothing and where stocks may produce 6%-8% annual returns, a 5 percentage point pickup is enormous.

This movement is in its infancy.  Not every institution will be able to participate, either because of political pressure at home or lack of even minimal expertise.  But even that may change in time.

The most important thing to notice, I think, is the evolution away from traditional Wall Street practices that make the financiers–and no one else–rich.  I think that sovereign wealth funds, bot from China and the Middle East, will take leading roles in this development.