Sovereign funds looking beyond US banks may head for Ireland
Earlier this year the joke amongst Wall Street traders was: "It's Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai -- or goodbye." Probably even thin at the time, the joke has worn thinner since. And while the credit crunch has put the brakes on many economies in the recent past and dominated many headlines, it's the growing emergence of sovereign wealth funds (SWF) pumping billions into Wall Street banks and further afield that has equalled the crunch in terms of business attention.
Typically oil- and currency exchange- rich, and run by countries in the Middle East, these funds have had little exposure to Ireland so far. Apart from a small number of investments in Irish listed firms, it wasn't until last week that we experienced a first for private Irish business -- the €200m investment in Jurys Inns by the oil-rich state of Oman.
Following the transaction, the Oman Investment Fund takes a 50pc stake in Jurys Inns, which now has 23 hotels and a further 10 under development, with the other 50pc held by wealthy clients of Quinlan Private, the Dublin-based investment firm established by former tax inspector Derek Quinlan.
But it seems the key target for the Omanis is site potential. Jurys Inns is planning to have 48 sites in operation by 2012 and is already planning hotels in Prague and Budapest. In a statement, the Omani fund's deputy chief Hassan al-Nabhani said the chain anticipates "being in a position to take advantage of the correction in site values by acquiring additional UK locations".
The fund is also likely to engage in further deals with Quinlan Private which has assets under management of over €1.2bn -- although in the case of Jurys Inns, a lot of the business is outside Ireland. "We anticipate Oman Investment Fund partnering in future investment opportunities with Quinlan Private," Mr al-Nabhani added.
Outside of the relatively small-beer deals we have seen so far, though, Ireland's attractiveness to sovereign funds seems limited despite the openness of our economy to foreign investment.
"Outside of the big three -- AIB, Bank of Ireland and CRH -- there would be little to entice such funds here," said one corporate financier who wished not to be named.
"Traditionally, sovereign funds look for long-term growth and liquidity in stocks which are also sizeable. CRH, Bank of Ireland and AIB would also provide global exposure to such a fund."
There have been unconfirmed reports that AIB Capital Markets has secured a significant cash injection from at least one Gulf state which has resulted in a boost to its lending book.
Other market watchers said the commercial property sector was also a potential target market for these oil-rich countries. It is understood that at least one fund looked at the 50pc stake in the Liffey Valley development which is up for sale.
However, the issue of 9pc stamp duty in these high-end property deals remains an issue. "It makes trading inappropriate and unattractive," said one economist. "Generally these funds also look for trophy assets, for example, Trump Tower, and we don't have many of those."
Others believe that as these funds traditionally don't discriminate on location but look at scale, there are investment opportunities here that could whet sovereign appetites. According to Brian O'Kelly, managing director Goodbody Corporate Finance, the Jurys Inns deal is evidence that the funds are also playing in the private equity arena and that they are willing to spread their interests across a wide range of areas.
"(Sovereign funds) are certainly something that we have been looking at," he said. "We have been building relationships with these funds and assessing their appetite for investments in the Irish market. There is certainly anecdotal evidence that they would be interested in large infrastructural projects here.
"If the scale is there, it doesn't matter if the opportunity is in Ireland, Germany or the UK, for example."
Large-scale infrastructure projects on the Irish horizon include Metro North, a number of hospital projects, road building and the toll roads as well as Dublin Airport.
In Britain, the SWF is becoming more pronounced. Although the Dubai sovereign wealth fund, Dubai International Capital (DIC), is 3,500 miles from Merseyside, it recently walked away from a deal to invest in Liverpool Football Club. But DIC already has considerable stakes in a number of UK companies, including Travelodge, the London Eye, Alton Towers and the London Stock Exchange.
Since 2007, SWFs have spent an estimated $80bn (€54bn) bailing out banks desperately needing cash to repair balance sheets damaged by losses on US subprime mortgages. Names such as UBS, Morgan Stanley and Bear Stearns have all turned to SWFs.
The Chinese government owns a stake in US private equity giant Blackstone while an investment arm of the Abu Dhabi government has a chunk of Carlyle.
And the trend has its sceptics, despite the credit crunch. Concerns about SWFs' end-game have been raised although many still see them as saviours given current economic circumstances.
Kerry Brown, at the UK's Royal Institute of International Affairs Asia division, recently told the BBC: "If we come to the crunch about issues like Taiwan, Tibet -- things where we are strategic competitors in a way, and we don't agree -- does that mean we're going to be obliged to react less strongly than we did before?"
Another commentator said: "Buying into a football club might not be an issue, but when it comes to a major utility or bank, it could be."
Still, confidence in the banking system remains low and others take a more practical view, especially when it comes to a smaller state like Ireland. "Some have voiced political concerns, but there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case," said Goodbody's Mr O'Kelly.
"I don't think we (Ireland) have anything to fear from these capital flows. As a small open economy, we've benefited from all forms of foreign investment."
According to China-based Richard Barrett, the co-founder of Treasury Holdings, the SWF is often a less aggressive investor than other vehicles. Treasury has about €2bn invested in a number of projects in China in larger cities including Shanghai and Beijing.
"Their job is to provide a diversified investment and they are generally run by professional people and have investment banks advising them," he says.
"To a large extent, SWFs are more passive than some other investors. In China's case it was a bit unfortunate because one of its first investments was in the Blackstone Group which subsequently lost significant value."
From an Irish perspective, he agreed that while scale could be an inhibitor, some of the bigger investment projects here could come on the SWF radar.
While SWFs might seem to be a relatively new phenomenon, it's not the first time that oil- and currency-rich countries have moved out of their own environments to generate return for their billions.
In the 1970s, rich Arab investors surveyed both the US and Europe looking for investments. The Japanese soon followed suit until the Tokyo Stock Exchange ran out of steam in the 1990s.
Now the sovereign funds are looking for homes for their foreign currency and oil rich reserves as these commodity-rich countries look to build up their pension assets ahead of the day that gas or oil runs out. Spending the money at home is not an option as it could trigger high inflation.
According to one estimate, by 2012, sovereign wealth funds will have about $7 trillion to invest, and there's no doubt that they remain keen to maximise investment. And some feel that SWFs are looking less keen to live up their most recent reputation as investors of last resort as many of their investments have turned sour one year into the credit crunch.
"The opportunity of making large-scale investments in Western investment banks doesn't come along very often. They have made these investments because it was a rare opportunity and one they could not turn down," said Ben Faulks, associate director at Standard & Poors.
"(But) wealth funds have a mandate to make money, not to plough money into ventures destined for collapse. They are not charities. They won't make investments unless they think they can make money."
There are already signs that SWFs are worried about loss-making investments. Recently, South Korea's state-owned fund said it had posted about $800m in valuation losses before it converted preferred shares of investment bank Merrill Lynch into common stock, more than two years ahead of schedule.
Under the original agreement, Korean Investment Corporation (KCI) was to swap the shares into common stock in mid-October 2010, but the fund had faced heavy criticism after Merrill's share price tumbled more than 50pc this year.
Also facing heavy paper losses on its Merrill investment, Singapore's wealth fund Temasek negotiated a rebate of $2.5bn on its original $4.4bn stock purchase after the bank raised fresh funds last July.
Risk awareness, it seems, is much greater than a year ago. The move away from the US and other developed countries into emerging economies, so-called "south-side trade", has become a major theme for SWFs -- and not just because emerging markets are faring better than the slowing developing world.
Since SWFs get their start-up capital largely from trade surpluses with developed economies, recycling these funds back into the West often defeats the purpose of creating a diversified income stream for future generations.
A recent European Central Bank analysis shows that if emerging economies with excess surplus -- which makes up the vast majority of SWFs -- opted for a more return-oriented portfolio allocation, it would trigger net capital outflow of about $350bn of US assets. The euro zone could see a net outflow of $230bn.
"Every last investor is cautious about US risk more than they were before the credit crunch," said Jerome Booth, head of research at Ashmore Investment Management and a member of its investing committee.
"The logic of central banks in emerging markets investing more in other emerging markets is very strong. All we're talking about is going to a more neutral position from a highly concentrated position in the G7."