This vast source of funds for the market is about to go into reverse

Sovereign wealth funds have been pouring money into the markets for years. But soon, that may all come to an end. John Stepek explains why.


Qatar: oil-price crash could lead to 'years of famine' for sovereign wealth funds

I remember the last time the FTSE 100 was hovering not far off the 7,000 level, back in 2007.

People were a little jittery. But at the same time, they still couldn't work out where any crash would come from. Sub-prime was contained', after all.

And back then, there was a wall of money' waiting to wash all over the stockmarket. This wall of money' was contained in near-legendary sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) around the world.

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Despite the 2008 crash, SWFs have continued to grow. And they've had a lot of money to spend on accumulating financial assets.

But this is one particular wall of money' that could be about to turn into a whirlpool sucking money out of the markets, rather than putting it back in

Fat cows, thin cows, and sovereign wealth funds

An SWF is basically a national piggy bank. As a country, if you own piles of natural resources, you might feel blessed but you have to be careful. Resources are very cyclical. The biblical parable about Joseph's dream about the seven fat cows and the seven thin ones was made for commodity-rich nations.

So you might have a good old-fashioned resources boom. Money comes flooding in to your country. If you're unlucky enough to live in a kleptocracy, then corrupt bureaucrats will cream off as much as they can, and spend the rest on bribes and bread and circuses'. When the inevitable downturn comes, they'll be on the first flight out of the country to the tax haven of their choice.

What's the answer? An SWF isn't the whole solution, but it helps. An SWF is like the grain store in the parable. You stash the cash during the years of plenty rather than spending like it's going out of fashion and then when the downturn comes, your economy can cope.

During the resources boom, we grew used to the idea of SWFs prowling the world looking for investment opportunities and snatching them up. It's one reason the Qataris own so much of central London, for example.

But here's what's most interesting about them right now: with the crash in oil prices looking prolonged, we may be coming to the years of famine, as far as SWFs are concerned. And that's likely to have at least some impact on markets.

The end of SWF recycling

To get an idea of how big, look at Norway's SWF. This $850bn fund owns more than 1% of the world's total equity market capitalisation. That's quite incredible. Perhaps even more incredible (given the sheer size of the market) is that it also owns near enough 1% of global bond markets.

However, of that $7.1trn, about $4.3trn comes from oil and gas. So the collapse of oil prices is a bit of a problem for the SWFs. The Norwegian one was founded in 1990. Yet this year might conceivably be the first time on record that more money has flowed out of the SWF than has gone into it.

And various other oil-related SWFs (particularly in Russia) have already seen money being sucked out as revenue-starved governments delve into the piggy bank.

It's all somewhat ironic. Arguably, low interest rates and quantitative easing (QE) helped to drive up the price of oil in the first place partly because investors were forced to seek ever-more exotic places to put their money. High prices, along with the easy availability of money to spend on drilling in ever-more exotic places, combined to boost oil production dramatically.

You then have this money being recycled into SWFs. Which are then, of course, hunting wildly for yield and decent long-term investments. And contributing a great deal to driving up prices of financial assets everywhere.

The Great Wall of Money'

Of course, no one is especially worried as yet about the idea that this particular wall of money is no longer going to be out there. After all, there's still the Great Wall of Money' central banks and their ability to print money at will.

But with asset prices looking overvalued as it is, and investors jittery about potential rate rises in the US, or a slowdown in the global economy, it's just one more straw that could eventually break the camel's back.

My colleague Tim Price specialises in finding opportunities in vulnerable-looking markets like this one. He's just put out a very special (and unusual) offer that's proved extremely popular with MoneyWeek readers. He started out with 300 of these packages, and he's now down to fewer than 60. If you haven't found out what this is all about, take five minutes to do so now so that you don't end up missing out they're selling fast.

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.