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On Asia: Suspicion over sovereign fund investments

By Sunny Tucker

Published: January 25 2008 19:19 | Last updated: January 25 2008 19:19

A surprise Fed rate cut, wild swings in equities across the world, and a SocGen rogue trader losing more than his shirt. Let’s just say that it will rank among the more eventful weeks in the history of capitalism.

Other surprises included the chief investment officer of Singapore’s biggest (and tight-lipped) sovereign wealth fund giving an interview to a foreign newspaper.

Market volatility, of course, is not good for deal flow: business leaders prefer to plot initial public offerings or mergers and acquisitions when the graph is moving in a straight line, preferably northwards.

In Asia there were some early casualties, not least Cebu Air, which shelved a $350m Philippines listing due to market turbulence.

Plenty of eyes are now fixed on India’s Reliance Power and whether its $3bn IPO will go to plan, and for signs that China’s predicted $60bn of offerings for 2008 will proceed smoothly.

The planned Hong Kong listing of Maoye International, a mainland department store chain, expected to raise $900m, was seen as a test of sentiment but was pulled yesterday in jittery markets.

Investors have gobbled up Chinese retail stocks as fast as they have come on to the market, as they are a proxy for rising consumer wealth. Investment bankers now fear the postponement of the Maoye listing does not bode well for the China IPO market, for private companies at least, and it is expected now to be quiet until after the Chinese New Year.

Opinions are mixed as to where Asia’s markets go from here. The consensus is that the volatility is likely to stay for months, given the widespread expectation that further skeletons will emerge from the US subprime cupboard.

As for the debate on “decoupling”, many people have been quick to jump on the fact that Asia’s markets danced with global peers. While financial markets are indeed correlated, the jury is still out on whether China and India’s roaring economic growth will be significantly clipped by a US downturn.

Some analysts rushed out notes to highlight the continued growth prospects for Asia. TJ Bond, chief regional economist for Merrill Lynch, said investors should refocus on fundamentals: strong Asian growth and low US interest rates, which he believes should help support Asian stocks, currencies and property markets.

Analysts at Macquarie Bank pitched in with a prediction that China’s markets would rebound strongly “once the environment calms”. It noted: “If the world is going to the dogs, China has a lot of [macro policy] ammunition up its sleeve to stabilise the Hong Kong market.”

When and where to deploy more cash is a talking point within Asia’s cashed-up sovereign wealth funds, which have helped stabilise world markets with capital injections into distressed investment banks.

It was one such proposed deal, the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation’s recapitalisation of UBS, that led Ng Kok Song to speak to Switzerland’s Finanz und Wirtschaft newspaper. The GIC, which is mandated with managing the city-state’s swollen foreign currency reserves, rarely makes public comments.

But with some UBS shareholders threatening to scupper the terms of the re-capitalisation at the bank’s forthcoming annual meeting in Zurich, GIC finds itself in the awkward position of needing to publicly explain its thinking.

It is something Asia’s sovereign wealth funds are going to have to do a lot more of, now that they are snapping up stakes in high-profile assets across the world.

The US Treasury spent time in Davos this week trying to persuade sovereign wealth funds to sign up to a code on transparency, to lessen the risk of a political backlash towards future deals.

The Singaporeans and Chinese will almost certainly sign up, especially if the code is based on broad guidelines and not prescriptive rules.

It can’t harm their cause.

Many decision makers in the US (and in Europe) remain suspicious about the motives behind sovereign wealth investments.

The Senate banking committee has debated the issue and heard testimony from Edwin Truman, a former US government official turned senior fellow at the Peterson Institute, an influential Washington think-tank.

Mr Truman brought along his homework: a ranking of 32 sovereign wealth funds, based on an assessment of their structure, governance, transparency and behaviour. It makes grim reading for Asians.

Temasek, the other powerful Singaporean state investment agency, likes to differentiate itself from rivals. For years, and under no obligation to do so, it has published an annual report featuring details of its personnel, strategy, investment themes and its major investments.

Yet, Mr Truman ranked Temasek eleventh, below its peers in Azerbaijan, Botswana and Kazakhstan. GIC was ranked thirtieth while China’s new sovereign wealth fund, which invested in Morgan Stanley, was twentieth.

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