It’s rare to get something for nothing. Over the last year, sovereign wealth funds have spent billions buying stakes in major Western financial institutions. To get there, these funds have had to abstain from board seats and offer repeated reassurances of political neutrality. Yet, such funds aren’t just being benevolent global citizens. Like any investor, they’re chasing returns—not all of these financial.
So far, the $60 billion (Rs2.37 trillion) invested in big western banks looks passive. Yet, there are no guarantees that investments such as China Investment Corp.’s $5 billion stake in Morgan Stanley, or the Government of Singapore Investment Corp.’s (GIC) $10 billion punt on Swiss bank UBS will remain so. China Development Bank is the only group to have secured representation at a major Western bank with its bet on Barclays. Yet, not having a board seat won’t prevent sovereign funds turning into activists later. Sovereign funds have built up leading positions and they will be less afraid to make their presence felt.
Bankers mockingly refer to UBS as the “Union Bank of Singapore” amid speculation that it’s new largest shareholder will demand the Swiss shift their headquarters overseas, yet such brazen requests are unlikely. In practice, sovereign funds will seek strategic returns in more subtle ways.
Singapore may hope that its stake in UBS will help consolidate its domestic wealth management position. Similarly, Qatar expects that, in return for supposedly “protecting” the London Stock Exchange from an unwanted takeover, Doha will get assistance in promoting its stock market as a rival to its neighbours in Dubai. But sovereign funds’ main concern will be decent financial returns on their investments. If these don’t stack up, they are unlikely to keep quiet. The size of their stakes alone gives the opinions of such funds validity. Saudi Prince Alwaleed didn’t have a seat on the Citigroup board, but that didn’t stop then CEO Chuck Prince paying him many personal visits a year. Sovereign funds realize that they are buying similar power—it would be foolish to believe they won’t use it.