Public Footprints in Private Markets

Sovereign Wealth Funds and the World Economy

In 1953, eight years before its independence from the United Kingdom, Kuwait established the Kuwait Investment Board to invest its surplus oil revenue. That was perhaps the first-ever "sovereign wealth fund" (SWF), although the term would not exist for another 50 years. SWFs are large pools of capital controlled by a government and invested in private markets abroad. Today, they are growing rapidly in both number and size. Twelve SWFs been established since 2005, and altogether SWFs control roughly $2.5 trillion -- a figure now growing, according to some estimates, by $1 trillion a year.

These developments should not cause alarm, but they do raise legitimate policy questions. Governments should consider the implications of SWFs' growing importance with calm and precision. Many concerns, aired frequently in policy debates and prominently in the media, have been exaggerated, in part because of a lack of understanding of SWFs and other vehicles for sovereign investment. A fuller picture of SWFs' history, purpose, size, growth, and broader systemic implications is needed. Such an understanding, along with a set of clear policy principles for both SWFs and the countries in which they invest, will help preserve openness to foreign investment and promote financial stability worldwide.

THE FOUR SOVEREIGNS

To frame this policy discussion, it is useful to differentiate among four kinds of sovereign investment: international reserves, public pension funds, state-owned enterprises, and SWFs. International reserves, as defined by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are external assets that are controlled by and readily available to finance ministries and central banks for direct financing of international payment imbalances. Countries typically keep reserves on hand to cushion an export shortfall or to intervene to defend the currency in a financial crisis. Reserves are by definition invested in highly liquid and marketable securities, which usually means highly rated industrialized-country government bonds.

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