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Foreign-controlled funds raise concerns

John Dimsdale Dec 20, 2007

Foreign-controlled funds raise concerns

John Dimsdale Dec 20, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: Bear Stearns reported quarterly profits today. Or, for the first time in the company’s history, we could say a quarterly loss. That much was expected, given the subprime shakeout and all. But what wasn’t in the announcement drew some notice, too. No emergency injection of cash from overseas. In the past couple of months Citigroup and Morgan Stanley have sold off slices of themselves in exchange for billion of dollars from China and Abu Dhabi. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale has spent some time looking into the politics of global finance.

JOHN DIMSDAL: Some three dozen sovereign wealth funds — as these government-controlled pools of capital are called — have saved up more than $2.5 trillion. But we don’t know for sure, because the funds aren’t very forthcoming. Edwin Truman at the Peterson Institute for International Economics has ranked them.

EDWIN TRUMAN: They are growing. Sovereign wealth funds combined with reserves probably amount to something like 12 percent of all international investments in the world today. And that’s probably twice the figure five years ago.

The flurry of recent U.S. investments by sovereign wealth funds is raising red flags that the new owners will use their financial influence to advance a political, not a capitalist, agenda. Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb worries China is gaining new leverage in strategic negotiations with the U.S.

JIM WEBB: This is a totally different concept when foreign governments, per se, rather than foreign corporations or individuals are directly investing into the economies of other nations. And particularly in this situation that we have with China where we have become so vulnerable to our greatest competitor, not simply economic competitor but strategic competitor.

At a press conference today, President Bush said he’s not worried.

PRESIDENT BUSH: I’m fine with capital coming in from overseas to help bolster financial institutions. I don’t think it’s a problem. I think what would be a problem is to say we’re not going to accept foreign capital.

So far, no government-controlled fund has purchased more than 9.9 percent of a U.S. financial services company. Anything above that triggers a national security review by the Treasury Department. Still, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers isn’t as comfortable as President Bush is with the foreign shopping spree.

LAWRENCE SUMMERS: It’s much better to be a country that capital wants to get into than a country that capital wants to get out of. But I do worry about the phenomenon of cross-border nationalization. And I do worry about investments that will not be pursued on grounds of value maximization but rather to pursue other kinds of national and strategic objectives.

Summers says regulators should require fuller discloser from government-controlled funds. But there’s little of the congressional outrage that met Dubai Ports World’s effort to buy some U.S. operations last year. New York Democrat Charles Schumer, who led that resistance, said he’s fine with the China Investment Corporation’s $5 billion investment in Morgan Stanley announced yesterday. That may because U.S. banks have been an effective lobby, visiting key lawmakers like Schumer before announcing new foreign investments.

The Financial Services Forum represents big banks in Washington. President Rob Nichols says the U.S. has an interest in welcoming foreign investors.

ROB NICHOLS: We’re trying to open up for our securities firms, our insurance firms, our commercial banking firms, the futures industry. We’re trying to get a much larger share of the Chinese market.

Nichols says we can’t close our markets if we want them to open theirs.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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