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Kai Ryssdal: The Treasury Department said the other day it's frozen about $30 billion worth of Libyan assets. Other countries have done the same thing. Among all those co-mingled piles of money are the holdings of the Libyan Investment Authority, Tripoli's sovereign wealth fund. Lots of countries have 'em. Essentially they're the disposable income that commodity and foreign-currency rich countries have to play with. They've been around for a while, but they've been higher-profile the last few years.

Marketplace's Alisa Roth explains.

Alisa Roth: Sovereign wealth funds have made some pretty high-profile investments lately. In 2007, for instance, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority came to the rescue of Citigroup, with an investment of $7.5 billion.

Besides banks, these funds have bought into all kinds of ventures -- the department store Barneys, Cirque du Soleil, the Chrysler building. There are about 50 sovereign wealth funds globally, mostly from commodity-rich countries.

Ted Truman is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He says the goal of these funds is to diversify their country's wealth.

Ted Truman: These countries essentially dig their oil up out of the ground and they sell it and and they invest for future generations, when oil revenues may well run out.

Some non-oil producing countries also have sovereign wealth funds. China and Singapore, for instance, use them to invest their large foreign currency reserves. Governments don't have to disclose precise details of their sovereign wealth funds; but estimates suggest that around the world, they hold about $4 trillion. Some recent investments by these government-controlled funds from the Middle East and China have raised concerns about political motives.

Ashby Monk is co-director of the Sovereign Wealth Fund Project at Oxford University.

Ashby Monk: You know these funds, oftentimes in the U.S. context, they're kind of viewed with suspicion, and they're viewed in sort of a negative light in terms of their investment operations.

He says we tend to forget the other side. That the funds say they're about business, not politics. And that unlike a lot of investors, these funds are in it for the long haul.

Which is why U.S. companies have been interested in wooing them.

I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.