The SWFs Are Coming

by Patrick J. Buchanan

The Iraq war has probably killed the idea of using U.S. troops to intervene in the name of Mr. Bush’s “world democratic revolution.”

The Middle American revolt that killed amnesty for the 12 million illegal aliens has buried the idea of open-borders immigration.

Come now the SWFs, which may bring an end to America’s folly in her unthinking embrace of global free trade.

What are SWFs? They are Sovereign Wealth Funds – huge capital funds controlled by regimes that are the big new boys on the block in the world of global finance.

How are SWFs created? Primarily from the mammoth trade deficits America has run up. In 2006, America had a merchandise trade deficit of $836 billion and a current account deficit of $857 billion, or 6.5 percent of our entire Gross Domestic Product.

Foreign nations have piled up huge cash reserves. China, at the end of March, had $1.2 trillion; Japan nearly $900 billion; Russia, with oil and gas revenue pouring in, something like $300 billion. The Arab Gulf states also have huge hoards of dollar reserves.

Rather than keep all this cash in U.S. Treasury bonds earning 5 percent a year, these nations are creating SWFs to go after higher rates of return and corporate assets to advance strategic interests.

The United Arab Emirates has $500 billion in SWFs; Norway $400 billion; Singapore and Saudi Arabia $200 billion; and China nearly $200 billion. Total SWF funds worldwide is $2.5 trillion, writes ex-Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, a figure that is expected to double to $5 trillion by 2010, and then double again to $12 trillion by 2015.

The problems these SWFs portend are enormous.

Since the Reagan-Thatcher era, privatization of publicly owned assets has been the trend in the free world. Airlines, railroads, mines, utilities, and telephone and telegraph companies have all been sold off by governments to private investors, who, to make them profitable, have made them efficient.

The SWFs reverse that trend. For these funds are all owned by or answerable to regimes, whose agents can direct these vast funds into assets not to produce maximum income, but maximum strategic benefit to the regime.

Suppose China, with its $1.2 trillion in reserves steadily rising from its soaring trade surpluses, begins to invest, through its SWF, in Boeing, Microsoft, IBM, GE and U.S. companies that build our strategic submarines, stealth bombers, satellites and missiles. Will the United States rope off the industries that build the weapons of our national defense from any ownership by SWFs?

If foreign investors can buy stock in these companies, why not foreign countries through SWFs?

Will we let China invest at all in such assets? What percent will Beijing be permitted to buy? Will SWFs be allowed to buy a controlling interest in a company responsible for weapons of national defense? Will they be allowed to buy controlling stakes in companies responsible for what remains of America’s lead in high-tech? Will they be allowed to extract the technology? Who will decide what companies are vital national assets that foreigners, or at least some foreigners, will not be allowed to take over, or even to invest in?

Recall the firestorm over the Dubai Ports deal. Americans did not want Arab sheiks running American ports, but there was no such outcry when the idea of a British firm running them was broached.

The new corporate raiders are going to be a far tougher lot than the old, for this game is going to be about bigger stakes than where one ranks on the Forbes or Fortune list of billionaires.

As Summers writes: “In the last month, we have seen government-controlled Chinese entities take the largest external stake … in Blackstone, a big private equity group that indirectly, through its holdings, is one of the largest employers in the U.S. … Gazprom, a Russian conglomerate in effect controlled by the Kremlin, has strategic interests in the energy sector of a number of countries, and even a stake in Airbus. Entities controlled by the governments of China and Singapore are offering to take a substantial stake in Barclays, giving it more heft in its effort to pull off the world’s largest banking merger with ABN Amro.”

Is it a good idea to give the boys in Beijing part ownership of Western banking institutions and the information they contain?

Should Rupert Murdoch retire and his successors decide to divest some media properties, will China’s Sovereign Wealth Fund be allowed to buy shares? One recalls the hysteria in Washington during the Reagan years when it was learned that South Africans might use a front group to buy the Washington Star.

Under free trade, we Americans have seen our jobs, technology, factories and wealth leave these shores for foreign lands. Now, our money is coming back to buy up our companies and our country.

Yes, indeed, we are witnessing how empires end.