The yawning gap at the heart of the financial system

Two particularly pernicious and inter-related challenges confront the global financial system. On the one hand, pools of trillions of dollars of savings, particularly in OECD economies, are trapped in sub-optimal investments earning poor returns. On the other, many developing countries face a serious shortage of capital, even for investments that can generate high financial and economic return. The world’s financial system fails to intermediate between the two at any scale. This leads to several perverse consequences.

Long-term investors from rich countries, such as pension funds and insurance firms, have crowded mostly into developed country bonds and stocks. Even truly unconstrained investors such as the giant Norwegian sovereign wealth fund have ninety percent or more of their portfolio invested in such assets. Total allocation to developing countries remains far below the more than 40% (and growing) share of global GDP that they now command. Allocation to unlisted assets in developing countries, which often lack the deep liquid markets that characterize OECD economies, is negligible. Perversely, large pools of savings in developing economies, particularly sovereign wealth funds and foreign exchange reserves, are also after the same listed securities in developed economies.

On why long-term investors should fund infrastructure

Investing in developing country infrastructure is a win-win strategy for long-term investors

Note: A version of this article was first published in the OECD DAC Newsletter

The world faces two major financial problems for which, luckily, there is an attractive common solution. This might be just the right time for taking the first steps towards implementing it.

The first problem is the scarcity of capital in general, and of money for infrastructure investments in particular, in large swathes of the developing world. It is widely recognised that poor infrastructure holds back development, reduces growth potential and imposes additional costs, in particular on the poor who often do not have access to energy, water, sanitation and transport.

The second problem is the current sclerotic, even negative real rate of return on listed bonds and equities in many developed economies. The concentration of the portfolios of many long-term investors in such listed securities also exposes them to high levels of systemic, and often hidden, risk.

Investing for the Future - Norway's SWF needs to change

Re-Define has launched a major new report on the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the largest in the world.  The report can be found here and the press release here

I still remember that feeling of surprise when I first looked at Norway's Sovereign Wealth Fund (GPF), now the world's largest, in 2007. Having worked both in the financial industry and in public policy, I was struck by three observations in particular. They still make me uneasy.

The first was how the portfolio, in 2007, was comprised almost entirely of investments in liquid securities in the developed world. These still constitute more than 90% of the GPF. The second was how some of the largest investments of the GPF were in oil companies. Even today, three of the ten largest equity holdings of the GPF today are in oil majors and as much as 10%-15% of the overall portfolio is heavily exposed to oil, gas or coal. The third was the laid-back approach the GPF took to engaging on matters of governance, policy and ethical guidelines, which has not changed.