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.

Conversation with William (Bill) White

Note: This is an edited transcript of a wide-ranging conversation I had with Bill in April 2013 over coffee in Hong Kong 

Sony: This is Sony Kapoor of Re-Define talking to Bill White of BIS fame. He needs no further introduction. Bill, we are in this global situation where there is a huge amount debt in the system and central banks have flooded the system with money. At the same time, OECD countries are facing a structural slow-down of which the demographic time bomb is a part. They also have the highest levels of public and private debt. Simultaneously, power in global governance structures is starting to shift towards the East. Not to mention recent ructions in emerging markets.

Given that we are facing the triple challenge of the changes in governance, the structural break in growth rates, and unprecedented levels of credit and debt, particularly in OECD economies, how does the landscape look going forward? What is the best we can hope for?

Bill: To be honest, the landscape looks rather scary. Clearly, when you talk about this credit bubble we are at the end in the advanced markets, of a very long period of excessive credit creation. This has now crept over into the emerging markets as well. I think that in a certain way they have inherited it, through more or less the fixed exchange rate system, the imbalances of the advanced market economies; we have a global problem here. It is, however, most obvious in many of the advanced market economies.

So, we have a problem. Now the question is, what do we do to deal with the problem? I do not think that the quick fix, for example, the idea that you can use base money to expand government spending in a cost-less manner, or quantitative easing. I think these quick macro-fixes really are totally illusionary as a general solution. I believe that what we do have to focus on is the search for things that will actually work.

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.