A Growing Foreign Stake in U.S. Banks

(By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The nation's biggest financial firms, battered by huge losses in their mortgage businesses, are relying on an enigmatic source for cash: foreign governments in the Middle East and Asia.

Citigroup announced yesterday that it had sold a 7.8 percent stake in the company worth $14.5 billion to a group of investors, including the government of Singapore and Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, as it revealed a colossal $10 billion loss for the fourth quarter. Merrill Lynch, which is expected to report a massive loss tomorrow, said that it sold a special class of stock worth $6.6 billion to funds managed by South Korea and Kuwait.

This is the second time in recent months that the two banks have sought help from foreign government investment pools, known as sovereign wealth funds.

The worsening credit crunch in the United States has left domestic financial institutions with little choice but to seek help from foreign governments that have been enriched by the surge in the price of oil and the trade gap between the United States and Asia.

Once satisfied with holding safe bonds such as U.S. Treasurys, these countries now are stockpiling some of the largest investment funds in history and are looking for bargains in the ailing U.S. financial sector. In the past few months, sovereign wealth funds have invested more than $40 billion in Wall Street's biggest names, including UBS, Morgan Stanley and Bear Stearns.

The rapid rise of these funds represents a fundamental shift in financial power away from the United States, analysts and lawmakers say. And their growing clout is causing concern on Capitol Hill.

"As investments by sovereign wealth funds in American companies increase and the specter of control and undue influence by government entities looms, we have to be careful," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Joint Economic Committee. "We should be keeping a watchful eye on these investments as they increase in size and scope."

A major issue for lawmakers is the transparency of these funds. Some, like Norway's, which has $350 billion, are upfront about their activities. Others, such as the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority's $875 billion fund, which is the world's largest, are more secretive.

Sovereign wealth funds recently have preferred to make passive investments that do not allow them to have any say in management decisions.

"They don't want to worry the markets," Simon Tse, a strategy analyst at Thomson Financial, said of sovereign wealth funds. "But you have to ask the question: 'What do they really want?' And that's the mystery behind these funds, we don't know who runs them."

Lawmakers reacted strongly against a Dubai firm that wanted to buy U.S. seaports in 2006 and a state-run Chinese firm that tried to take over a U.S. oil company in 2005. But since those incidents, sovereign wealth fund managers have become more savvy in their dealings with Congress by hiring lobbyists and by keeping their stakes low enough that they don't trigger reviews by regulators.

Little furor erupted last summer when Dubai paid $825 million for U.S. clothing retailer Barneys New York in June and followed with a 19.9 percent stake in the Nasdaq Stock Market.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company