SWF’s

No, no. As much as my subject might look like titillating Instant Messaging (IM) short-hand used by the High School Musical set, it’s actually Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWF’s) that I have in mind.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (requires subscription), Alan Murray reported from the World Economic Forum, on Sovereign Wealth Funds as the “it girl” at Davos this year. (Thereby displacing private equity from that role and, in the words of a private equity fund manager in attendance, “return[ing] [them] to the obscurity that [they] so richly deserve.”) As Abdul-Aziz Abdullah Al Ghurair, chief executive of one of Dubai’s SWF’s, dryly noted: “I’m surprised they are paying so much attention to us.” Paris Hilton, eat your heart out; Abdul-Aziz has arrived at the party.

Much has been made of Sovereign Wealth Funds’ substantial investments in major U.S. companies, including in numerous banks struggling amidst the subprime mortgage crisis. No less an analyst (and internationalist) than former U.S. Treasury Secretary and President of Harvard University Larry Summers is among those sounding alarms.

Two things particularly struck me about Murray’s report from Davos, though. The first was the fact that the second largest SWF, following the very prominent fund controlled by the government of Abu Dhabi, is the Government Pension Fund of Norway. Somehow, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the heat surrounding the rise of SWF’s would be quite as great, if the story line wasn’t about Arabs and the Chinese buying stakes in brand-name U.S. companies and banks, but Norway doing so.

The second was Murray’s point about the relative place of the United States in the global economy. Murray reports data from the McKinsey Global Institute, finding that $56.1 trillion (or one-third) of the world’s financial assets were held in the U.S. in 2006, but that emerging markets had experienced explosive growth, such that they had come to hold $23.6 trillion (by 2006). Looking at McKinsey’s own summary of the report, one finds more of the same. European financial markets had risen to a level just shy of the United States, at $53.2 trillion, but also have a higher growth rate. In part on account of the latter, the euro is “emerging as a rival to the dollar as the world’s global reserve currency.” The growth rate for the emerging markets, as suggested, also beat the U.S. rate.

Perhaps we really are reaching – eight years into the new century – the end of “The American Century.” Many have suggested a loss of U.S. global prestige and diplomatic influence in recent years. But perhaps the years ahead promise a similar decline in economic influence. Where once U.S. public and private entities bailed out distressed governments overseas, the last year has seen the rescue of struggling U.S. banks and other companies by government instrumentalities of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and other sovereign states.

As Murray points out in his piece, this redistribution of wealth (and influence) is clearly good news for many in the world. And it is at least not obvious that it is overly harmful to Americans themselves. As far a rhetoric and self-perception go, however, we may be in for an interesting ride.

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