Abstract: Sovereign wealth funds (SWF) have largely proven to be the gentle giants of the financial markets; they tend to be relatively patient, passive shareholders. In contrast to other activist hedge funds, when SWFs do engage with companies, they tend to work behind the scenes to maximize value for the long term.
And yet, because they are funds owned by a sovereign, they often receive significant scrutiny, especially in developed markets, whenever they invest. To date, most of this scrutiny has occurred on the front end of investments, as host-country politicians and regulators question the motives of SWF investment in their markets. In some cases this scrutiny proves to be strict enough to encourage SWFs to look for other opportunities in other markets. As SWFs have continued to invest responsibly and regulators have become increasingly comfortable with SWF investment, the fear-mongering associated with SWF investment has decreased.
Now, however, concerns have arisen not over how SWFs invest, but how they divest. Indeed, some reports seem to attribute depressed stock market prices and general market volatility to SWF divestment. A headline in Barron’s, for example, claimed that “Selling by sovereign wealth funds is a huge headwind for stocks,” and a headline for an article in the Financial Times declared that “Sovereign wealth funds drive turbulent trading.” Undoubtedly withdrawals from some SWFs — particularly Gulf SWFs — have had an impact on the markets, and particularly on stocks in which SWFs tend to overweight in their portfolios, such as stock in financial firms and some consumer goods companies. Perhaps the biggest impact has been felt by asset managers, which have seen their AUM deteriorate as SWFs withdraw funds.
But how significant are SWF withdrawals from markets? Put in a slightly more pointed way, do SWF withdrawals create systemic risk for the markets? And if they do, what could be done about it? This brief analysis, prepared for the Università Bocconi’s Sovereign Investment Lab 2016 Annual SWF Report, attempts to work towards an answer to those questions, and in doing so, also attempts to provide some perspective on the larger debate in the appropriate role of SWFs in global capital markets.