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Charan Singh: Why India should steer clear of sovereign wealth funds

Utilising such investments to stabilise the economy is a bit like offering a military base to another country

Charan Singh 

Charan Singh

The Government of India, according to press reports, is considering approaching (SWFs) to invest in India. This is an interesting idea that needs to be examined closely. In the recent financial crisis, are known to have played a stabilising role but that has not been their historical image. In fact, the threats posed by the and their intentions were characterised by the attempted purchase of US ports by a Dubai-based company in 2006 and expansion in Europe by Russia's Gazprom. These attempts alarmed policymakers in advanced countries.

have been attracting attention since their explosive growth from 2007 because of their increasing importance in the international monetary and financial system, though they have existed since the 1950s. There is lack of agreement on the number of and the size of their assets. According to some estimates, there were 83 of 54 countries, of which 13 are pension and pension-reserve in 2011 (Sovereign Wealth Funds: Threat or Salvation? by Edwin Truman, Peterson Institute, 2011). The total assets of these were $5.9 trillion, and were projected to reach $12 trillion by 2015.

In many countries, have been carved out from the official holdings of international reserves. The rise of is closely linked to the general increase in international reserves, especially after the South East Asian financial crisis of 1997. In some countries, such as Russia, official estimates of international reserves include foreign assets held by SWFs, while in Singapore an SWF manages the country's

An SWF can be defined as an entity that manages state-owned financial assets, and is legally structured as a separate fund owned by the state. According to International Working Group (IWG) of SWFs, are special purpose investment funds or arrangements that are owned by the government. hold, manage or administer assets to achieve financial objectives, and employ a set of investment strategies that include investing in foreign financial assets. In their investment activities, reflect increased financial globalisation as well as shifts in economics and financial power relationships in the global economy, according to Truman, a former US assistant secretary in the US Treasury.

were established with one or more objectives, which could be to insulate the Budget and the from excess volatility in revenues; help monetary authorities sterilise unwanted liquidity; build up savings for future generations; or use the money for economic and social development. In the case of countries that are commodity-rich, depletion of non-renewable resources and volatile commodity prices lead them to transform non-renewable resources into sustainable and more stable future income. In the case of countries with large foreign exchange reserves, allow for greater portfolio diversification with the key focus on providing higher returns than would traditionally be possible for central bank-managed assets.

In May 2008, the International Monetary Fund-facilitated IWG of was formed to develop a set of principles that transparently reflect the investment objectives and practices of In September 2008, a preliminary agreement was reached in Santiago, Chile, on a set of 24 principles, also known as the Santiago Principles emphasising the need for transparency in purpose, objectives, investment policies, strategy, and accounting practices underpinning the performance of Some success has been achieved but, as should be logically expected, the investments, objectives, strategy and operations of would never be transparent, as many of the host countries, such as China, have not even declared the currency composition of their reserves to the

typically have medium- to long-term investment horizons, suggesting that they are less likely to make abrupt portfolio shifts that could affect market stability. So, to some extent, investments made by can be expected to be stable. But as are mainly an extension of the government, utilising the investment of to build reserves or stabilise the is potentially hazardous. To illustrate, among the larger operating in the global financial markets are China, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. These have been set up with an explicit objective of pursuing higher returns on their investment. If India is negotiating with them to continue to invest in the country even when the global interest rate cycle reverses, this would imply that a proposal is commercially unviable and would require a sweetener or a quid pro quo.

SWFs, given their size, cross-border operations, and often non-transparent objectives and strategies, have the potential to cause disturbances in the market. Most importantly, seeking investment from would remind many an Indian of the unpleasant history associated with the East India Company. In the modern parlance, it would be the equivalent of offering a military base (in this case financial space) to another country. On the whole, it would be better to face hardships within the country than invite the proverbial camel's head in the tent.

The writer is RBI Chair Professor of Economics, IIM Bangalore and was Senior Economist, Independent Evaluation Office of the International Monetary Fund. These views are personal