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Gulf funds drift away from dollar

Business Materials 7 October 2007 11:09

( Gulf ) - Asset diversification by the Gulf sovereign wealth funds and the possibility that the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) will change the pricing of oil from the dollar to another currency could mean more trouble for the dollar.

The dollar has been losing its charm as a reserve currency due to its persistent weakness against a host of other international currencies.

The September non-farm payrolls report on Friday showed 110,000 jobs were created in the US last month. Although the dollar reacted positively to the news and gained initially, the rally quickly fizzled.

Amid the dollar's free fall following the half per cent interest rate cut in September, Qatar last week said its $50 billion sovereign wealth fund has cut its exposure to the dollar by more than half to about 40 per cent of its portfolio.

"While the opportunities are growing, the risk levels of Asian assets have come down substantially in recent years," Ronnie Chan, chairman of Hang-Lung Properties Hong Kong, told Gulf News recently.

Analysts see the admission by Qatar as a signal that regional state-owned funds are moving away from the dollar.

" Qatar has admitted that its investment fund has been diversifying their portfolios to compensate for the decline of the dollar. It would be naive to think that other Gulf funds are loyal to the dollar at the cost of heavy portfolio losses," said a Dubai-based investment banker.

During the past 12 months, companies, mainly state-owned investment arms and private equity firms from the GCC, have quietly acquired more than $50 billion in assets worldwide with Asia's and Europe's shares together accounting for more than 55 per cent. The state-owned Kuwait Investment Authority, with assets of more than $150 billion, last year increased the Asian share of its portfolio to 20 per cent from 10 per cent.

Although gulf central banks have been discussing asset diversification in the past two years, there hasn't been any evidence of a major shift. The size of assets held by Gulf central banks are relatively small compared to the funds managed by the state-owned investment funds.

According to IMF estimates, global investment funds managed by governments control an estimated $2.5 trillion, outstripping hedge funds. Morgan Stanley estimates these assets could rise to $12 trillion by 2015, roughly the size of the US economy. Gulf countries account for a major share of these funds.

Currency market analysts believe that the gulf sovereign funds' gradual move away from the dollar is a precursor to Opec opting for a different currency in which to price oil.

"If the dollar were to lose its lustre as a reserve currency this could prove disruptive to the global financial system," Merrill Lynch said in a research note.

"Pricing oil in dollars might have made sense when there was a paucity of other relatively stable currencies and when the Middle East imported more from the US - but not any-more," said an analyst.

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