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Insight: Western banks face SWF backlash

by Gillian Tett

Published: February 7 2008 19:21 | Last updated: February 7 2008 19:21

Earlier this week, I chatted with a jet-lagged senior US financier. Like many of his ilk, he is flitting around the Middle East and Asia trying to extract finance from sovereign wealth funds and other investment groups.

His latest travels have delivered a surprise: some funds are quietly getting cold feet about the idea of putting more capital directly into western banks, he says.

“There is a backlash building,” he muttered into a crackling cell phone.

This is striking stuff. In recent months, many equity investors have taken comfort from the idea that sovereign wealth funds could ride to the rescue of Wall Street, if not the City of London too.

For as the subprime scourge has spread, US policymakers have leant on the largest US banks to raise capital, almost at any cost. Consequently, they have passed the begging bowl around the sovereign wealth funds, with considerable success. Thus far some $40bn to 60bn worth of injections have been promised to groups such as Merrill Lynch and Citi, depending on how you measure the promises.

But having stepped into the breach so visibly late last year, some funds are now getting jitters. In China, for example, there are rising complaints that funds are foolish to shovel cash directly into risk-laden US banks when they could be using it in better ways, such as purchasing western commodity or manufacturing groups.

“The Chinese are worried they are turning into [the source of] dumb money,” says one well-placed Asian financier, who partly blames the trend on the Blackstone saga, which produced significant paper losses for the Chinese investors.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the latest round of Federal Reserve interest rate cuts has created unease. For sure, some powerful Gulf investors have been heartened to see that the US authorities are acting in a resolute way. They are doubly relieved that the dollar has held up so well so far. But the dramatic scale of Fed cuts has prompted concern that Wall Street is still sitting on a putrid mess – contrary to what the US banks told the sovereign wealth funds late last year.

Unsurprisingly, this leaves Gulf investors cynical about promises from Wall Street banks. It also has some Asian and Gulf funds concluding that if they are going to invest to take advantage of the subprime mess, they are foolish to do so directly or alone. Hence some are now turning to private equity funds such as JC Flowers which are at least trained to analyse the subprime mess.

Now, it would be nice to think this sentiment shift does not matter too much for the US banks. After all, the recent infusion of funds means the largest Wall Street groups are looking pretty well capitalised on paper. It also means they should be able to absorb subprime losses, which banks such as Goldman Sachs think could reach $200bn for the banks soon.

However, the problem is that subprime is just one of several potential looming shocks. Defaults on other forms of consumer debt and commercial property could rise this year. So could defaults on corporate leveraged loans from 2009 on.

Meanwhile, the monolines insurers are threatening to blast another hole in banks’ balance sheets. Indeed, if you tot up all the hits that could emerge in the next couple of years, it is easy to reach a sum of $500bn, or far more. This is sizeable, given that Goldman Sachs calculates that the banks’ capital is around $1,600bn.

I would bet that in the coming weeks large western banks will once again start passing the begging bowl around the Middle East and Asia. But I would also bet that these banks will find the going increasingly tough.

Yes, US political pressure might produce a bit more money for banks. The Gulf and Asia remain flush with cash. But if the sovereign wealth fund money is now flowing to private equity funds instead of western banks, this gives this tale a whole new twist.

Stand by to see a new chapter unfold in this financial crunch.


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