Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why bears will have a hard time waking up from the dead

Today's WSJ:

Foreign governments, flush with cash and no longer content with the meager returns to be had on safe but low-yielding investments like Treasurys, are becoming increasingly aggressive players on the equity front.

The new boldness of these government-controlled investors was on display Sunday night when entities controlled by the governments of China and Singapore agreed to invest as much as $18.5 billion in return for stakes in the big British bank Barclays PLC.

In doing so, Chinese lender China Development Bank and Temasek Holdings Pte. Ltd., the Singapore government's investment agency, could play a role in the outcome of the biggest bank-takeover battle ever. That increasingly bitter contest pits Barclays against a consortium of European banks led by Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC in seeking to acquire Dutch banking giant ABN ABN Amro Holding NV.

While potentially boosting their investment returns, such deals expose the government-controlled funds and other entities involved to risks that range from simple investment losses to political backlash. If it continues, the trend could also reshape global financial markets, bidding up prices for more speculative assets like stocks, corporate bonds and real estate, while crimping demand for safer investments like Treasury bonds.

"There has been a fairly spectacular increase in financial assets under management by governments," said Dominic Wilson, director of global macro and markets research at Goldman Sachs Group. "The scale of the issues around such investment is different than anything the world has ever seen. Neither [governments] nor the markets know exactly what they should do with the assets."

If completed, the Barclays deal would provide further evidence of an important global shift in wealth. "This is basically a flow of capital from emerging markets to established markets," says John Studzinski, former chief of investment banking at HSBC Holdings PLC and now head of Blackstone Group's mergers-and-acquisitions advisory group, which advised China Development on the deal. The private-equity firm's role shows how private and public investors are joining together to create powerful forces.

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