As has been discussed on this blog and elsewhere, Big Oil is being eclipsed by national oil companies. Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell -- the western companies that have swaggered their way through the halls of power since the beginning of the last century -- are losing out to Aramco, Gazprom, PetroChina, and so on.
Now another underpinning of Western primacy in the world -- global finance -- is going the same way. Take a look at this piece in the latest Business Week by Emily Thornton and Stanley Reed. It's on the so-called sovereign wealth funds, the diversified investment vehicles for the oil profits siphoned away by the six most important Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Oman.
Takeaways from this article: These states have amassed a stunning $1.7 trillion in their sovereign wealth funds, as much as all the hedge funds in the world combined. And their $180 billion in 2007 profit on these investments amounted to more than half their total $315 billion in profit from oil and gas. The money quote from Gregory A. White, managing director at Thomas H. Lee Partners: Soon "they will be the industry. We will be working for them."
When you add on the $156 billion held in Russia's Stabilization Fund and the $20 billion in Kazakhstan's National Oil Fund, these investment vehicles are buying up pieces of Western companies from Texas to Hong Kong and changing the finance world. Merrill Lynch needs a $4 billion infusion to shore itself up after an expected $15 billion in mortgage writedowns, as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported in the last couple of days? Don't be surprised if it's one of these funds coming to the rescue. Both Merrill and Citigroup have already received a combined total of some $13 billion in cash through stock sales to Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund. The Journal reported yesterday that both are back in the Middle East to get more cash. Citigroup needs some $10 billion, according to the piece.
These are not silent investors, as were the Middle Eastern petro-states in the 1970s and 1980s. I watch Russia most closely in this regard, and Moscow has discovered that, in the 21st century, it's easier to march across Europe doing business than with an Army.
It's another dimension in the shift of the center of gravity of global influence.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Chinese Development Bank and Saudi billionaire Alwaleed in Talal are part of a group coming to the rescue of Citigroup. Alwaleed already is Citigroup's second-largest individual shareholder.