Wealthy Qatar risks a foreign investment pile-up

Gulf state's taste for foreign trophy assets could be dangerous, warns Una Galani
Wealthy Qatar risks a foreign investment pile-up
Qatars foreign assets include luxury London store Harrods and stakes in Barclays and J. Sainsburys
By Reuters
Tue 20 Sep 2011 02:45 PM

Qatar risks a foreign investment pile-up. The tiny gas-rich state might have up to $100bn to snap up overseas assets, based on guesses at the size of the country’s main sovereign wealth fund.

Qatar’s mooted interest in a 7.5-per-cent stake in European aerospace and defence company EADS would only cost it less than $2bn at current market prices.

But it’s unclear if the country’s overseas spending is as focused as its domestic ambitions. And its taste for large high-profile assets could be dangerous.

The soon-to-be richest country in the world – on a GDP per capita basis – is able to splash its cash overseas, given the stability of its domestic politics. The Qatar Investment Authority holds an estimated $60bn to $100bn in assets.

On top of that, the country reckons its foreign reserves for the year will total around $20bn. But that pales in size in absolute terms against the sovereign funds of Abu Dhabi and China, which are each several times bigger.

Assuming estimates of the QIA’s size are about right, at least 20 percent of Qatar’s assets are spread across a handful of purchases made over the last two years alone. Qatar has spent more than $20bn on stakes in German car makers Porsche and Volkswagen – which have just run into trouble – Agricultural Bank of China, Santander Brasil, Spain’s Iberdrola and construction firm Hochtief.

It has also thrown a lifeline to some Greek banks and snapped up Britain’s luxury department store Harrods, not to mention two European football teams.

The attraction is easy to understand: valuations are low. Airbus, a unit of EADS, forecasts it will sell $3.5-trillion worth of aircraft between 2011 and 2030.

The parent has a market capitalisation of barely $25bn. Doha bets that its deep links with sophisticated and politically significant entities will help further its gas ambitions. It also hopes that the relationships will assist its longer-term economic diversification by encouraging its targets to set up local operations. In any case, the purchases boost Qatar’s international profile.

Yet Qatar’s strutting of the world stage would seem more savvy if the QIA was half as transparent about its strategy for managing its existing wealth as it is for domestic development, laid out in its 2011-16 vision.

Abu Dhabi, China and Norway all provide some kind of breakdown of spending. As it stands, Qatar’s investments so far look like a large concentration of risk.

(Una Galani is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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