Time For An Australian Sovereign Wealth Fund ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The topic of a sovereign wealth fund for Australia has cropped up a few times in the media lately, following a call by Malcolm Turnbull for one to be put in place (in contrast to the litany of idiocy coming from the rest of his party). The SMH has the latest example - Our pot of gold for when the mines run dry.

Norway's got one, so does Chile. For decades, the oil-rich Gulf states have also squirrelled away their export revenue into a public savings pool, known as a sovereign wealth fund.

Now, there are growing calls for Australia to develop a fund of its own to make the most of the resources bonanza.

Backing from the likes of Commonwealth Bank chief Ralph Norris and Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull has increased pressure to save more of the boom.
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For the most part though, debate has skirted around just how this might work in practice. For a government battling to convince the public of the need for a carbon tax, a savings fund probably falls in the too-hard basket.

This need not be the case. Commentary from a growing number of economists, business people and former officials suggests a fund is not only sensible for Australia, but doable.

So if we did choose to go down this path, what might an Australian sovereign fund look like?

As debate heats up over whether we should have a fund, overseas experience can shed valuable light on the role such a fund would play here.

Sovereign wealth funds have enjoyed a meteoric rise, shrugging off the global financial crisis on the back of soaring commodity prices.

The value of assets held by these government-controlled monoliths leapt 11 per cent to $US4.2 trillion last year - almost double all private equity holdings. The sector's value is tipped to hit $US5.5 trillion next year and $US10 trillion by 2015.

Among the countries that have gone down this path there is a recurring theme - commodity wealth. From the $US38.6 billion Kazakhstan National Fund to the $US627 billion Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the trend was led by oil-rich states from the 1950s.

Resource-poor countries such as Singapore and South Korea have also used sovereign funds to pool public pensions or save their foreign exchange reserves. But it is the commodity-rich states that are most relevant to Australia.

According to the International Monetary Fund, almost all of the sovereign funds established by commodity-rich countries have one of two objectives: saving the windfall from a boom or smoothing the bumpy ride of commodity cycles.

Australia's Future Fund is a public servants' pension fund that neither smooths the boom and bust cycle nor saves for the nation, and many economists say this is a big gap in our policy settings.

The former Reserve Bank governor and superannuation chief Bernie Fraser says we should be storing away the valuable ''nuts'' of the boom.

''We're just floating by on the commodity boom, giving most of the proceeds back to the mining companies, which are not going to provide the kind of social and economic infrastructure that will sustain this country over the next 30 to 40 years,'' he says.

''I despair about what happened with the resource rent tax - that should have been the big nut that was put away and used down the track when the mines are gone and we're looking for some way of maintaining activity and infrastructure.''

When the boom inevitably comes to a halt, Fraser says a fund could offset some of the pain by having ''social and infrastructure projects developed, on the shelf, ready to go''.

For others, stability should be a key objective of an Australian fund. Mining investment as a share of gross domestic product is already approaching 5 per cent - well above levels reached in the 1960s and 1970s - leaving us more exposed to a sudden slowdown in world demand.

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