The new power brokers

By Diana Farrell

The past year has seen much financial unrest, but three players—Asian sovereign investors, oil exporters, and private equity firms—have helped stabilize the market.

The past year has seen much financial unrest, but three players—Asian sovereign investors, oil exporters, and private equity firms—have helped stabilize the market.

Many market participants have struggled to cope with the financial turmoil of the past year. But three players have continued to grow in wealth and clout: Asian sovereign investors, oil exporters, and private equity firms. Moreover, several of these actors gained new prominence by using their vast pools of capital to help recapitalize the balance sheets of other financial institutions and help contain the crisis. Their actions highlighted the benefits they offer—but also heighten concerns about the potential risks they pose.

In an October 2007 McKinsey Global Institute report, we labeled these three investor groups, as well as hedge funds, "the new power brokers" because their rising influence reflects a dispersion of financial power away from traditional Western institutions and toward new players and other parts of the world. In a new update, we examine how the four power brokers have fared through the crisis. And we find that collectively, they have done very well: their combined financial assets grew 22% in 2007—faster than before—to $11.5 trillion in 2007.

Much of this gain reflects the Asian countries' swelling trade surpluses and the oil exporters' soaring petro-profits. Additionally, both private equity and hedge funds saw their assets under management grow in 2007, but had to adjust to a sudden loss in the leverage they had used to amplify returns. Private equity survived in reasonably good shape by employing new investment strategies—including taking minority stakes in publicly traded companies and expanding in emerging markets. Overall, private equity continues to attract investor capital. But hedge funds were harder-hit; several closed, many posted large losses linked to credit products, and fund-raising slowed to nearly nothing by early 2008.

The Stabilizers
Clearly, the power brokers have financial influence because of their sheer size. Three individual institutions in this group—the central bank of China, the Bank of Japan, and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA)—rank among the top 10 largest asset managers in the world. And Russia's oil revenues have made it the third-largest holder of foreign reserves, after Japan and China.

But it was by using their riches to help recapitalize and stabilize other financial institutions that the power brokers emerged as key players in the crisis. We calculate that together, Asian and oil-based sovereign investors invested $59 billion in Western financial institutions from March 2007 through June 2008. ADIA, for example, provided Citigroup © with $7.5 billion in emergency capital. Sovereign wealth funds such as the Kuwait Investment Authority and Korean Investment provided new funding for Merrill Lynch (MER). And the Qatar Investment Authority is injecting $3.5 billion into Barclays (BCS).

Private equity also has helped stabilize troubled institutions. The private equity firm TPG, for example, took a stake in the struggling mortgage lender Washington Mutual (WM). Private equity firm Corsair Capital pumped millions into ailing National City (NCC). And several private equity firms have found new investment opportunities in buying banks' distressed debt. Private equity funds announced fund-raising of $84 billion in new distressed debt funds in the first quarter of 2008—more than triple the total in all of 2007. These debt purchases will enable the banks to improve their balance sheets, which should help them resume lending.

These combined actions helped prevent the credit crisis from spreading, and demonstrated some of the benefits offered by the power brokers. They were able to tap large reservoirs of liquidity. They have spurred the increasing availability of private financing as an alternative to troubled public markets, which should make the financial system more resilient and efficient. And the flexibility of their investment strategies and long time horizons allowed them to provide infusions of capital at a time when they were not attractive short-term investments. Indeed, we calculate these stakes have lost approximately $14 billion in value so far, but are likely to generate positive returns over time.

These qualities have proven valuable not just to the institutions that received the capital infusions, but also to the broader financial system. It is doubtful Western governments could have provided taxpayer-funded financial assistance to the banks on the same scale without triggering a public uproar. It is unlikely the banks could have raised as much capital through the public equity and debt markets amid such turbulence.

Some Risks
But the power brokers' growing size and impact on the markets also highlight the risks they pose. We have identified four:

First, the liquidity they provide may inflate asset prices. In recent years, the capital provided by Asian and petrodollar sovereign investors have helped lower long-term interest rates by as much as 75 basis points. In retrospect, it is clear this cheap credit environment helped contribute to the credit boom that has now turned into a bust.

Second, some observers worry that state investors might have noneconomic motives for their investments. This concern has grown as rising oil prices have boosted the financial reach of some petrodollar powers, such as Russia and Venezuela, with histories of mixing business and politics.

Third, the large amount of debt that private equity firms load onto their portfolio companies could lead to rising defaults. This has not happened yet, but might occur if the current downturn continues.

Fourth, large hedge fund failures could cause the kind of financial system crisis that followed Long Term Capital Management's near collapse in 1998. This has not happened in the current crisis, but many of the hedge funds that relied on quantitative models to drive investments did contribute to equity market volatility in the autumn of 2007.

These concerns are genuine and require monitoring. And these four investor groups will continue to grow, gain influence, and shape global capital markets for years to come. But thus far, the benefits of the new power brokers have outweighed the risks.

Diana Farrell is the director of the McKinsey Global Institute, McKinsey's economics think tank.

This article originally ran in Businessweek.

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