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Saudi Arabia’s PIF buying spree is vote of confidence in pandemic recovery

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19 May 2020 09:05:25 GMT9
19 May 2020 09:05:25 GMT9

We should have seen it coming. Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), told a virtual gathering of investors last month, “You don’t want to waste a crisis. We’re looking into any opportunities.”

Amid the global economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, few took him at his word, but at the end of last week proof of the PIF’s ambitions came in a Form 13F declaration from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the watchdog of the American investment industry.

The disclosure — required by US authorities of all big investment institutions — showed that the PIF had not wasted any time at all during the crisis. In fact, it had been in hyperactive mode during the first half, when global stock markets had plummeted as economic activity ground to a halt under pandemic lockdowns.

The PIF had spent around $7.7 billion on a shopping spree of US assets, many of them in sectors deemed especially vulnerable to the forecast downturn such as travel, hospitality, and entertainment, as well as in energy and financial services.

The disclosure repays a bit of scrutiny. Note first, that although there are some investment businesses outside the US — Canadian Natural Resources and Suncor Energy of Canada, along with Europe’s Royal Dutch Shell, Total and BP — all are in US-quoted securities, for example American depository receipts (ADRs).

Another point is that the document is a snapshot, rather than a timeline. It does not identify exactly when the PIF bought the shares, only what their value was at the end of March. So, it is not possible to tell precisely what price the Kingdom’s wealth fund paid for the assets.

But it is reasonable to assume most of them were purchased in the first few weeks of March, when US markets fell by around 30 percent before the federal authorities intervened to stabilize financial markets with the first of their “bazooka” interventions.

These had the desired effect as stocks rebounded from the end of March, winning back more than half of their earlier losses. It is entirely possible that the PIF is already in the money on some of the investments.

The PIF picks fall into five broad categories. Bank of America and Citigroup are two leading financial institutions and seen as financial “blue chips” that already have corporate and investment banking relationships with the Kingdom. They are safe long-term bets, but the shares could be vulnerable to any further downturn in financial markets.

The PIF buying spree helps shift its portfolio away from a concentration on Saudi Arabia and its big projects.

Frank Kane

Leisure and travel were hit hard by social distancing measures and air travel restrictions. Marriott International, Booking Holdings and Carnival Cruises obviously face challenges until the new normal of global travel becomes apparent, but could be seen as immediate beneficiaries from a recovery.

The same applies to entertainment — in the form of Disney Corp. and Live Nation — although they could take longer to get back to pre-pandemic levels because of ongoing social distancing and understandable fears about close-proximity events.

The PIF went big in technology, with stakes in Automatic Data Processing, IBM, Qualcomm, and Broadcom. Technology is one of the sectors generally seen as a long-term winner from the health crisis.

Boeing, another big PIF investment, was already suffering because of the 737 Max problems, which have been compounded by increased uncertainty over new aircraft orders. The corporation is well known in the Kingdom through other defense and technology business.

The energy investments, especially in independent oil companies, sparked some skepticism. The purpose of the PIF after all is to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from oil dependency. But it is a sector Saudi Arabia obviously knows very well and could bring the PIF some influence in future global energy policy, as well as capital upside when oil prices improve.

The small investment in Berkshire Hathaway — the vehicle of Warren Buffet — was seen as a riposte to the legendary investor who has been among the gloomier voices in the crisis. But the PIF could also do worse than backing the “sage of Omaha.”

The PIF buying spree helps shift its portfolio away from a concentration on Saudi Arabia and its big projects. Long-term international investment, in sectors that will make money for the Kingdom and assist its own diversification ambitions, is a core part of the PIF strategy.

But most of all, the $7.7 billion bargain hunt is a big vote of confidence that economic and financial recovery will be rapid and resilient. The coming months will show how good a call that is.

• Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai

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