Gaddafi's Missing Billions Show Risk of Sovereign Wealth Funds

Back in 1974, Fortune magazine described the oil boom in the Middle East as the biggest redistribution of wealth in history.

Published: 13th June 2015 10:07 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th June 2015 10:07 AM   |  A+A-

Back in 1974, Fortune magazine described the oil boom in the Middle East as the biggest redistribution of wealth in history.

Across the Arab world, people who had spent centuries living in abject poverty were suddenly blessed with oil riches beyond their wildest dreams.

Foreign currency earnings began to flow into the region and - to mop up this flood of capital - governments set up sovereign wealth funds, or SWFs.

These funds were, in principle, intended to act as banks of last resort for oil producers in the region by investing petrodollars overseas during periods of high prices. Were revenue from oil sales to decline, then these investments could be sold to provide hard currency at short notice to support economic growth.

In theory, these SWFs were glorified pension funds, but in practice they provided the rulers of these countries with an insurance policy against political risk, both at home and abroad.

However, the problem has become that the SWF system, which over the years has provided bankers in the City with a healthy stream of fees for managing the vast pools of money, has historically proved vulnerable to abuse.

This has been the case with the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), which is currently involved in a bitter legal battle in London with former employees and its banking advisers Goldman Sachs and SocGen.

The LIA sued the banks last year, claiming a combined $3.5bn (pounds 2.2bn) for losses related to alleged wrongdoing and making poor investments, which didn't pay off. Both lenders deny the allegations.

But, more importantly, the case lifts the lid on how the regime of the late dictator Col Muammar Gaddafi mismanaged the billions of dollars in oil revenues it stored away overseas despite years of sanctions and isolation from the West.

This included a complex network of investments and other holdings spread across more than 500 companies and assets that are estimated in total to be worth $60bn. For the last five years, these assets have been frozen after the international community moved swiftly to prevent the remnants of the Gaddafi family and its henchmen from disappearing with billions.

Created in 2006, largely from the assets of the old Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company, the LIA signed up to the Santiago Principles, which are a set of 24 loose guidelines created by the International Monetary Fund to govern SWFs. The charter was intended to promote transparency among this collection of giant funds. But in many respects it only serves to highlight the paucity of global governance over how these funds are managed.

However, the LIA - like many of its counterparts in the Middle East - has traditionally provided scant information on its activities.

A cursory glance at its website provides little insight into its inner workings, or how the Libyan people may one day benefit from its vast horde of cash. A message on the site simply reads: "LIA has been implementing an ambitious program to strengthen the institution and position it as a sovereign wealth fund of international standing, capable of achieving its goal of securing earnings for future Libyan generations."

It is unclear who the fund's managers now report to, or whether the country will emerge from its current turmoil intact. Libya has descended into chaos in the three years since Gaddafi was slaughtered during his escape from Sirte by rebels who had finally overthrown his despotic government.

The country is now split as different factions, including Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters, battle for control. Amid the gun battles between opposing tribes and Islamist groups, two opposing administrations - both styling themselves as governments - have set up in different cities.

In Tobruk, the recognised parliament has set up office, but it increasingly has little control of what goes on around it. Last year, it was forced to hire a Greek passenger ferry, which weighed anchor in the port city, as a kind of floating government hotel and refuge from the fighting. Meanwhile, the Islamist-dominated General National Congress has established itself in Tripoli, the old centre of Gaddafi's regime. Libya has effectively been split into two separate countries, despite a UN-brokered plan to bring both sides together.

Against this backdrop, a battle for control of the LIA has unfolded between Hassan Bouhadi, who claims to have been appointed chairman in October last year, and its former chair Abdulmagid Breish. This power struggle had threatened to undermine the fund's case against its former bankers, although both sides came to an 11th hour truce this week which should allow the lawsuit to continue.

 While lawyers fight in London courts over who is to blame, billions of petrodollars belonging to the Libyan people remain locked out of reach.

Given the chaos unfolding in North Africa, it is probably for the best that these funds remain frozen until some sense of a stability returns to the region. However, that could take decades during which the LIA will most probably remain in limbo.

This brings us to the bigger issue of how the messy demise of the Libyan fund has highlighted the weakness of the Santiago Principles and the lack of adequate regulations governing SWFs in general. Although the LIA is the most extreme example of how such investment vehicles can be subject to abuse, it is not the first to be drawn into controversy or to face criticism for a lack of transparency.

The suspicion is that, for the most part, they remain the preferred means for unelected rulers from the Middle East to amass vast pools of capital overseas.


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