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Saudis add $27b to wealth fund

Saudi Arabia is boosting the firepower of its sovereign wealth fund to accelerate deal-making and lessen the country’s dependence on oil.

The Public Investment Fund is receiving a 100 billion-riyal ($27 billion) transfer from official reserves, according to a statement Wednesday on the SPA official news agency, increasing its existing assets by about 17 percent. The injection will help the fund diversify investments and revenues, it said.

The fund’s dealmaking has quickened this year as it seeks to increase the proportion of foreign investments to 50 percent by 2020 from 5 percent. It acquired a $3.5 billion stake in taxi-hailing app Uber Technologies Inc. in June and plans to put as much as $45 billion into a $100 billion global technology fund formed by Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp. Eventually, the kingdom wants the PIF, as it’s known, to become the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund.

“The government is aggressively pursuing its investment diversification plan,” John Sfakianakis, director of economic research at the Gulf Research Center, said by phone. “It also sends a powerful message that the local economy is seen as a tremendous opportunity and will boost private sector confidence after a series of government spending cuts.”

During the coming period, the PIF will focus on both domestic and international deals, including “expected high yield opportunities in the local market that support private sector investments and promote economic growth and local contents,” according to the statement.

The PIF, which is led by ex-Saudi Fransi Capital banker Yasir Alrumayyan and has assets of about 600 billion riyals, most recently said that it’s taking a 50 percent stake in Dubai-based businessman Mohamed Alabbar’s investment vehicle Adeptio. It’s also contributing $500 million to Alabbar’s plan to create e-commerce firm Noon.

Saudi Arabia’s plans also include transferring to the sovereign wealth fund the ownership of oil giant Saudi Arabian Oil Co. and proceeds from that company’s initial public offering. Once it takes ownership of the government’s stake in Saudi Aramco the PIF will become the world’s biggest sovereign fund with assets of over $2 trillion, according to Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The fund currently holds about $100 billion of shares in listed local companies, including Saudi Basic Industries Corp. and Saudi Telecom Co.

In March last year, the PIF was transferred under a committee controlled by Prince Mohammed. In his role as head of of Economic and Development Affairs Council, the Prince chairs the board of the fund. It had previously been managed by the Ministry of Finance.

The prospect of the PIF becoming more acquisitive, coupled with the planned privatization of Saudi Aramco and other state-owned companies, is attracting global investment banks to the kingdom. Fees paid to banks in Saudi Arabia jumped by almost a third to about $100 million in the first five months, according to New York-based research firm Freeman & Co.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. advised the PIF on its investment in Uber and was a global coordinator on the kingdom’s $17.5 billion bond sale in October along with HSBC Holdings and Citigroup Inc. The sale was the largest ever such emerging markets offering.

PIF doesn’t receive any funding through the government budget and received more than 20 billion riyals in dividends in 2015, mostly from its holdings of Saudi Arabian equities, according to the prospectus for the October bond sale.

Saudi Arabia, hurt by low oil prices, has drawn down foreign reserves and cut spending while it funds a budget deficit that reached about 15 percent of gross domestic product last year. Foreign reserves held by the central bank have fallen $200 billion since August last year, to $536 billion at the end of October, according to the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency.

The movement of funds to the PIF from SAMA, as the central bank is known, indicates that the role of the central bank could be gradually shifting, Mohamad Al Hajj, Dubai-based equity strategist for the Middle East and North Africa at EFG-Hermes U.A.E. Ltd said today by e-mail. SAMA’s role may be moving away from managing the country’s foreign reserves to focusing on currency liquidity and regulation, he said.-Bloomberg