Sovereign Wealth Funds: Aspects of Governance Structures and Investment Management
  • 1 https://isni.org/isni/0000000404811396, International Monetary Fund
  • | 2 https://isni.org/isni/0000000404811396, International Monetary Fund

Contributor Notes

This paper presents in a systematic (normative) manner the salient features of a SWF‘s governance structure, in relation to its objectives and investment management that can ensure its efficient operation and enhance its financial performance. In this context, it distinguishes among the various governing bodies and analyzes key aspects of the investment policy and setting of the risk tolerance level in order to ensure consistent risk-bearing capacity and greater accountability. Further, it discusses the important role of SWFs in macroeconomic management and the need for close coordination with other macroeconomic and financial policies as well as their role in global financial stability.

Abstract

This paper presents in a systematic (normative) manner the salient features of a SWF‘s governance structure, in relation to its objectives and investment management that can ensure its efficient operation and enhance its financial performance. In this context, it distinguishes among the various governing bodies and analyzes key aspects of the investment policy and setting of the risk tolerance level in order to ensure consistent risk-bearing capacity and greater accountability. Further, it discusses the important role of SWFs in macroeconomic management and the need for close coordination with other macroeconomic and financial policies as well as their role in global financial stability.

I. Background and Motivation

Total assets under management by Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) have been growing rapidly over the last few years and estimates of their total holdings vary considerably, depending on the used definition of a SWF. Upper-end estimates indicate total SWF assets of around US$5 trillion. This figure, however, may double count some sovereign assets, by including central bank assets that are already captured in official reserves. Based on the definition of the International Working Group (IWG) of Sovereign Wealth Funds (2008), which excludes central banks and state-owned enterprises, the total assets of SWFs—with publically available data for thirty SWFs—are about US$3 trillion (IMF 2012).2

SWFs have an important role in macroeconomic management and global financial stability. The operations of the SWFs are closely linked to public finances (through their funding and withdrawal rules), monetary policy (liquidity conditions), and external accounts (exchange rate variations). Furthermore, during the global financial crisis in 2008, sovereign investors, including SWFs, were affected by and responded to the changes in the global financial markets. For instance, SWFs (saving funds) that are heavily invested in equities experienced large losses from the sharp decline in equity markets, but they recovered most of the losses in the subsequent years by demonstrating their willingness to be long-term investors and riding out the financial turmoil (IMF 2011, and Papaioannou and others, 2013). This behavior was in tandem with that of official reserve managers that reduced substantially their exposure to commercial banks deposits (Pihlman and van der Hoorn, 2010).

This ultimate objective of sovereign investors can only be achieved if the SWFs are managed within a sound governance structure and with appropriate investment strategies. Close coordination with macroeconomic policies and the management of other assets and liabilities in the public sector is essential. The SWF objective(s) and consequent investment policy should be considered within macroeconomic policy setting and objectives, and the design of SWF mandates should take into account the implication for the broader economy. In addition, the governance structure must ensure a clear division of roles and responsibilities between the various governing bodies, as well as operational independence for the manager and a supervisory system with appropriate checks and balances. This is necessary in order to build legitimacy for sovereign investment, reduce risk of fraud and mismanagement, and build a competent investment organization.

The scope of this paper is to present in a systematic manner the salient features of a SWF’s governance structure in relation to its objectives and investment management that can ensure its efficient operation and enhance its financial performance. In particular, this paper intends to be normative by providing broad recommendations and describing some good practices, taking into account the Generally Accepted Principles and Practices (GAPP) by the IWG. The paper distinguishes between different governing bodies and analyzes key aspects of a SWF’s investment mandate, including the need to specify the risk tolerance level well in order to ensure consistent risk-bearing capacity over time and greater accountability, and the need to establish prudent and effective risk management frameworks. Further, it discusses the important role of SWFs in macroeconomic management and the need for close coordination with other macroeconomic and financial policies as well as in global financial stability. Though the key aspects of governance structures and investment management are discussed within the context of SWFs, they are also applicable to other sovereign investors, such as central banks, government pension funds, development funds, etc.

The paper is structured as follows: Section II discusses the objectives and governance structure of SWFs, including their legal framework and governance structure. Section III discusses the investment management framework, including investment objectives and mandates, key considerations for investment management implementation and risk management. Section IV analyzes key issues for SWFs’ disclosure policies, including transparency, accountability and reporting, as well as implementation of the Santiago Principles (Appendix I).3

II. Objectives and Governance Structure

The policy objectives of SWFs vary, depending on the broad macrofiscal objectives that they aim to address. The organizational structure needs to have a clear separation of responsibilities and authority. As such, a well-defined structure builds a decision making hierarchy that limits risks by ensuring the integrity of and effective control over SWF management activities.4

A. Characterics of SWFs

Sovereign wealth funds are usually distinguished based on their stated policy objectives and consequent asset allocation. Though there are many SWFs with multiple objectives, based on IMF and the Santiago Principles taxonomy, five types of SWFs can be distinguished (Figure 1 and Appendix II):

  • Stabilization funds are set up to insulate the budget and economy from commodity price volatility and external shocks (e.g., Chile (Economic and Social Stabilization Fund), Timor-Leste, Iran, and Russia (Oil Stabilization Fund)). Their investment horizons and liquidity objectives resemble central banks reserve managers, in view of their role in countercyclical fiscal policies to smooth boom/bust cycles. They tend to invest largely in highly liquid portfolio of assets (and sometimes in instruments that are negatively correlated with the source of risk being addressed with the fund) by allocating over 80 percent of their assets to fixed income securities, with government securities consisting around 70 percent of total assets.

  • Savings funds intend to share wealth across generations by transforming nonrenewable assets into diversified financial assets (Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Libya, Russia (National Wealth Fund)). Their investment mandate emphasizes high risk-return profile, thus, allocating high portfolio shares to equities and other investments (over 70 percent).

  • Development funds are established to allocate resources to priority socio-economic projects, usually infrastructure (e.g., UAE (Mubadala) and Iran (National Development Fund)).

  • Pension reserve funds are set up to meet identified outflows in the future with respect to pension-related contingent-type liabilities on the government’s balance sheet (e.g., Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand). They held high shares in equities and other investments to offset rising pension costs.

  • Reserve investment corporations intend to reduce the negative carry costs of holding reserves or to earn higher return on ample reserves, while the assets in the funds are still counted as reserves (e.g., China, South Korea, and Singapore). To achieve this objective, they pursue higher returns by high allocations in equities and alternative investments—with up to 50 percent in South Korea and 75 percent in Singapore’s Government Investment Corporation.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Asset Allocations at Sovereign Wealth Fund, by Type of Fund

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2013, 231; 10.5089/9781475518610.001.A001

Source: IMF, Global Financial Stability Report (April 2012).

The objectives of SWFs depend on country-specific circumstances, which may evolve over time. Many funds in resource-rich economies have multiple objectives, such as stabilization/savings (Azerbaijan, Botswana, Trinidad & Tobago, and Norway), saving/pension reserve (Australia), or stabilization/saving/development (Kazakhstan).

Investment decisions and portfolio allocation of SWFs are often closely linked to their stated investment objectives and governance structure. Table 1 shows the main asset allocation characteristics of stabilization and saving funds. Moreover, Figure 1 shows the asset allocation of various types of SWFs, indicating that equities, as a share in SWFs’ portfolio, tend to increase from 0–5 percent for stabilization funds to around 40 percent in pension reserve funds, and around 60 percent for saving funds and reserve investment funds.

Table 1.

Asset Allocation Characteristics of Stabilization and Savings SWFs

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Source: IMF.

B. Macroeconomic Role of SWF Institutions

SWFs have an important role in macroeconomic management and hence ought to be in close coordination with other government institutions. SWF assets—and the returns they generate—can have a significant effect on public finances, monetary conditions, external accounts and balance sheet linkages with the rest of the world. In particular:

  • Fiscal policy might be affected by SWF funding and withdrawal rules that are usually derived from a fiscal rule, often based on Permanent-Income-Hypothesis considerations;5

  • Monetary policy may be impacted by wide fluctuations in fiscal revenues and procyclical implications for aggregate demand that typically affect inflation and the real exchange rate; and

  • Exchange rate variations could be mitigated by investing the SWF’s resources abroad.

Therefore, the SWF should be considered within the context of the overall sovereign balance sheet. From the risk-return perspective, it is “sub-optimal” to optimize isolated balance sheets rather than the consolidated sovereign balance sheet (Das et al. 2012). Although asset-liability objectives and strategies might be optimal for each institution (e.g., central bank, pension fund, SWF, etc.) in terms of local risk-return profile, it may not be the case from the sovereign balance sheet perspective. Mismatches in the financial characteristics of sovereign assets and liabilities may expose the sovereign balance sheet to a wide range of risks, including interest rate and exchange rate risks. Therefore, to manage better these risks, there needs to be close coordination among the institutions involved in the management of sovereign assets and liabilities, with appropriate legislation that institute policy guidelines (to avoid substantial mismatches) and sharing of information.

Sound public financial management calls for limiting the procyclicality of fiscal policy. Policies and rules for an SWF’s funding, withdrawal, and spending operations should be clear and consistent with the purpose(s) of the fund. A stabilization SWF usually has clearly laid-out rules for the deposit and withdrawal of resources to smooth the fluctuations in the government budget. Savings-type SWFs receive contributions from excess revenues, but their purpose is to help ensure that earnings or profits are spent—through the budget process—in a way that makes it possible to share wealth with future generations. For pension funds, the mandate is to match asset accumulation to the actuarial implication of the demographic profile, while having little scope to influence the business cycle or the revenue implications of commodity price fluctuations. To this end, the rules of transferring funds between an SWF and its owner should always be spelled out. Also, while fiscal processes often call for some flexibility in the withdrawals from these funds, so as to avoid borrowing, this approach will have to be taken into account in the strategic asset allocation (SAA).

The investment objectives of the SWF also need to be consistent with the government’s broad macrofiscal objectives. Although investment objectives of SWFs vary according to the underlying purpose, they must be compatible with macrofiscal objectives and policy priorities. For instance, the investment strategies of commodity-based SWFs are frequently designed to fit closely the respective country’s policy framework by minimizing the distortions that large and volatile commodity flows might cause to the fiscal accounts, inflation, and the exchange rate and addressing possible sovereign explicit contingent liabilities.

In particular, the SWF’s investment strategies can help alleviate the “Dutch Disease” phenomenon and ensure external stability. In resource-based economies, upward swings in commodity prices tend to result in a boom in aggregate domestic demand, inflationary pressures, and thus an appreciation of the real exchange rate vis-à-vis trading partners. Those conditions, in turn, make non-oil sector less competitive in international markets—a phenomenon known as the Dutch Disease. By augmenting the country’s net external asset position in a way consistent with economic structure and fundamentals, the SWF would help maintain external stability over the long term. Furthermore, the accumulation of foreign assets in tandem with changes in hydrocarbon exports would help mitigate macroeconomic—and social—risks associated with the appreciation of the real exchange rate especially under the fixed exchange rate regime and loss of competitiveness in non-hydrocarbon sectors of the economy.

C. Legal Structure and Institutional Framework

The optimal investment strategy for an SWF will have to reflect the objectives of the SWF. In most cases, these objectives will be directly interlinked to the governance structure, investment strategy, and transparency requirements (Figure 2).

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Main Elements of SWF Policy

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2013, 231; 10.5089/9781475518610.001.A001

Source: Authors.

Legal structure

A robust legal framework is required to promote sound institutional and governance arrangements for the effective management of SWFs. The SWF legal framework should among other things (i) provide clearly for the legal form and structure of the SWF and its relationship with other state bodies (including the ministry of finance (MoF), central bank); (ii) be consistent with the broader legal framework governing government’s budgetary processes; (iii) ensure legal soundness of the SWF and its transactions; (iv) support its effective operation and the achievement of its stated policy objective(s), which should be economic and financial in nature; and (v) promote effective governance, accountability, and transparency.

In practice, there is a wide variety of legal frameworks for SWFs. This partly reflects the fact that different countries have chosen different legal forms for these funds. Generally, SWFs are established (i) as separate legal entities under law with legal identities and full capacity to act;6 (ii) take the form of state-owned corporations also with distinct legal persona;7 or (iii) as a pool of assets owned by the state or the central bank, without a separate legal identity.8 All of these forms are compatible with recognized practices and principles, but the legal basis for a SWF must clearly establish which form the SWF has. In practice, the different legal forms may have implications for both the tax position and immunity of investments. Investments through central banks will normally be protected by sovereign immunity and may also enjoy tax privileges in recipient countries. Taxation of investments through corporate structures may depend on the extent to which these investments are viewed as an integrated part of the government’s financial management. Tax treatment of SWFs investment can also depend on provisions in bilateral tax agreements (e.g., Norway has negotiated tax exemptions for its SWF investments in several bilateral tax treaties).

There is also a wide variety when it comes to the degree of granularity of primary legislation. This will partly reflect different traditions and/or constitutional requirements across countries. Some countries have very short primary legislation but more granular secondary legislation.9 There are also differences with respect to how much delegation of authority laws in different countries provide for. Again, many levels of granularity may be compatible with recognized international practices. But, it is essential that the overall legal framework provides for real delegation from owner to manager and that it grants the operational manager independence within the guidelines set by the owner.

Institutional framework

The institutional frameworks across SWFs differ. Regardless of the governance framework, the operational management of an SWF should be conducted on an independent basis to minimize potential political influence or interference that could hinder the achievement of the SWF’s objectives.

The “manager model” and the “investment company model” are the two dominant forms of institutional setup for SWFs. The models are illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Investment Models

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2013, 231; 10.5089/9781475518610.001.A001

Source: Authors

In the manager model, the legal owner of the pool of assets constituting the SWF (usually the ministry of finance) gives an investment mandate to an asset manager. Within this model, there are three main sub-categories:

  • a. The central bank manages the assets under a mandate given by the ministry of finance (e.g., Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global, Botswana, and Chile). In this case, the central bank may choose to use one or more external (private) funds for parts of the portfolio.

  • b. A separate fund management entity, owned by the government, is set up to manage assets under a mandate given by the ministry of finance, such as the Government Investment Corporation (GIC) of Singapore. In this case, the manager may also have other asset management mandates from the public sector. For instance, GIC manages parts of the reserves of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

  • c. The ministry of finance gives mandates directly to one or more external (private) fund managers. This model is generally not recommended, since awarding contracts to external fund managers is in itself an investment decision that should be carried out at arm’s length from a political body, and the evaluation, monitoring and termination of management contracts requires specialized skills more likely to be found in a dedicated investment organization. However, for countries with severe human capital constraints, it can be the only feasible solution.

In the investment company model, the government as owner sets up an investment company that in turn owns the assets of the fund. This model is typically employed when the investment strategy implies more concentrated investments and active ownership in individual companies (Temasek, Singapore), or the fund has a development objective in addition to a financial return objective.

The institutional arrangements for a natural resource or other fund should be appropriate and commensurate for its objectives and the nature of its investments. Funds that function operationally as separate legal entities (e.g., Trinidad and Tobago and China) usually have a governance structure that differentiates an owner, a board, and the operational management of the SWF. Where the fund is a unit within the central bank (e.g., Saudi Arabia and Algeria) operational independence could be embedded in a clear legal foundation and internal governance structure in which the decision making framework and oversight functions are clear and the relationship between the principal (owner) and its agent (central bank) is well established. An important consideration in adopting either approach is the cost. Setting up a fund as a separate legal entity has costs, while a unit in the central bank makes use of existing infrastructure and human resources. Therefore, it could be more cost-efficient if a small size fund were to be managed within an existing institution.

The governance structure must be commensurate with the risks and complexities of the investment strategy. As funds move into riskier assets and more complex investment strategies, governance and risk management must be strengthened. This approach is not only applicable to SWFs, but also to large institutional investors as they have been moving toward adopting a risk factor based approach to portfolio construction.

In the organizational structure of a SWF, it is useful to distinguish between governing and supervisory bodies. The governing bodies constitute a system of delegated asset management responsibilities. The authority to invest is delegated from the top entity of the governance system, through the various governing bodies down, to the individual (internal or external) managers of assets. The delegation implies a gradual increase in the granularity of regulations pertaining to responsibilities as we move down the ladder of the organizational system. Each governing body should establish a supervisory body to assist in supervising the governing body directly below. The role of the supervisory body is to verify that the supervised unit is acting in accordance with the regulations set by the governing body immediately above it in the governance structure.

It is also helpful to distinguish between those bodies that are internal to the organization and those that are external. While the internal bodies are part of the legal structure of the SWF, the external bodies are (or belong to) other legal persons that have a clearly defined role in managing the SWF (e.g., as owner or external auditor). Figure 4 illustrates a general SWF structure that differentiates governance from supervision, and internal from external bodies.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

An Illustrative SWF Government Structure

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2013, 231; 10.5089/9781475518610.001.A001

Source: Authors.

In a generic SWF setup, we can distinguish between five governing bodies at different levels with specific roles and responsibilities:10

  • The owner of the SWF, which is typically the central government. The parliament approves the laws that establish the legal structure of the SWF and, thus, the legal basis for its operations. Depending on the general division of authority between the parliament and the executive branch of government, parliament may also have a role in determining the appropriate aggregate risk level of the SWF.

  • In most cases, the government (i.e., the cabinet or the council of ministers) or the minister of finance will be carrying out the functions of the owner of the SWF. This role implies inter alia the task of setting a mandate for the investment organization, within the general framework provided by parliament.

  • The executive board is the highest governing body inside the legal structure of the SWF management organization. It sets internal rules and regulations (e.g., investment guidelines), within the mandate and legal constraints set by the owner. It also appoints the chief executive officer (CEO) of the investment organization.

  • The CEO is the administrative head of the investment organization. He/she is responsible for day-to-day operations within the guidelines set by the executive board.

  • The individual managers (internal and external) operate within risk limits set by the CEO and his/her staff. Normally, the CEO will delegate the running of the investment department to a chief investment officer (CIO) that operates within the investment guidelines, with each level down in the hierarchy having a narrower investment mandate until the individual manager level.

The governing bodies have supervisory bodies working for them to verify that the level immediately below them operates within the rules and regulations that have been set for them. These typically include:

  • The auditor general is, in most countries, appointed by the parliament to audit and control the activities of the executive branch of the government. One of its roles is to verify that the ministry of finance (or any other body acting as formal owner) operates within the laws and regulations laid down by the parliament and that any associated reporting to the parliament is correct and relevant.

  • The external auditor will usually be appointed by the governing body representing the owner (often the ministry of finance). The external auditor audits the accounts of the SWF and verifies that the SWF is managed within the rules and regulations set by the owner. The external auditor can also, on an ad hoc basis, perform other control activities (e.g., assess the quality of the internal control system)11.

  • The internal auditor is appointed by the executive board and reports to it. The internal auditor supports the board in supervising the management of the SWF and verifying that internal regulations are adhered to.

  • The compliance unit is established by the CEO and serves as a tool for the CEO to verify that all activities are in compliance with the rules and regulations governing the SWF’s operations.

While governance models may differ, inter alia due to differences in political institutions, there are some common principles that must be considered essential to any well-governed SWF. The starting point in establishing the governance structure of an SWF should be to recognize that the bodies established to manage the assets of the SWF are essentially trustees on behalf of the people. One fundamental concern is, therefore, to establish a structure that will underpin the legitimacy of the SWF’s operations and ensure that the decisions taken in the management of the SWF reflect the best interests of the people as ultimate owners of its assets. This requires a solid legal basis for the SWF and the establishment of a chain of governing bodies from the legislature down to the individual asset managers with accountability at every level.

There must be a clear and transparent division of roles and responsibilities between the different governing bodies. This is a necessary condition for achieving accountability and legal certainty. When the role of a particular body is unclear, it will not be possible to hold it to account. Both gaps and overlaps in duties and responsibilities must be avoided. Overlaps give unclear division of responsibilities and undermine accountability. Gaps in regulations may create room for unchecked and unwanted risk taking. There must be appropriate delegation of investment decisions from the owner to the asset manager and within the management organization. Asset management is highly skill-intensive, and proper delegation to a professional staff is required for successful implementation of the SWFs investment strategies. Delegation also serves to focus the attention of each governing body to the issues that are critical for success at their level in the governance system. Too little delegation will risk overwhelming the top bodies of the system with operational issues that will distract from higher-level strategic issues. While a sound and robust strategy is necessary for successful management of the SWF, there must also be flexibility in the implementation of strategy to deal with changing market conditions. In many cases, this will require faster decision making processes than a highly centralized system can provide.

At the same time, the governance structure must allow the owner to determine the appropriate aggregate level of risk. While investment professionals can make qualified statements about the relationship between risk and expected return in financial markets, financial theory in itself cannot provide a definitive answer on the appropriate level of risk for a SWF. This level depends also on the level of risk aversion of the ultimate beneficiaries of the SWF—the people. The implication of this is that the level of risk in the SWF should be set by a process that allows political bodies like the parliament and/or the ministry of finance to establish at least a broad guideline for the appropriate level of risk for the SWFs investments.

III. Investment Management

A SWF’s investment policy needs to set an explicit risk tolerance level when designing the investment strategy in order to ensure consistent risk-bearing capacity over time and promote greater accountability for the chosen investment strategy. The risk management framework should have sound operational controls and systems to meet the objectives of the SWF.12

A. Investment Mandate and Investment Objectives

Investment mandate

The owner of the SWF (usually, the ministry of finance) is responsible for setting the investment policy, after seeking an advice from the investment committee (or board). Also, consultations with the fund’s stakeholders (i.e., the parliament, general public, nongovernment organizations, etc.) reduce the risk of unilateral decisions by any single party.

There are broadly two key determinants to the setting of an appropriate investment mandate: (i) the objective of the SWF and (ii) the risk-bearing capacity of the SWF. Both determinants will have a bearing on the investment universe and the proportion of the SWF exposed to “risky” assets. In general, the longer a fund’s investment horizon is, the higher its capacity to take on investment risks is. A short investment horizon signals a lower scope for exposure to “risky” assets. Investment funds with a strong intergenerational savings orientation tend to view their long horizon and attendant ability to ride through market downturns as a key competitive advantage, and they allocate more aggressively to “risky” assets.

Risk tolerance

Once the investment objectives for a particular pool of assets have been clarified, the next step in formulating an investment strategy is to set an appropriate risk tolerance. This is challenging for several reasons: first of all, “risk” is a complex concept, and the risk of an investment strategy cannot be fully captured by one single number or indicator. It is necessary to have a broader approach, and to use several indicators to assess the riskiness of a particular strategy. Moreover, there is no “right” level of risk because there is no “right” level of risk aversion. For sovereign assets, setting an investment strategy requires some way of ascertaining the risk tolerance of the (political) bodies that are designated as stewards of these assets. As the relevant risks may be difficult to capture by simple indicators, this is often a challenge in itself.

The most common indicator of risk is volatility of returns. This may be a useful indicator of risk, as most investors would be concerned about variation and unpredictability of returns, and in particular sudden losses in value. It is, however, not the only relevant measure of risk. It also has significant limitations as a measure of risk, since it implicitly assumes that returns are normally distributed. In reality, asset returns are generally not normally distributed—large losses occur much more frequently than one would expect based on an assumption of normally distributed returns. Measures of risk that are based on volatility should therefore be interpreted with great care.

For sovereigns, a more relevant approach to risk is defining it as the probability of failing to meet some predetermined policy objective. For an SWF set up to transfer wealth to future generations, it may be misleading to think in terms of “safe” low-volatility fixed income instruments and “risky” higher volatility equities. Short-term volatility is not the most relevant indicator of risk in this case. Higher expected returns from equities will make it more likely that the fund will be beneficial to future generations. Locking in very low or even negative expected real returns in a fixed income portfolio would not be in the interest of future generations—in this sense, it is a “risky” strategy since it makes it unlikely that the principal objective of passing wealth on to future generations will be met. The same argument can be made for assets invested to meet future liabilities in a defined benefit scheme. If the investment strategy locks in low-returns fixed-income portfolio, the risk that future liabilities will not be met becomes high. This strategy is thus “risky,” even if the assets are “safe.”

The determination of the risk-bearing capacity of an investment fund is a key driver of the fund’s investment strategy. A formally articulated risk tolerance serves as a constraint in choosing among competing investment strategies. It also prepares stakeholders psychologically for potential large losses associated with the chosen strategy and helps to prevent knee-jerk reactions to adverse market movements against the fund. Countries such as Chile, New Zealand and Singapore have chosen to adopt such explicit risk tolerance for their sovereign funds.

Risk objectives are typically determined by the owner or the governing body of the SWF. Broad risk principles are generally established within the law governing the SWF or by the owner of the fund. Consistent with the SWF’s overall objective(s) that is whether the fund serves the objective of economic stabilization, saving for future generation or other), the owner of the fund would need to formulate and articulate consistent risk tolerance parameters, such as the fund’s investment horizon and its overall risk tolerance. Risk tolerance exemplifies the hypothetical line between acceptable and unacceptable investment outcomes, and should reflect the fund’s ability to take risk in the operating environment. Subsequently, the risk tolerance is translated into a quantifiable risk measure that could be expressed as a shortfall probability, probability of not achieving a certainty return target or worst case outcome at a certain confidence level. Other examples of specific risk parameters are, inter alia, probability of achieving a return in excess of domestic inflation rate, expected annual shortfall relative to long-term domestic inflation, probability of negative return at the end of three years, probability of achieving return target over twenty years, or probability of negative accumulated real return after fifteen years

Owners can also articulate a formal risk appetite statement that serves as a constraint in choosing among competing candidate SAAs or investment strategies. The manifestation of the owner’s risk tolerance can be the choice of an SAA from amongst the candidate SAAs. Or it can be an explicit risk tolerance statement. An explicitly specified risk tolerance raises the efficiency and consistency of investment strategy formulation by avoiding protracted debates on the fund’s risk-bearing capacity each time a change in strategy is being contemplated. It also promotes greater accountability for the chosen investment strategy and checks against procyclical tendency in the fund’s asset allocation in the face of either extended bull markets or sharp market sell-offs.

However, if explicit risk tolerance measures are too abstract for policymakers to relate to, setting broad guidelines for asset allocation—and thus an implicit risk tolerance—is sometimes a good alternative.

The investment policy for the fund needs to take into account the country ability to bear risk. Although not uncommon, the absence of an explicitly specified risk tolerance introduces greater uncertainty and complexity into the portfolio construction process, particularly when major changes in asset allocation are being considered. Without an explicit specification, the risk tolerance has in practice to be inferred from the fund’s approved investment universe and its current investment strategy. In general, the longer a fund’s investment horizon, the higher its capacity to take on investment risks (Figure 1). Due to the cyclical nature of financial markets, investment funds with a strong intergenerational savings orientation tend to view their higher tolerance for risk and the attendant ability to ride through market downturns as a key competitive advantage.

Overall, there are several common ways in which an explicit risk tolerance can be specified, including stress loss or drawdown limit; shortfall probability; and limit on the fund’s value-at-risk. For a public fund, the formal risk tolerance chosen not only needs to be analytically robust but must also be readily understood by the stakeholders. As such, a simpler formulation such as ‘the prospective losses from the fund shall not exceed x percent over a period of y years may be appropriate. The emphasis on prospective losses estimated on an ex-ante basis at the point, where the fund’s investment strategy is being decided, is an important one as it prevents automatic de-risking of the fund in knee-jerk reaction to severe market downturns and provides room for more critical reexaminations of the investment theses underlying the prevailing investment strategy. The process of calibrating the risk tolerance to the satisfaction of the stakeholders is typically a lengthy one.

B. Investment Policy

Consideration of investment beliefs, the risk-bearing capacity of the SWF and its objective will give rise to a number of candidate asset classes and combinations of those asset classes. These combinations are typically expressed as an SAA, which sets a target allocation to asset classes within the investment universe. The use of an SAA-based model to establish an investment mandate rests on the belief that the most important determinant of a fund’s risk and return characteristics is its exposure to a chosen mix of asset classes. The SAA encapsulates the spectrum of investment risks that the fund is designed to take on, taking into account the expected diversification benefits of mixing different asset classes. An alternative to the SAA-approach, used by the Canada Pension Plan and New Zealand Superannuation Fund, is a reference portfolio approach. Under this approach the SWF owner grants more discretion to the SWF manager to determine the appropriate mix of assets, by providing only a hypothetical mix of listed equities/listed fixed income and the numeraire (together these comprise the reference portfolio) as guide to the owner’s risk preference.

Setting of strategic asset allocation

The SWF’s expressed risk tolerance is typically articulated through an SAA. The SAA defines the target share of asset classes or risk factors, and should be derived from and be consistent with SWFs’ objectives and the owner’s risk tolerance. There are alternative approaches as to who “owns” strategic asset allocation decisions. In a more typical set-up approach, the owner of the fund, usually a ministry of finance, decides on the SAA, approves the benchmark portfolio representing the SAA and sets active risk limits for deviating from the policy benchmark. Operationalization of the SAA and active management is then delegated to the fund manager.13 In a less typical approach, the SAA decision is fully delegated to and owned by the fund manager.14 In the former approach, the SWF’s owner internalizes the total risk of the policy benchmark, which represents on average about 80–95 percent of the overall risk, while the fund manager is responsible for the residual risk arising due to active management, and is held responsible for excess returns relative to the benchmark. In the latter approach, the fund manager is ultimately responsible for the total return of the fund, as well as for potentially substantial deviations from the stated return targets for long periods of time, with the fund owner not having direct control over investment outcomes. Figure 5 represents separation of roles and responsibilities in formulating and implementing investment policy between a SWF’s owner and the fund manager.

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

Roles and Responsibilities of Owner and Fund Manager

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2013, 231; 10.5089/9781475518610.001.A001

Source: IMF.

Usually, the investment model employed by SWFs is centered on the fund’s SAA. Commonly adopted by institutional funds, the asset allocation-centric model rests on the belief that by far the most important determinant of a fund’s risk and return characteristics is its exposure to a chosen mix of asset classes. The SAA encapsulates the spectrum of investment risks that the fund is designed to take on with due regard given to the principle of diversification. The constituent asset classes are subject to separate decisions on how these should be managed. When the constituent asset classes are assigned investable benchmarks, the SAA is represented by a theoretical portfolio forming the bogey against which the performance and risk of the fund are measured and managed.

In general, the investment universe of newly established funds continues to place strong emphasis on liquidity and transparency. Such emphases are appropriate for a SWF at its early stage of development where expertise and resources for dealing with illiquid and nonpublicly traded investments are still lacking. Therefore, the financial performances of SWFs are driven by whether the investment portfolio is predominated by fixed income instruments, equities, or is diversified across broad set of asset classes (Figure 6).

Figure 6.
Figure 6.

Selected SWFs’ Performance Based on Asset Composition

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2013, 231; 10.5089/9781475518610.001.A001

Source: Authors’ estimates based on annual reports from SWFs.

It is not uncommon for funds seeking to enhance returns to shift out of publicly-traded bonds and equities into alternative assets such as private equity, real estate, and hedge funds. However, a shift into alternative assets requires significant enhancements in the SWF’s resources, capacity and capability to cope with the added risks and complexity. Investing in alternative assets requires not only highly specialized investment expertise but also strong governance, managerial and operational capabilities. Such was the case with the Government Pension Fund–Global (GPFG) in Norway. Despite having developed considerable internal management capabilities in bonds and listed equities, it took Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM), the manager of GPFG, more than twelve years before it made its first investment outside of the public markets, or four years after the Norwegian Parliament approved a 5 percent allocation to global real estate.

The use of derivatives has become prevalent in investment management. When employed appropriately, derivatives can raise the efficiency of portfolio management (such as in the passive replication of market exposure), implementation of active strategies, and hedging of unwanted risks. However, due to the inherent leverage and complexity of such instruments, derivatives also hold the potential for causing spectacular financial and reputational losses, if misused or abused. Counterparty risk could be a significant risk embedded in the use of derivatives. Thus, much more so than for traditional assets, the use of derivatives needs to be carefully enumerated, controlled, and monitored.

With the likely growth in the use of derivatives, a comprehensive derivatives policy should encompass some key components. The policy should: (i) enumerate explicitly the permissible range of derivatives by the purpose and type of the submandates; (ii) impose appropriate limits on the size of derivative transactions by instrument type to control the associated liquidity and basis risks; and (iii) require separate monitoring and reporting of derivatives use and their risk and performance impact on the fund.

C. Investment Implementation

Investment implementation involves the management of the assets of the SWF in accordance with the SAA. This management can take two forms: (i) exposure to various asset classes deviating from the target SAA weight; and (ii) active management of assets within an asset class. Deviations from target weights can be made actively or can occur passively when one or more asset classes outperform others.

A real return objective is particularly well-suited to the SWFs with the long investment horizon implied by their investment policy. This naturally leads to the question of the appropriate measure of purchasing power for the fund as the effect of inflation becomes more dominant over longer horizons. The choice of the numeraire currency not only affects the future purchasing power of SWF assets, but also it has a direct bearing on how the currency risk is perceived and managed. Any investment not denominated in numeraire currency is deemed to pose a currency risk to the fund. Depending on how seriously such risk is taken, a numeraire may impede the fund’s diversification into a broader mix of international currencies.

Therefore, in choosing numeraire currency, it is important to ensure that the most relevant measure of purchasing power is used to drive the fund’s investment strategy going forward. Ideally, the numeraire should comprise a basket of currencies that best approximates the procurements that fund assets are expected to finance in the long run. Should that prove to be too difficult to effect in practice, other alternatives such as broad GDP-weighted or market capitalization-weighted baskets can be chosen as proxies. This will help to promote greater diversification of the fund’s asset and currency risks, and reduce the reliance on a single numeraire currency as the sole measure of store of value.

The SAA, along with the chosen numeraire, is the benchmark for SWF risk and performance. When the constituent asset classes of an SAA are assigned investable benchmarks with appropriate numeraire, the SAA is represented by a theoretical portfolio forming the benchmark against which the performance and risk of the fund are measured and managed.

The investment mandate should establish the degree to which the day-to-day allocations to asset classes in a SWF can differ from the chosen SAA, and therefore at what deviations the portfolio must be rebalanced. It will also establish how actively assets within each asset class can deviate from their benchmark weights. When asset prices change, the portfolio weights will drift away from the (static) SAA weights. The rebalancing policy will determine when and how the actual portfolio weights will be brought back to the SAA weights. Rebalancing can add value to the portfolio by systematic buying of assets that have fallen in value and sale of assets that have increased in value—especially in volatile markets with no strong trend. Infrequent rebalancing implies a high tolerance for drift away from the SAA allocation, whereas frequent rebalancing increases transaction costs. This trade-off should be reflected in the rebalancing policy.

Benchmarks for each constituent asset class of the SAA should be chosen on the basis of their objectivity, completeness, replicability, investability, and acceptance by investors.

An effective benchmark for a constituent asset class is a neutral (i.e., unbiased) representation of the universe of securities from which a rational investor could be expected to select portfolio holdings. It should reflect the passive alternative. When multiple indexes are available for benchmarking, an index is chosen that is consistent with investment objectives and also, to the extent possible, constructed with objective selection criteria, complete, replicable, investable and accepted by investors. It is not always possible to find benchmarks that have all of these characteristics.

Developing an active risk budgeting framework for a SWF in anticipation of increases in active management activities is critical. Based on the same principles of diversification and risk efficiency underlying Modern Portfolio Theory, a formal active risk budget seeks to optimize the expected excess return by allocating more active risk discretion to managers who are better at generating risk-adjusted returns, while controlling for the fund’s total tracking error risk relative to the SAA. The effectiveness of such a framework will be enhanced when complemented by detailed attribution analysis that is able to analyze manager skills along the same set of risk factors or decision variables used for risk measurement.

The choice between internal versus external management needs to be clearly defined. It is essential that SWF managers have clear rules with regard to what investment functions are to be outsourced and what can or must be managed internally. Selection, appointment and monitoring procedures for external managers are also essential, ensuring that due process is followed.

D. Risk Management

The risk management framework should build on the same principles as the rest of the governance system. This implies a framework for risk management characterized by clearly delegated mandates, defined roles and responsibilities, accountability, transparency, and professionalism.

As a global investment fund, a SWF is exposed to a wide range of risks. The scope of risk management should cover all material aspects of risks: market risk, credit risk, operational risk, liquidity risk, legal risk, regulatory risk, agency risk, governance risk, and reputation risk (Appendix III). Also, services provided by third parties could be demanding and challenging especially for low-capacity institutions; and thereby, there is a need to examine the aggregate risk from all third parties.

A SWF needs to have a strong risk management culture, where top management is engaged in developing and enforcing the risk management process. Adherence to high standards in risk management with sound operational controls and systems are necessary to meet the objectives of the SWF, and to preserve legitimacy domestically. It will also be seen by the international community and markets as necessary in achieving the aim of preserving international financial stability, as well as maintaining a stable, transparent, and open investment environment. This risk management process would typically consist of the following components:

  • Risk policies and procedures: a set of written principles that are endorsed by the board, implemented by the CEO, and disseminated within the institution.

  • Risk identification: the process by which a SWF defines and understands the nature of the risk that it faces, and is an essential part of a risk management process.

  • Risk measurement: a measurement methodology that allows comparison across the different dimensions of risks, and enables risk considerations to be factored into performance measurement and investment management decisions.

  • Risk monitoring: the operational process by which the SWF ensures that it operates within its defined risk policies and procedures.

  • Risk reporting: typically refers to an internal reporting process.

  • Risk verification and audit: the component of the risk process to ensure that the risk management systems and techniques are effective.

Financial risks

In assessing appropriate risk levels, it is helpful to distinguish risks that are rewarded or desirable, and risks that are not. In particular, financial risks generally have a positive relationship between the risks and expected return, as they carry a premium for assuming those risks. For example, more risky and/or less liquid asset classes, such as alternative investments, on average tend to generate higher returns than safer more liquid assets over medium to long-term investment horizons. The so-called consequential risks, such as operational and legal risks, are the risks that inevitably arise as a result of being in the financial/investment management industry.

Given the asset allocation-centric investment model, the ex-ante market risk of a SWF can be broken down into two components: SAA risk and active risk. SAA risk refers to the risk inherent in the fund’s asset allocation strategy without the intervention of active management, while active risk (also known as tracking error risk when measured in volatility terms) captures the risk brought on by active management of the fund relative to the SAA. The active risk comes from two sources: (i) the marginal deviation in the fund’s actual asset allocation exposure versus the SAA due to imperfect rebalancing; and (ii) active management of the fund’s submandates against their respective benchmarks.

A comprehensive credit risk management framework is critical. The framework should encompass all sources of credit risk to the fund, including issuer credit risk, counterparty risk and deposit default risk, and impose appropriate limits and monitoring procedures. This will allow the SWF to better manage how and where credit risk is to be assumed. Such unified approach to credit risk management is of particular importance when it comes to banks and other financial firms which may simultaneously pose issuer, counterparty, and deposit default risks to the fund.

Operational risks

Unlike financial risks, operational risks will not be rewarded, so the objective of operational risk management is to mitigate (residual) risks to an acceptable level. While exposure to financial risks leads to greater volatility in the market value of investment assets, but is expected to lead to higher returns over time, operational risks could potentially lead to significant losses of principal or even to the failure of the firm. Operational risk is largely endogenous to the SWF. Apart from external events such as natural catastrophes, it is linked to the business environment, nature and complexity of the investment activities, the processes and systems in place, and the quality of the management and of the information flows. Operational risks cannot be completely avoided or eliminated, and even if operational risk has no expected return, there will be costs associated with reducing it. There is thus a trade-off to be made between costs of accepting risk and costs of mitigating it, which should be made explicit in risk policy documents and is often based on an impact and likelihood analysis.

The most important operational risk management tool is appropriate internal organizational structure with clear segregation of duties. The organizational structure should be designed to achieve appropriate segregation of duties between execution of portfolio transactions and operations, including compliance monitoring, performance measurement and reporting, and settlement and accounting. This could be achieved by setting up separate departments with the head of each department reporting directly to the CEO, who would then delegate specific and clearly defined roles and accountabilities to each group and position (Figure 7). Public disclosure of the SWF’s approach to its risk management policies and key actions related to governance and the soundness of its operations helps in reassuring domestic and international stakeholders that the SWF adheres to a high standard of managing operational, regulatory, and reputational risks.

Figure 7.
Figure 7.

An Illustrative Example of Internal Organizational Chart

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2013, 231; 10.5089/9781475518610.001.A001

Source: IMF.

Moreover, the operational risk management capabilities should include a structured process for the introduction of new markets and instruments. When venturing into new investment markets and instruments, there is a general tendency for investment organizations to rush through implementation by devising ‘work-around’ procedures to circumvent any deficiencies in the existing operational systems and processes. Often, these temporary measures end up staying in place for much longer than originally expected, while scenarios that had not been anticipated earlier would start to appear, leading to potentially costly operational errors. A structured ‘new product’ process will help to instill greater discipline in ensuring sufficient forethought, time and resources are devoted to the introduction of new investment activities. If these operational considerations are to put constraints on the actual investments of the SWF, the mandate from the owner must also give the operational manager latitude to exclude certain potential investments that are part of the investment universe as defined by the owner.

IV. Disclosure and Transparency

To strengthen the accountability and oversight framework, communication with the key stakeholders (general public, parliament, NGOs, financial markets, etc.) is critical in order to maintain legitimacy domestically and credibility abroad.15

Reporting and transparency are important elements of governance. In addition to contributing to legitimacy, and thus to building trust in policies based on saving public assets in a fund, transparency can improve and discipline management and reduce the risk of corruption and mismanagement. In applying the principle of transparency, SWFs have engaged in broader consultation with other government entities and civil society. These outreach activities increase the legitimacy of the fund, reduce the reputational risk, and require much effort in explaining key investment decisions and management principles to various stakeholders. For example, the IFSWF members’ perception of value of transparency is high in terms of enhancing domestic legitimacy, communicating with stakeholders, and having a positive impact on their reputation (Figure 8).

Figure 8.
Figure 8.

SWFs Perception of Value of Transparency

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2013, 231; 10.5089/9781475518610.001.A001

Source: IFSWF.

It is useful to distinguish between procedures for internal and external reporting. Internal reporting can be defined as reporting that is part of the governance structure of the SWF, while external reporting is reporting to the entities outside the governance structure and to the general public.

  • External reporting supports transparency to maintain the SWF’s legitimacy. It also demonstrates the SWF’s economic and financial orientation, which contributes to stability in international financial markets and enhances trust in recipient countries. External reporting requirements should reflect reporting requirement by the international legislation, as well as domestic legislation of the host country that SWF invests in. For example, many countries require that investors disclose their holdings to financial regulators, if ownership shares pass certain thresholds.

  • Internal reporting is an integral part of the governance structure. In a system of delegated asset management, the internal reporting is the reflection of delegated authority. It is an integral part of the system by which governing bodies supervise the bodies below them in the governance structure. As such, it is important for decision making, risk management and controls at various levels of the SWF, and should be an integral part of the risk management and investment management frameworks.

Communication with the general public is a critical part of maintaining legitimacy domestically, as well as for credibility internationally. Informing the general public about the characteristics of the investment strategy and the risks that are taken should contribute to making the implementation of strategy more robust in times of high market volatility. To this end, it is usual for many SWFs to organize educational seminars, engage with the media, carry self-assessment against GAPP, publish annual reports, and maintain an active website with up-to-date information on the SWF’s activities.

The majority of SWFs publish annual reports that include the evolution of asset allocation and investment strategy over time as well as the financial statements. The scope of these reports can be enhanced by including some forward-looking aspects and analytical features relating to the investment strategy and asset allocation. In the reporting of returns, the investment horizon of the fund should be emphasized by reporting returns over longer rolling periods (e.g., 10 or 20 years) in order to de-emphasize short-term fluctuations in the financial markets. This would provide a better and broader basis for an informed public debate on important strategy decisions.

In recent years, several SWFs have also conducted and published self-assessments to confirm the degree of adherence to the Santiago Principles. These assessments help to assure home and recipient countries that SWFs’ activities are solely based on economic and financial considerations. This understanding aims to contribute to the stability of the global financial system, reduce protectionist pressures, and help maintain an open and stable investment climate. The self-assessments also have enabled those SWFs to develop, review, and strengthen their organizations, policies, and investment.

V. Concluding Remarks

SWFs have increasingly assumed important roles in their domestic economies and global financial markets. The assets under management by SWFs have grown rapidly over the last few years, driven by balance of payment surpluses and commodity prices. Based on the country-specific circumstances, the policy objectives of SWFs vary based on the broad macrofiscal objectives; therefore, warranting close coordination with macroeconomic policies and the management of other assets and liabilities in the public sector.

The institutional arrangements for a SWF should be appropriate and commensurate for its objectives and the nature of its investments. An SWF’s organizational structure should establish a clear separation of responsibilities and authority. A well-defined structure creates a decision making hierarchy that limits risks by ensuring the integrity of, and effective control over SWF management activities. The governance structure should thus provide for real delegation to an independent operational manager within overall limits on risk and/or asset allocation set by the owner.

Also, the investment mandate should be aligned with the objective of the SWF and the risk-bearing capacity of the SWF. The investment policy needs to adopt an explicit risk tolerance level when designing the investment strategy in order to ensure consistent risk-bearing capacity over time and promote greater accountability for the chosen investment strategy. The strategic asset allocation tends to be the benchmark for SWF risk and performance. Most importantly, the risk management framework should build on the same principles as the rest of the governance system, through clearly delegated mandates, defined roles and responsibilities, accountability, transparency, and professionalism.

For the successful performance of a SWF, asset management skills are of paramount importance, and a good HR policy is critical for attracting and retaining competent staff. Professional asset management requires a skill set that is usually in scarce supply in the public sector. At the same time, access to these skills is a necessary condition for successful management of an SWF. Hence, HR policies must be a central part of the overall policy framework for the SWF.

Sovereign Wealth Funds: Aspects of Governance Structures and Investment Management
Author: Abdullah Al-Hassan, Mr. Michael G. Papaioannou, Martin Skancke, and Cheng Chih Sung