Commodity-based Sovereign Wealth Funds
Managing Financial Flows in the Context of the Sovereign Balance Sheet
  • 1, International Monetary Fund
  • | 2, International Monetary Fund
  • | 3, International Monetary Fund

Commodity-based sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) have been at a crossroads following the recent fall in commodity prices. This paper provides a framework for commodity-based SWF management, focusing on stabilization and savings funds, by (i) examining macrofiscal linkages for SWFs; (ii) presenting an integrated sovereign asset and liability management (SALM) approach to SWF management; and (iii) applying this framework to a scenario where assets are being accumulated and to a scenario where the SWF is drawn on to cover a financing gap due to lower commodity prices.


Commodity-based sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) have been at a crossroads following the recent fall in commodity prices. This paper provides a framework for commodity-based SWF management, focusing on stabilization and savings funds, by (i) examining macrofiscal linkages for SWFs; (ii) presenting an integrated sovereign asset and liability management (SALM) approach to SWF management; and (iii) applying this framework to a scenario where assets are being accumulated and to a scenario where the SWF is drawn on to cover a financing gap due to lower commodity prices.

I. Introduction

Commodity-based SWFs have experienced various strains since the pronounced fall in commodity prices over the past few years.2 Especially for countries where fiscal revenues are primarily dependent on certain commodity-export proceeds, the ongoing commodity price downturn has led their respective SWFs to become the last resort in financing part of their fiscal gaps. Compounding these challenges, returns on invested assets are expected to be lower than historical averages for quite some time. Thus, current challenges for resource-based SWFs revolve primarily around maintaining their funding bases, and improving their investment activities in the prevailing environment of subdued growth and low interest rates. Other related challenges, involving SWF organizational and institutional structures, investment and risk management mandates as long-term investors, and transparency and accountability requirements as global investors, have also played a pivotal role in SWFs’ well-functioning and integration in the global financial system.

SWFs are established with specific policy objectives, which largely determine their financial management, including investment and risk management decisions (Al-Hassan et al. 2013). According to the Santiago Principles (2008), SWFs are categorized as: (i) stabilization funds, set up to insulate the budget and economy from commodity price volatility and external shocks. 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; (ii) savings funds, set up to share wealth across generations by transforming non-renewable assets into diversified financial assets. Their investment mandates typically reflect a higher tolerance for volatility and a focus on long-term returns; (iii) development funds, set up to allocate resources to priority socioeconomic projects, usually infrastructure; (iv) pension reserve funds, set up to meet identified outflows in the future with respect to pension-related contingent-type liabilities on the government’s balance sheet. They usually hold high shares in equities; and (v) reserve investment corporations, set up 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. They often maintain high allocations in equities and alternative investments. The discussion in this paper focuses on stabilization and savings funds.

The management of SWF assets has implications for the owner country’s macroeconomic and financial policies. For example, the stance of fiscal policy will be to some extent affected by changes in SWF inflow and outflow rules. While a well-designed SWF can help support the successful implementation of fiscal policy, it cannot serve as a substitute for a fiscal policy framework. In this connection, having an SWF does not in itself guarantee a sound and efficient fiscal policy framework. Further, optimal SWF management is closely linked to the broader issue of sovereign assets and liabilities management (SALM). In a period of low commodity prices, SWFs are faced with critical decisions on asset accumulation/liquidation in the presence of sovereign debt and fiscal deficits.

This paper sets out a simple framework of commodity-based SWF management, by analyzing asset accumulation and liquidation decisions in the broader context of the owner’s sovereign balance sheet. In particular, it (i) examines some relevant macro-fiscal linkages for SWFs, (ii) presents an integrated SALM approach to SWF management, and (iii) applies this framework to scenarios where assets are accumulated in an SWF and where the SWF is drawn on to cover a financing gap due to lower commodity prices. At times of persistent movements in commodity prices, there may be a need to align the management of the SWF to the fiscal framework through inflow and outflow rules for financing needs to be met. In this context, resilience of the sovereign balance sheet will be maximized if the management of sovereign assets and liabilities will be integrated and the liquidity risk on both the asset and liquidity sides of the sovereign balance sheet will be appropriately assessed.

The remaining of the paper is organized as follows: Section II discusses some important macroeconomic and financial linkages of SWF management. Section III sets out a general SALM framework, with particular emphasis on management of liquidity risk at the sovereign balance sheet level and its relevance to SWF strategy. Section IV presents an application of such a framework in the context of a growing SWF, while Section V addresses asset and debt management when lower commodity prices lead to a financing gap. Section VI provides some concluding remarks and policy considerations.

II. Macroeconomic and Financial Linkages

Any fiscal framework ought to be guided by an assessment of fiscal sustainability and take appropriate account of external risk factors. Typically, a fiscal policy framework reflects country-specific factors that may change over time; promotes the sustainability of fiscal policy; is sufficiently flexible to enable scaling up growth-enhancing expenditure; considers absorption capacity constraints and the quality of public financial management systems; and provides adequate precautionary buffers to counter vulnerabilities to high volatility and uncertainty of resource revenue (see Baunsgaard et al., 2012). As a result, countries have adopted different inflow/outflow rules for their SWFs that are tailor made to reflect the appropriate fiscal policy strategies of each individual country (Appendix II).3 For example:

  • Chile: The country has a structural balance rule. To meet this rule, the authorities forecast the structural revenue where copper revenue is estimated using a long-term (10-year average), forward-looking reference price from an independent panel of experts; and other revenue is based on potential output that is estimated by a panel of experts. The expenditure is the residual, after subtracting the structural balance target from the estimated structural revenue.

  • Norway: According to the so-called “spending rule” (first established in 2001), the non-oil budget deficit should be on average 3 percent of the Norwegian SWF over time, which corresponds to the estimated real return on the fund.4

  • Russia: A special mechanism was developed for the use of oil and gas revenues within the federal budget with a view to reducing the budget’s dependence on oil and gas revenues, as well as to accumulating reserves in the event when oil prices retreat. These revenues are accumulated in the Reserve and the National Wealth Funds. After the 2009 crisis and until January 2015, the mechanism for oil and gas revenues was suspended and funds were used directly to finance the budget deficit.

  • Timor-Leste: The Petroleum Fund’s only expenditure is a transfer to the budget, payment of operational management fees, and refunds of overpaid taxation. The mechanism for integrating the Petroleum Fund and the budget is the estimated sustainable income, calculated as 3 percent of total petroleum wealth (estimated as the sum of the value of the Petroleum Fund and remaining oil resources). The transfer to the budget requires an explicit decision of Parliament.

In addition, the appropriate rules for inflows and outflows should be seen in the context of necessary general improvements to the fiscal framework. The framework needs to explicitly take into account off-budget spending and government-guaranteed debt. Ideally, a fiscal framework would target a sustainable longer-term trajectory for the non-commodity budget deficit. Changes in this deficit is an important indicator of the fiscal stance, so a commitment to a smooth and sustainable trajectory for it would imply significantly reduced risk of pro-cyclical and unsustainable fiscal policy in the future. In such a setup, the inflow and outflow rules for an SWF would reflect the accumulation of assets associated with the chosen long-term trajectory of non-resource deficits and act as a buffer for changing commodity revenues.5

The inflow and outflow rules for an SWF should be aligned closely with the actual net fiscal position of the government (IMF, 2015). It is critical to establish a firm link between asset accumulation/liquidation in SWFs and changes in actual balances in the form of budget surpluses/deficits.6 Such rules would ensure that the accumulation/liquidation of assets in SWFs reflects changes in the actual financial position of the sovereign balance sheet. This approach seems even more urgent for countries with an increasing stock of debt and a high cost of servicing it. While building up a portfolio of liquid assets provides some benefits in the form of lower risk of financing constraints in tight global liquidity conditions, the opportunity cost of holding such assets is high in the current financial environment.

When a fund is set up to manage revenue from exports of natural resources, it is essential that its assets be largely invested abroad for the fund to meet its stated objectives. Investing the fund’s assets domestically will have a procyclical bias and not be compatible with the stabilization objective of the fund. 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 in resource-based economies. Investing the fund outside the domestic economy would help mitigate that risk. For a resource-based fund, investing assets in the domestic economy implies that more money will be flowing into domestic assets when resource revenues are high, pushing up asset prices. Conversely, assets may have to be withdrawn from the fund to support the budget if resource revenues fall. In this case, sale of assets from the fund will contribute to lowering prices of domestic assets exactly at a time when they will already tend to be depressed due to external factors. Further, in the case of fund purchases of domestic government debt instruments, the fund would essentially be functioning as an extension of the fiscal budget and create an unwanted loophole in the fiscal framework.

Even when a fund is invested abroad, there may be unintended elements of procyclicality stemming from the design of fiscal rules. When the fiscal rule is linked to the size of a fund, cyclical swings in asset prices can translate into cyclicality in spending.7 For countries with spending rules based fully or partly on estimates of future prices of resources (e.g., Chile, Timor-Leste), projections of future prices may also be influenced by the current price environment, which may introduce an element of procyclicality in spending. In addition to the government-budget linkages, other links between the investment strategies of commodity-based SWFs and the macroeconomic framework of the owner country relate to monetary policy and exchange rate movements (see Brown et al., 2010).

III. Sovereign Wealth Fund Strategy and Sovereign Asset and Liability Management

The SALM approach, as analyzed by Das et al. (2012), represents an analytical framework for asset and liability management policies based on the sovereign balance sheet. The main objective of sovereign liability management is to ensure financing of the budget at the lowest possible cost subject to an acceptable level of risk over the medium to long term. In contrast, the objectives of the sovereign asset management are to ensure that cash balances meet commitments and maximize the purchasing power of any long-term capital given an acceptable level of risk. The SALM approach aims at a holistic approach to these issues, by assessing both sustainability and vulnerability of government finances in the face of potential shocks.

A sovereign balance sheet should be based on economic rather than fixed accounting principles (Merton, 2007), considering the underlying intertemporal objective of the sovereign and including future income and expenditures (Table 1).8 This, of course, does not preclude audits of the SWF balance sheet or assessments of the SWF performance in accordance with recognized international or national standards.

Table 1.

Stylized Sovereign Balance Sheet

article image
Source: Merton (2007).

There are, however, challenges in defining the sovereign balance sheet. The first relates to the choice of relevant accounting practices, where the value of assets and liabilities depends much on which accounting measure is used: mark-to-market valuation or historical price. For example, large movement in interest rates and exchange rates will have significant impact on bond valuation and external debt if marked-to-market. The second challenge is to determine the items of assets and liabilities that should be included in the SALM.

A narrow definition of the SALM, used in many developing and emerging market economies, includes coordination between international reserves and foreign currency debt. Broader definitions include all sovereign financial assets and liabilities, with the present value of nonfinancial assets excluded given the difficulty in measuring them. In this paper, the focus will be on financial assets.

The accumulation and drawdowns of assets in an SWF and its investment strategy ought to be seen in the broader context of SALM. One aspect thereof for indebted resource-rich countries is striking the right balance between debt repayments and the building up of SWF assets. On the one hand, liquid assets in an SWF can give more flexibility in the implementation of fiscal policies and make it easier to absorb short-term fluctuations in resource revenues within an appropriate long-term framework.9 On the other hand, the cost of servicing debt would usually be higher than expected returns on a low-risk portfolio of assets in a fund set up to meet stabilization objectives. Holding liquid reserves in a fund would thus imply an opportunity cost (carry cost) for the government. In addition, while the costs associated with government liabilities are near certain (i.e. based largely upon the issuance-weighted coupon on current debt outstanding), there is a wide range of possible return outcomes for prospective investments over different time horizons.

Reducing the stock of government debt may also reduce the risk premium on government bonds, which all else equal, should help to ease financial conditions and thus support economic growth. Recent research suggests that the net, and not the gross, debt level is the main determinant of the government’s financing cost (Hadzi-Vaskov and Ricci (2016) and Bianchi et al. (2016)).10 The implication is that countries cannot reduce the risk premium by drawing on liquid assets to repay debt, since this deleveraging of the sovereign balance sheet does not change the net asset position of the government. However, in a more dynamic framework, reduced opportunity cost of holding liquid assets could translate into lower spreads over time as the benefits of a more optimal SALM feeds into fiscal balances and thus into the trajectory of net debt.

A unified approach to liquidity risk management

In practice, one of the most significant risk factors for the sovereign balance sheet is the risk of sudden shortages of liquidity in international financial markets. While the sovereign balance sheet may be healthy from a solvency perspective, many of the most valuable assets—for instance the net present value of future tax receipts—will be illiquid. At the same time, there may be a significant exposure to adverse international liquidity events on the liability side of the sovereign balance sheet; a foreign high debt burden with short maturity will increase the risk of having to roll over debt in periods of constrained liquidity. A large banking sector dependent on access to external funding may be vulnerable if global liquidity dries up and represent a significant contingent liability for the sovereign balance sheet.

From an asset allocation perspective, risk factors, including liquidity, credit, or the equity premium, can be seen as the building blocks of expected returns. Some risk factors, such as liquidity, may have particularly skewed return distributions.11 Exposure to these factors will generally give investors modest, positive returns in most years, but a few, shorter periods of significant losses—and these losses would often occur just when investors can least tolerate them.12 The pay-off structure for exposure to such factors is similar to the pay-off investors would receive if they sold insurance against the events that trigger losses connected to exposure to them.

By definition, the average investor must hold the market-weighted average of all available assets in the financial markets. Any investor who holds more than his or her “fair” share of exposure to systematic risk factors would therefore in most years earn higher returns than the average market return. However, s/he will have significant losses compared to the average investor in periods when there is a credit or liquidity event or some other event that triggers a drawdown in value connected to exposure to factors with skewed return distributions.

We can then restate the investment problem in an insurance framework. The issue of choosing whether to take more or less risk than the risk in the market portfolio can be equivalently formulated as a question of whether one would want to buy or sell insurance against, for instance, a credit or liquidity event. Those who are selling insurance would expect higher returns over time, but would have to cope with periods of potentially significant losses. The buyers of insurance would have to live with below-average returns over time, but would be protected against large losses in “bad” years.

This can be a useful starting point for a discussion of the capacity to take liquidity risk on the asset side of the sovereign balance sheet, for instance, in currency reserves, government pension funds, or sovereign wealth funds. It can also be a useful perspective on risk on the liability side of the sovereign balance sheet. For instance, borrowing with long duration may imply a higher expected cost of financing due to positive term premium, but also lower risk of having to roll over debt under tight liquidity conditions. In general, lower liquidity risk comes at a cost of lower expected returns on assets and/or higher costs of servicing liabilities. An optimal level of insurance against this risk requires both an understanding of the nature of this risk and an understanding of the costs of taking out insurance against it (see also Bianchi et al., 2016).In general, the liabilities of the sovereign balance sheet will be more exposed to liquidity risk in circumstances such as:

  • The government debt/GDP ratio is high

  • The share of illiquid assets to total assets is high

  • The average maturity of government debt is low and/or the investor base is concentrated

  • The government cannot borrow in its own currency and/or cannot create liquidity in the currency it borrows in

  • The assets of the banking sector are large relative to GDP

  • The banks are thinly capitalized and have low reserves of liquidity

  • The banks rely on funding in foreign markets

  • The private sector has a high level of external short term debt

  • The depth and liquidity of the domestic currency and bond market is low

On the other hand, risks will be mitigated if the government has ample access to liquidity through, for instance, high international reserves of liquid assets. One can thus usefully distinguish between four different combinations of access to liquid assets and liquidity exposure of liabilities as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Combinations of Liquidity Access and Liquidity Exposure

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2018, 026; 10.5089/9781484340967.001.A001

For the different combinations of liquidity exposure and liquidity access, the following general policy implications may be drawn:

  1. Monitor liquidity risk. While low exposure to liquidity risk gives little risk of adverse shocks in the short term, low access to liquid reserves makes it important to monitor risk and take measure to mitigate it if it increases. This could happen, for instance, if there is a strong growth in the domestic banking sector or budget deficits financed by short-term borrowing.

  2. Reduce liquidity risk. The combination of low liquid reserves and high vulnerability on the liability side of the balance sheet calls makes liquidity risk reduction an urgent priority. Relevant measures could include extending the maturity profile of government borrowing, taking steps to curb lending growth in the banking sector and increasing its capital adequacy, taking steps to increase official reserves and to increase liquidity of existing reserves. This can be thought of as moving from II to I in the diagram.

  3. Consider the liquidity risk capacity of reserves. A typical example of a country in this group would be a resource rich economy with a relatively large SWF, and with low gross debt and/or a robust banking sector. Such countries may consider enhancing expected returns of their assets by shifting into less liquid assets. One example of this is how Norway is gradually moving into less liquid assets in the Government Pension Fund through for instance real estate investments, thus moving from III to I in the diagram.

  4. Consider deleveraging the sovereign balance sheet. While the availability of liquid assets makes adverse liquidity-related shocks less likely in the short term, there may be a significant cost of carry in holding liquid assets to match the liquidity risk on the liability side. Using excess reserves to repay external debt is one way of reducing this cost. Mexico, for instance, used excess currency reserves to repay government debt through an arrangement between the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance in the 1990s, moving from IV to I.

IV. Asset and Debt Management with a Growing SWF

Applications of SALM

A practical application of the SALM considerations in the case of indebted commodity exporters with growing commodity revenues would suggest a three-stage approach (Figure 2):13

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

A Stylized Illustration of the Accumulation of Resources in the SWF

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2018, 026; 10.5089/9781484340967.001.A001

  • The key priorities during stage one and two are to allow for debt reduction as set out in the fiscal framework and building up a fund to act as a stabilizer to cushion the budget and the economy against volatile commodity prices. It is critical to strike the right balance between debt repayments and asset accumulation for stabilization purpose.14 Therefore, the appropriate level of the stabilization fund should be evaluated in a SALM framework, taking account of interest rate levels and the size of public debt. The pros and cons of various targets for asset accumulation should be carefully evaluated as part of the overall fiscal framework.

    1. Stabilization: to allow the SWF to play a role as a stabilization fund by letting automatic stabilizers work through the economic cycle.15

    2. Debt reduction: the priority should be to use annual “commodity revenues” to reduce the stock of government foreign debt to sustainable levels.16 The exact target for debt reduction would have to be set as part of an overall fiscal policy strategy. The SWF would still contribute to stabilizing the economy and insulating it from the effects of commodity price volatility in two ways: (i) the use of annual commodity revenues for debt reduction in itself implies that commodity revenue volatility will be absorbed by changes in the rate of debt reduction rather than in changes in government spending; (ii) to allow for letting automatic budget stabilizers work within an appropriate long-term fiscal policy framework, and letting the resulting changes in the budget stance be absorbed by the SWF.

  • The third stage would start once the target debt level and optimal size of the stabilization objective were reached. At that point, the focus should be turned to long-term savings objectives.

As part of the work on drawing up the fiscal strategy and SALM framework that will guide the milestones for the three-stage approach, a “financing fund” model can be considered for the SWF (Box 1 and 2). In this model, transfers from the fund would cover non-commodity deficits. The actual outflows would then be contingent on the trajectory of non-commodity deficits, which in turn should be determined by an appropriate long-term fiscal policy strategy. The appropriate fiscal rule would be contingent on several factors, including the size of the non-commodity deficit at the time of transition to a financing fund model. For the first stage, where the focus is on debt reduction, fiscal targets must be coordinated with appropriate debt-reduction targets.

The effects of asset accumulation on debt servicing costs should also be considered. As reserves and other pools of sovereign assets grow, the resilience of the economy in the event of adverse shocks increases. This may have a positive effect on credit ratings and the costs of servicing debt, making the “insurance premium” for building financial assets lower. For instance, in August 2012 Moody’s indicated the possibility of upgrading the sovereign rating of Angola on the basis of reduced vulnerability to shocks after the establishment of a fiscal stabilization fund to cushion the impact of external shocks on the government finances.

The investment strategy of SWF assets should be reconsidered in a macro-fiscal framework. If some SWF assets are invested in the domestic financial system, it may contribute to procyclical macro-policies, as the fund will have a tendency to acquire domestic currency-denominated assets when there is a commodity boom and disposing of them when commodity prices fall. Deposit of SWF funds in domestic commercial banks risks amplifying these effects through effects on these banks’ balance sheets and lending capacity. Any plan to shift SWF assets to international financial markets should recognize that this shift may have shorter-term consequences for financial stability and the exchange rate. Finally, there needs to be close coordination among the institutions involved in the management of sovereign assets and liabilities. This is typically achieved through appropriate legislation that establishes policy guidelines (to avoid substantial mismatches) and the sharing of information.

Investment and risk management under the three-stage approach17

Determining the investment and risk management framework for a SWF has to begin with the purpose or objective of the SWF. The three-stage approach essentially puts a ring around funds that are serving different purposes: repaying debt, smoothing fiscal revenues, and building a portfolio of assets as part of a long-term savings strategy.18 While the financing model we have discussed will allow two or even three of these purposes to exist within a single SWF, the clarity and calibration of the tranches is key to establishing an appropriate investment strategy overall.19

For the debt repayment tranche, the funds will be applied directly to retiring the debt in most instances. Where there are delays in being able to repay the debt, the objective of any pool of assets will be to match the domicile, currency, duration and credit of the liability, i.e. the debt that it is intended to repay. The investment management framework for this tranche will focus on the appropriate level of mismatch, given the available investments.

For the stabilization tranche, the objective could be stated as “maximize returns while ensuring sufficient funds are available to smooth fiscal revenues during foreseeable downturns.” The focus here will be on liquidity risk management and the definition of “foreseeable.” If the pool is well funded relative to fiscal revenues, then a greater degree of risk could be borne and higher returns anticipated. If stakeholders need “foreseeable” to mean “any” downturn then less risk can be taken, and less return can be anticipated. In all instances, the favored assets will be foreign investments with good liquidity and a tendency to go up in price, or at least not do go down, during the sorts of crises that would lead to fiscal deficits. These characteristics favor foreign fixed interest assets although a business case might be made for other foreign assets that have prices that are lowly correlated with crises. The investment management frameworks would focus on the assets that are approved for investment, credit and currency management, and the likelihood of sufficient liquidity to meet foreseeable fiscal shortfalls, which would include modeling of price movements during stress tests.

For the long-term savings tranche, a reasonable objective is to “maximize long-term returns subject to not incurring undue risk.” Where the stabilization tranche is considered effective and the likelihood of needing to draw on the savings tranche is remote, higher risk and less liquid investments such as equities and private assets can be added, with the anticipation of a commensurately higher return. These higher-return investments are compatible with an objective to maximize long-term returns, and the key discussion for the stakeholders is to agree what level of risk would be considered “undue.” The investment management frameworks would focus on how to size the allocations of capital to the different types of investment in order to maximize return for a given level of risk (often referred to as asset allocation), which in turn requires a clear set of investment beliefs held by the stakeholders. Frameworks for appointing aligned managers, currency management and liquidity management are also investment management priorities.

Risk appetite discussions amongst the stakeholders around the definition of “foreseeable” and “undue” are essential, as is transparency and communication. In the current low-yield environment, focusing on costs has never been more important. The costs of unwinding one investment to establish another, after a change of heart or other knee-jerk reaction, is likely to be one of the most expensive avoidable costs; to avoid this cost, trust and transparency must be established.

Saving and Investment Decision in the Context of Natural Resource Wealth

A nation can save either in financial assets (by accumulating claims on other countries) or in domestic assets that increase consumption possibilities in the future. These domestic assets could be either physical assets, such as infrastructure, or increased human capital in the form of better health care or education. When a country transforms wealth in the form of natural resources into savings for future generations, it is thus, in principle, faced with a choice between accumulating financial assets and/or accumulating other forms of wealth.

In general, many poorer, resource-rich countries have been constrained in their access to credit, so many profitable investments in, for example, education, healthcare, or infrastructure have not been undertaken. When income and consumption are already at low levels, reducing consumption to finance investments to foster growth is often not an option. In this way, a combination of constrained credit and low income can lead to a poverty trap.

In principle, increased revenues from natural resources can be a way of breaking out of this trap by channeling some of the extra revenues into domestic investments to promote growth. To the extent that such investments have been constrained in the past, these domestic investment opportunities will often yield higher returns than alternative investments in foreign financial assets. However, there are several factors that will constrain the optimal level of such domestic investments:

First, it should be noted that—by definition—one dollar of increased exports from the resource sector in a country has to be matched by a combination of

  • Reduced exports from other sectors of the economy (x); and/or

  • Increased imports (y); and/or

  • Increased claims on other countries in the form of an accumulation of financial assets (z),

where x+y+z=1.

Thus, if the government decides not to accumulate assets in a fund (z=0), the result must be either increased net imports or increased net accumulation of financial assets by the private sector. These effects will be brought about by changes in prices, wages, and equilibrium exchange and interest rates. Increased net imports will have to come about through real exchange rate appreciation which will have to be reversed when resource income falls, leading to risk of Dutch disease problems. Accumulation of financial assets in a fund helps reduce this risk.

Second, it should be noted that even if many domestic investments may seem profitable on an individual basis, the sum of all projects might be considerably less profitable. This is because of the effect of the investments on equilibrium prices, wages, and exchange and interest rates as described above.

Third, while projects may be profitable for society as a whole, they may erode government finances over time. This is because the costs of these investments typically are borne by the government, while the benefits accrue to the private sector. If mechanisms for sharing the returns from such investments with the government in the form of taxes and user tariffs are weak, the optimal level of such investments may be lower. All of these issues should be addressed in a unified framework that assesses optimal domestic investment levels within a broader macroeconomic context, including longer-term growth and fiscal sustainability issues.

Source: IMF (2014a).

Financing Funds

Stabilization funds are generally set up to reduce the impact of volatile revenues, such as Chile (Economic and Social Stabilization Fund) and Russia (Oil Stabilization Fund). Typically, the inflows and outflows are contingent on whether revenues are “high/low.”

The primary objective of savings funds is to build wealth for future generations, such as Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Libya, Norway, and Russia (National Welfare Fund). These funds typically have fixed inflows and discretionary outflows, and are set up when a government can set aside funds for the future and be reasonably confident that it will not be necessary to liquidate the assets in the fund in the short and medium run.

A financing fund model is an SWF that combines the characteristics of a savings fund and a stabilization fund, such as Norway and Timor-Leste. It is a model that is fully integrated with the government budget process. Typically, the inflows to the fund will be the resource revenues of the government in addition to the returns on the fund’s investments. The outflow from the fund will be a transfer to cover the non-resource budget deficit (that is, the deficit that arises when the resource revenues of the government are excluded).

In this way, the fund will receive positive net transfers if, and only if, there is a government budget surplus when resource revenues are included. This implies that the accumulation of assets in the fund will correspond to an improvement in the government’s net asset position. For stabilization funds and savings funds, this is not necessarily the case (for example, New Zealand), since they are not linked to the budget deficits/surpluses of the government.

A central feature of this model is the fiscal policy guideline (rule). This guideline sets out the desired trajectory of the non-resource budget deficit to be covered by transfers from the fund.


Financing Fund Mechanism

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2018, 026; 10.5089/9781484340967.001.A001

V. Asset and Debt Management with a Financing Gap

The plunge in commodity prices since mid-2014 (especially for oil) has had considerable impact on the size and rate of accumulation of sovereign assets, and has created fiscal shortfalls in many oil-producing countries. In attempting to close financing gaps (fiscal deficits plus servicing of debt), commodity-exporting countries have utilized a mix of asset drawdowns and debt issuance. Sharing the burden between the fiscal adjustment and drawdown of SWF will depended on the cyclical and permanent nature of price decline and duration of fiscal adjustment.

Many governments initially drew on their deposits in the domestic banking system and liquidated assets in SWFs and/or international reserves, as drawing on liquid financial assets is the fastest and easiest way of bridging financing gaps during the early stages of shocks, especially when a government has not been issuing any debt prior to the commodity shock. Subsequently, after being absent for many years, they borrowed from domestic banks and tapped international debt markets, as shrinking commodity revenues eroded their budgets. In some cases, syndicated loans from international lenders have been utilized (Figure 3).

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Linkages between Closing Financing Gap and Sovereign Asset

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2018, 026; 10.5089/9781484340967.001.A001

In general, the choices between borrowing and drawing down financial assets will depend on borrowing costs, market access and sentiment, the objectives and size of SWFs, liquidity of financial assets, and risk management trade-offs for the whole sovereign balance sheet.20 For example, Saudi Arabia faced the sharp decline in the oil prices during 2014–2016 from a strong asset-liability position, it has utilized a number of options for financing—reducing its deposits with the central bank, and borrowing domestically and internationally (Box 3). Each of these has its own costs and benefits, which are likely to vary depending on market circumstances. Similarly, there has been a gradual increase in the non-oil deficit in recent years, exacerbated by weaker growth in the wake of lower oil prices.

While stabilization funds may not provide full protection for the falling oil prices after 2014, this does not necessarily mean that the stabilization funds were too small. As discussed in Section III above, there is a high cost to insure for such a large shock. The relative size of the stabilization and savings portions of a financing fund should be calibrated to take account of this.

A shock of the magnitude experienced after 2014 has in many cases led to very different perspectives for the accumulation of financial assets in a savings fund. This may warrant revisiting the stated objectives for the savings fund, and the agreed risk appetite and investment beliefs, as they are now generally applied to a smaller fund with—possibly—a shorter remaining investment horizon.

The Role of SWFs in Closing Financing Gaps

Saudi Arabia has faced the recent collapse in oil prices from a strong sovereign balance sheet. Government debt was less than 2 percent of GDP and its deposits at SAMA (considered as a SWF) stood at around 50 percent of GDP as of end-June 2014.21 Due to the collapse of international oil prices, the country incurred fiscal deficits after accumulating fiscal surpluses for several years. The fiscal deficit reached 16 and 17 percent of GDP as of end-2015 and 2016, respectively.

Though the government has been accustomed to managing large sovereign assets, with the bulk of assets managed by SAMA, the increasing issuance of debt to finance fiscal deficits has posed a challenge to manage the sovereign balance sheet (e.g., minimizing interest rate and exchange rate risks). Therefore, to limit the pressures on drawing down financial assets, the government has been optimizing its asset-liability management to close financing gaps through a mixture of using assets and/or issuing debt. Fiscal deficits have been financed though drawdown of government deposits at SAMA, domestic borrowing from the banking system and institutional investors, and external borrowing (both through syndicated loans and Eurobonds).


Saudi Arabia: Government Debt and Assets

(In U.S. dollars, billions)

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2018, 026; 10.5089/9781484340967.001.A001

In Norway, there has been a gradual increase in the structural non-oil deficit in recent years, exacerbated by weaker growth in the wake of lower oil prices. However, a growing SWF has at the same time implied a gradual increase in the structural level of cash returns from financial assets (dividends, interest coupons, and rental income from properties—excluding any revaluations). This has broadly offset the effect of a widening non-oil deficit.


Norway: Structural Budget Deficit

(Percent of trend-GDP)

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2018, 026; 10.5089/9781484340967.001.A001

VI. Conclusion

As commodity prices may stay low for longer, it is critical for the SWF owner country to assess the relationship between bridging financing gaps and asset accumulation/liquidation of SWFs within a broad SALM framework. In this context, there is a need to align the management of the SWF to the fiscal framework through inflow and outflow rules, the balance between debt repayment and asset accumulation, and appropriate investment strategies that can meet fiscal financing needs on a timely basis.

While many resource-based economies faced the recent decline in commodity prices from a position of financial strength, it is essential for those economies without an asset-liability framework to develop such a framework, especially in view of potential financing needs over the short to medium-term. Accordingly, it will be highly desirable to integrate the management of sovereign assets and liabilities in a manner that maximizes the resilience of the sovereign balance sheet. In this context, appropriate assessments of liquidity risk on both the asset and liability sides of the sovereign balance sheet will play a central part.

Clear and consistent objectives, risk appetite and investment beliefs for each pool of sovereign wealth are key for ensuring consistency and transparency in investment decisions and the overall functioning of SWFs. Where assets from long-term savings have been used for stabilization, the allocation of the remaining portfolio may need to be reevaluated to ensure continued consistency with long term objectives.

Commodity-based Sovereign Wealth Funds: Managing Financial Flows in the Context of the Sovereign Balance Sheet
Author: Abdullah Al-Hassan, Sue Brake, Mr. Michael G. Papaioannou, and Martin Skancke