RENEE MONTANGE, host:
And Abu Dhabi's multi-billion dollar investment into Citigroup was part of a trend. Not long ago, the Chinese government bought a large stake in the Blackstone Group, that's a major private equity investor in the U.S. Some in Washington and on Wall Street are worried about the sudden prominence of investment funds owned and controlled by foreign governments.
NPR's Adam Davidson takes a look at whether there's reason to be concerned.
ADAM DAVIDSON: The numbers are staggering. The government of Singapore has nearly half a trillion dollars that it's ready to spend on investments. Abu Dhabi has even more, possibly more than $800 billion. How big are these numbers?
Brad Setser of the Council on Foreign Relations says it might help to compare them to how much the U.S. spends on oil.
Mr. BRAD SETSER (International Foreign Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): I just need a calculator. Yup, half a trillion dollars is the amount of money that the U.S. has to spend to import all the oil that it needs during the entire year with oil at a hundred.
DAVIDSON: So, Abu Dhabi could use its investment fund to buy all the oil that the U.S. uses in a year, oh, and they'd still have more than $300 billion left to play around with. Because oil prices have been so high, most oil-exporting countries have amassed huge surpluses of cash. Some, like Venezuela, are most spending the money. Others are keeping it safe in their central banks. But some, like Abu Dhabi and Kuwait and Russia are putting their oil profits in something called a sovereign wealth fund, an investment vehicle used to buy attractive-looking assets around the world, Brad Setser.
Mr. SETSER: The rise of sovereign wealth funds represents a shift in power from the United States towards a group of countries which, by and large, are not democracies, aren't terribly transparent and are not necessarily U.S. allies.
DAVIDSON: If you had half a trillion or a trillion dollars to play with, could you put the U.S. into recession?
Mr. SETSER: Yes. I think you could.
DAVIDSON: That's the fear. These governments might use their huge investments to wreak havoc on the U.S. economy or on the world economy. Setser says, it wouldn't be terribly hard to do. They could, for example, slowly buy up a lot of U.S. dollars or U.S. treasury bills and then sell them all in one day.
The Fed would have no choice but to raise interest rates to defend the dollar, Setser says, even though that would make a weak economy even weaker. But luckily, says the Eurasia Groups, Preston Keat, that's just not a realistic scenario.
Mr. PRESTON KEAT (Director of Research, Eurasia Group): It's a context of mutual dependence, and you know, "blowing somebody else up" just, you know, does you at least as much financial damage.
DAVIDSON: Abu Dhabi and Russia and the rest have these investment funds for one basic reason.
Mr. KEAT: In the narrowest terms, what these countries want to do is make money.
DAVIDSON: In a sense, Keat says, they're really acting like any other bank or investment fund - they're looking for better returns. They want more money so they can maintain their power base. So even if these foreign governments decided that for political reasons, they'd like to damage the United States, they have enormous economic incentives to make sure the U.S. and other Western economies hum along at a healthy clip.
Mr. KEAT: So if they're invested in the New York or London, then Tokyo exchanges in a bunch of, you know, Western companies, they obviously want those companies to do well.
DAVIDSON: Keat says you can hear some in Washington spelling out doomsday scenarios in which foreigners use their money to destroy our way of life. That almost certainly won't happen, he says. But there are concerns. He says China, for example, is using its wealth to ingratiate itself with some really lousy governments in Africa. Other countries have been known to use investments as a way of learning technological secrets. But, he says, no matter what, we've got to accept that emerging economies will continue to grow in wealth and importance.
Adam Davidson, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.