Bloomberg 1st April 2016
The pot would be big enough to buy world’s four largest companies
First step will be sale of Aramco stake by 2018, prince says
Saudi Arabia is getting ready for the twilight of the oil age by creating the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund for the kingdom’s most prized assets.
Over a five-hour conversation, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman laid out his vision for the Public Investment Fund, which will eventually control more than $2 trillion and help wean the kingdom off oil. As part of that strategy, the prince said Saudi will sell shares in Aramco’s parent company and transform the oil giant into an industrial conglomerate. The initial public offering could happen as soon as next year, with the country currently planning to sell less than 5 percent.
“IPOing Aramco and transferring its shares to PIF will technically make investments the source of Saudi government revenue, not oil,” the prince said in an interview at the royal compound in Riyadh that ended at 4 a.m. on Thursday. “What is left now is to diversify investments. So within 20 years, we will be an economy or state that doesn’t depend mainly on oil.”
Almost eight decades since the first Saudi oil was discovered, King Salman’s 30-year-old son is aiming to transform the world’s biggest crude exporter into an economy fit for the next era. As his strategy takes shape, the speed of change may shock a conservative society accustomed to decades of government handouts.
Buying Buffett and Gates
The sale of Aramco, or Saudi Arabian Oil Co., is planned for 2018 or even a year earlier, according to the prince. The fund will then play a major role in the economy, investing at home and abroad. It would be big enough to buy Apple Inc., Google parent Alphabet Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. — the world’s four largest publicly traded companies.
PIF ultimately plans to increase the proportion of foreign investments to 50 percent of the fund by 2020 from 5 percent now, said Yasir Alrumayyan, secretary-general of the fund’s board.
The blueprint for structural change follows a series of measures last year to curb spending and prevent the budget deficit from exceeding 15 percent of gross domestic product. At the end of December, authorities raised the prices of fuel and electricity and pledged to end wasteful budget spending after oil prices plunged.
More will follow those “quick fixes” as part of a “National Transformation Plan” to be announced within a month, including steps to raise non-oil revenue steadily through various measures including fees and value-added taxes.
“We are working on increasing the efficiency of spending,” said Prince Mohammed, who is second-in-line to the throne. The government used to spend up to 40 percent more than allocated in its budget and that was whittled to 12 percent in 2015, he said. “So I don’t believe that we have a real problem when it comes to low oil prices.”
The question is whether the reaction to the more than halving in the price of a barrel of crude has come too late, especially given the Saudi influence over the oil market. The country will only freeze output if Iran and other major producers do so, the prince said.
An International Monetary Fund study in 2014 noted there were “many examples of failure” by countries trying to reduce reliance on energy production and few successes. Gulf Arab monarchies may have missed their best chance when oil prices were above $100 a barrel rather than about $40 now.
“It is clear Saudi Arabia needs to reform, diversify, and re-energize its economy, but this will involve more than just increasing investments in non-oil industries,” said Paul Sullivan, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington. “One cannot order economic reforms like a multiple course dinner.”
Prince Mohammed has consolidated more power than anyone in his position since the founding of the kingdom in 1932. His attempt to shake up the economy comes against the backdrop of mounting domestic security threats and regional turmoil, with the Sunni-ruled kingdom fighting a war in Yemen against Shiite rebels it says are backed by Iran.