We've seen how banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley helped engineer an artificial run-up in commodity prices, among other things by pushing big institutional investors like pension funds into the commodities market. Because of this lack of transparency, we can't know exactly how much the SWFs also participated in this bubble by pouring their own money into energy commodities through hedge funds and other avenues.
The CFTC's own analysis in 2008 put the amount of SWF money in commodity index investing at 9 percent overall, but was careful to note that none of them appeared to be Arab-based funds. The oddly specific insistence in the report that all the SWF money is "Western" and not Arab is particularly amusing because it wasn't like the question of Arab ownership was even mentioned in the report — this was just the Bush administration enthusiastically volunteering that info on its own.
Adam White, director of research at White Knight Research and Trading, says not to put too much stock in the CFTC analysis, however.
"I am doubting that result because I think it would be easy for an SWF to set up another company, say in Switzerland, or work through a broker or fund of funds and therefore not have a swap on directly with a bank but through an intermediary," he says. "I think that the banks in complying with the CFTC request followed the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law."
He goes on: "So if a sovereign wealth fund has an investment in a hedge fund — which they have a bunch — and that hedge fund was then invested in commodities, I expect that a bank would report that as a hedge fund to the CFTC and not a sovereign wealth fund. And their argument would be, 'How can we know who the hedge fund's investors are?' — even if they know darn well.
"I think that this is very much a national security issue because the Arab states might be pumping up oil prices and siphoning off huge amounts of money from our economy," he adds. "A rogue state like Iran or Venezuela could use their petrodollars to keep us weak economically."
We know some things about what happened between the start of the Iraq war and 2008 in the commodities market. We know the amount of speculative money in commodities exploded, that between 2003 and 2008 the amount of money in commodities overall went from $13 billion to $317 billion, and that because virtually all investment in commodities is long investment, that nearly twenty-five-fold increase necessarily drove oil prices up around the world, putting great gobs of money into the coffers of the SWFs.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with oil-producing Arab states accumulating money, particularly money from the production of oil, a resource that naturally belongs to those countries and ought rightly to contribute to those states' prosperity. But for a variety of reasons the United States's relationship to many Arab countries is complicated and at times hostile, and the phenomenon of the wealth funds of these states buying up American infrastructure is something that should probably not happen in secret.
But more to the point, the origin of these SWFs is not even relevant, necessarily. What is relevant is that these funds are foreign and that thanks to a remarkable series of events in the middle part of the last decade, they rapidly became owners of big chunks of American infrastructure. This is a process of a country systematically divesting itself of bits and pieces of its own sovereignty, and it's taking place without really anyone noticing it happening — often not even the people asked to vote formally on the issue.
What was that process?
The explosion of energy prices — thanks to a bubble that Western banks and perhaps some foreign SWFs had a big hand in creating — led to Americans everywhere feeling increased financial strain. Tax revenue went down in virtually every state in the country. In fact, the correlation between the rising prices from the commodities bubble and declining tax revenues is remarkable.
According to the Rockefeller Institute, which tracks state revenue collection, the rate of growth for state taxes hit its lowest point in five years in the first quarter of 2008, which is when oil began its surge from around $75 to $149 a barrel.
In the second quarter the institute reported continued slowdowns, and in the third quarter, the quarter in which oil reached that high of $149, overall tax growth was more or less flat, at 0.1 percent, the lowest rate since the bursting of the tech bubble in 2001–2.
Obviously the collapse of the housing market around that time was a major factor in all of this, but surging energy prices impacting the entire economy — forcing business and consumer spending alike to retract — also had to be crucial.
Around this time, state and municipal executives began putting their infrastructure assets up to lease — essentially for sale, since the proposed leases in some cases were seventy-five years or longer. And in virtually every case that I've been able to find, the local legislature was never informed who the true owners of these leases were. Probably the best example of this is the notorious Chicago parking meter deal, a deal that would have been a hideous betrayal even without the foreign ownership angle. It was a blitzkrieg rip-off that would provide the blueprint for increasingly broke-ass America to carry lots of these prized toasters to the proverbial pawnshop.
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